BEIJING // Some people in China "have no idea" how animals should be treated, according to Lisa Hua, the programme manager for the International Fund for Animal Welfare (Ifaw) in Beijing. Many, she said, are accustomed to thinking of living things as little more than tools. While awareness has increased in the 14 years since the organisation began operating in China, she said, there is still a long way to go.
"They don't think these animals are living creatures that can suffer pain and they treat these animals cruelly," she said. Examples of cruelty to animals are many: at some zoos the public can pay to send a creature to its death at the hands of a predator. Many exhibits are kept in small concrete cages. Dogs have been clubbed to death in the streets when authorities have panicked after outbreaks of rabies. Others have been poisoned. Rabbits are given as prizes at fairground attractions to people who might have little idea how to look after them.
And there seems little that those concerned about animals can do to protect the victims. A number of specific laws govern, for example, the treatment of farm animals to prevent disease, or wildlife protection, but Ms Hua said the focus of most of these is not animal welfare. Using these rules to punish cases of cruelty is impossible, she said. "Whenever you have a cruelty case, all you can have is public condemnation," she said. "We can do nothing."
But there could be some respite ahead for China's long-suffering animals. A group of experts headed by Chang Jiwen, a professor in the law institute of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing, has recently completed the draft of the country's first comprehensive animal welfare legislation. The proposed law, which has been submitted to China's central authorities for consideration, stipulates that animals slaughtered for meat should be killed humanely and that animals kept by people should be given enough food and water. It would also stop zoos from feeding live animals to predators to entertain visitors.
Although not a copy of legislation from overseas, it follows internationally established ways of classifying animals according to how they are used, whether as pets, farm animals, zoo exhibits or in laboratories. Mr Chang admitted that the draft law was less comprehensive than much of the legislation introduced by developed countries over several decades. China, he said, was still at "the very primary stage" when it came to animal protection. The draft rules therefore cover the most basic requirements to ensure animals are spared suffering.
"In the developed countries, they would define the maltreatment of domestic animals as not feeding or watering chickens or cattle during transport. That is impossible in China," he said. Instead, Mr Chang said, the rules defined cruelty as what happens when someone sets out to hurt an animal by, for example, abandoning it in the street or torturing it for amusement. "There are many occasions where dogs were killed by clubs. That is just savage cruelty."
Groups such as Ifaw assisted Mr Chang in drafting the proposals and said even if they did not become law, they would at least further raise awareness of the importance of animal welfare. While saying attitudes were slowly changing, Ms Hua conceded that some in China believed there were more important issues to focus on. She insisted, however, that the welfare of people was closely tied up with that of animals. For example, when animals are kept in cramped conditions, she said, disease outbreaks are more common, something that could potentially compromise food safety, a particular concern in China.
"These things are directly connected," she said. It remains to be seen what response the authorities will have to the draft legislation. Local estimates have suggested it could become law in as little as two years, or might take as long as a decade to be adopted. The proposals have already been slightly watered down after consultation, with an original stipulation that the eating of dogs and cats should be banned changed so that local authorities can decide whether to outlaw the practice in their area. This is likely to mean that in areas where eating dogs and cats remains popular, it is likely to be allowed to continue.
Mr Chang is "quite optimistic" his proposals will receive a positive hearing and will become law in the not-too-distant future. This year, he said, dozens of academics and senior officials from the central government and provincial authorities took part in a conference on animal welfare, a sign the issue was being taken seriously. "I don't think it would be very difficult to carry out this law or to make this effective, because I believe everyone in this country wouldn't like the idea of torturing animals and society has reached a consensus about what behaviour is acceptable and what behaviour is not acceptable," he said.