This week, the West has been up in arms about a strange festival that takes place on an annual basis in China. The Yulin Dog Meat Festival is celebrated annually in Guangxi for the summer solstice in June, and locals eat canine meat with lychees, washed down by strong liquor. The ritual is believed by the Chinese to ward off the heat of the blazing summer months. It lasts ten days and during that time 15,000 dogs and hundreds of cats are skinned alive and consumed. Celebrities including Ricky Gervais have come out against the festival under the campaign banner #StopYulin2015.
And yet can we ever realistically hope to put an end to eating 'meat' that has been consumed in China for hundreds of years, because the practice disgusts us in the West?
The graphic pictures flooding out of the Dog Meat Festival have raised awareness of what seems to us utterly barbarous. The ritualistic consumption of man's - and woman's best friend - is something we intrinsically abhor. It disgusts us. Why? Because dogs are our beloved companion animals, our friends, they are to many people more than simply pets. They are 'family'. Dogs, and cats, have made it to our hearth and home; they share our lives, our emotions and often even lie at our feet while we slumber. To witness this week's pictures of the faces of petrified dogs staring out of cages about to be slaughtered repulses us. I know I shouldn't but I desperately want to 'unsee' the racks of skinned dogs about to be served up for public consumption.
The eating of dog meat in China is thought to predate written history. In the rural south, dog meat is eaten mainly by members of the older generations, and according to superstition it has strong warming properties. There has been some success in banning similar festivals. In 2011, a huge social media campaign contributed to the banning of a dog meat festival in Qianxi Township in Jinhua City, Zhejiang province. National animal rights groups in China are trying to stop the dog meat trade while authorities banned restaurants from selling dog meat during the Beijing Olympics. Nearly four million people have signed a petition calling for the Yulin festival to be banned, including many within China where attitudes appear to be changing, particularly among the younger generations. One Chinese woman Yang Xiaoyun travelled over 1,000 miles from her home to adopt 100 of the dogs. As well as saving the dogs, she wanted to send a message to the world, she said, that not all Chinese were in favour of the festival.
Do you remember in the UK the halal butchering of live pigs that was captured on camera and resulted in the slaughterhouse concerned being shut down? Our disgust was centered on the fact that these poor animals were slaughtered in a cruel and barbaric way. They are aware of their fate and in pain. If we eat meat, we cannot also be abhorred by the killing of livestock. We cannot and should not fail to distinguish that the steak on our plate was once live. I speak as someone who does eat meat, and dislikes the sight of a more traditional butcher's display, of carcasses that are recognizable as animals. The sanitization of meat in supermarkets, packaged to look other than ever alive, is to blame. We in the West have somehow become divorced from the reality of what we consume. It's a cultural and societal thing that is who we are today. Right or wrong, good or bad, it's just a fact.
The East is different. Meat looks much more visibly like it would have done in life. This makes the task of encouraging disgust easier because there is no smoke and mirrors at play. The people celebrating the Dog Meat Festival are aware they are eating dog. Dogs are not 'traditionally' seen as pets in China, they are working animals, treated more like livestock; but times are changing.
As we become a more global economy and social media enters the most difficult to reach nooks of the world, old ways, good and bad, will slip away. State censorship in China that extends its grip to the blocking of Facebook and Twitter will make only slight difference. Attitudes are already starting to change as the East gets wealthier, the Asian Dragon rises, and its people start to covet material goods and associated 'Western' lifestyles.
Once banned by Communist leader Chairman Mao Zedong as a bourgeois pastime, having a pet is now starting to become a symbol of financial success in China. Dogs are the most popular pets and dog food sales alone are expected to almost triple to over $760 million by 2019, Euromonitor data shows, as higher disposable incomes make keeping a pet an affordable choice.
My prediction is that the cultural shift in China will not flow from social media. Sweeping cultural change will be wrought, rightly or wrongly, not by Twitter or Facebook but by the shifting tide of a dynamic global economy.
Marie Carter is the Editor and Publisher of Pets Magazine, a unique leading lifestyle magazine for pet owners, with a monthly readership of 24,000. She also runs specialist PR, Content-generation & Marketing & Digital Publishing Services for the Pet Industry - more details at Pets Magazine's website.