“Black Cat, come down,” she cries, pushing the mischievous animal off the top of the doorframe.
Not the most creative of names, old Ding explains that with more than 130 cats in her traditional courtyard home, naming them all has to be done on strictly physical characteristics.
Buying in excess of 225kg of food and 1000kg of sand a month, 76-year-old Ding Shiying keeps herself busy.
Never leaving the house for more than two hours at a time, Ding looks after the cats that no one else wants.
“This one can’t walk,” she says, pointing at an old tabby lying on its side in a cage.
“That one had its eyes poked out by children,” she adds while gesturing across a sea of fur and half eaten tins of cat food to a rather sorry looking feline parked on top of a dresser.
Often just deposited on her doorstep by unwilling owners, her benevolence reflects a growing interest and concern among the Chinese population towards animal welfare.
“Ten years ago, the mistreatment of animals was commonplace,” explains Dr Zhang Li, China head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) to Aljazeera.net. “The term animal welfare was not even known.”
“Ten years ago, the mistreatment of animals was commonplace. The term animal welfare was not even known”
Dr Zhang Li,
China head of the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW)
The past 10 years though have witnessed a proliferation in pet ownership as people’s living space has increased and social interests diversified.
In turn, such direct interaction with animals has furthered people’s understanding that an animal is more than just an object of utility or entertainment.
In Beijing alone, there are now more than 410,000 registered dogs.
“This number,” says Jeff He of IFAW, “reflects the emotional benefits to be derived from having a pet companion and the respect that people are now showing by understanding the emotional behaviour of their animal.”
Still nascent in its existence, IFAW suggests that the existence of a Chinese animal welfare movement is currently limited to a few major cities where foreign NGOs including IFAW tend to be based.
Even in these cities stories circulate in the press regarding seemingly unnecessary and irrational treatment of animals.
Last year during the SARS scare, there were stories of people throwing their pets out of windows or drowning them from fear of an unproven risk of contagion.
That suggests that in some households the pet is considered as being more expendable than animal welfare activists would care to see.
Animal welfare in rural areas
This year, when SARS reared its head again, the government did not hesitate to order the killing of thousands of civets despite complaints that the link between them and SARS was never fully established.
“There are certainly pet owners who show irresponsibility,” local cat charity founder Zeng Li told Aljazeera.net. Running a group called Luckycats, she has a network of more than 500 volunteers who have rehoused some 750 abandoned cats.
“People buy a cute looking kitten for less than a dollar but when it needs an operation or simply becomes too much trouble, they get rid of it.”
No to bulls
Evidence that people are becoming more concerned about the treatment of animals could be found last month when a local government in northern Beijing announced plans to open a Spanish-style bullring – the public responded with an outpouring of complaints.
Talking to Aljazeera.net, local animal welfare activist Li Xiaoxi explained how she was outraged at the idea.
“The local government felt that because the bullring came from the West it would suggest modernity, but they did not fully understand what a bullring was, nor do they appreciate how animals have feelings too. Such things are simply not suitable for modern China,” she said.
Visitors pay to feed live prey to
Such was the publicity given to the complaints that the local government ditched the idea.
Although activists did admit that officials were probably more concerned with the city’s image in the run up to the Olympics than what the bulls would experience at the hands of the matador, the generally sympathetic media chose to interpret it as a victory for animal welfare.
Head out of the capital, however, and the challenges that face the fledgling animal welfare movement become self-evident.
In the northern city of Harbin lies one of China’s more infamous exhibits – a tiger park where visitors get to feed the giant cats live animals.
For a few dollars, curious tourists can purchase a chicken, sheep or even a cow and watch as it is devoured by a pack of overfed beasts.
Described as part of an animal rehabilitation project, its detractors say that it is anything but.
Education, not legislation
However, for change to occur, groups are primarily focusing on raising people’s awareness rather than petitioning for a legal ban.
“Legislation without understanding is meaningless,” says Zhang Li.
“Instead, we work with children to foster their understanding as to what an animal is. That an animal is more than just an object or someone’s property, it is something with special needs and emotions.”
Legislation is unlikely to be passed any time soon.
In what would have been the first of its kind in China, a proposal by the Beijing Agricultural Bureau to introduce a citywide welfare bill that included provisions on how to humanely slaughter farm animals along with fines for those who abused animals was rejected.
Labelled as impractical given current farming and legal structures by its detractors, a report by government news agency Xinhua stated that it would be at least five years until another such bill would be considered.
Western value system?
“Animal welfare is irrational and anti-scientific,” proclaimed Professor Zhao Nanyuan to Aljazeera.net.
“Animal welfare groups oppose the use of animals in scientific experiments. Because of my belief in science I have to oppose any move towards this kind of situation”
A strident critic of what he sees as a Western belief system being imposed on China, his publicly voiced opinions helped sway city government opinion against the recent proposal.
“Animal welfare groups oppose the use of animals in scientific experiments. Because of my belief in science I have to oppose any move towards this kind of situation.
“Nor can I stand Europeans who say that because they don’t eat dog, we should not eat dog either.
“There is too much hypocrisy here. On the one hand people eat animals while on the other they feel for them. This is a false and irrational kindness,” he said.
However, the growing interest, particularly among the media for stories related to animal welfare would suggest that in the long run the professor faces an uphill battle.
In the Western province of Sichuan, the practice of farming bears for their bile continues to arouse both national and international condemnation.
Alternatives are being sought
Used as an ingredient in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM), the bile contains a strong acid that is believed to help stem internal hemorrhaging.
The method of extraction involves permanently fixing a metal catheter into the bear’s body.
Speaking to Aljazeera.net, Jill Robinson, the head of Animal Asia Foundation, a group involved in the rescue and rehabilitation of these bears explains how the bile often re-enters the bear’s body causing a painful death through infection.
“We are entering an exciting new era in our foundation’s development,” explained Robinson.
“We are receiving more funds and letters. Visitor numbers to our sanctuary are increasing and more people are coming out against bear farming.
“Government officials now agree that such practices have no place in a civilised society.”
Appearing to echo these sentiments, former president of the National Research Centre for TCM, Professor Zhang Ruixiang, told Aljazeera.net how doctors were now starting to look at alternative means to animal products.
“Doctors are considering herbal medicines instead but many animal products cannot be replicated exactly.
There is hope for the future says
“For example, the acid in a bear’s bile is particularly strong and a comparable herbal formula does not yet exist. The alternative is to make synthetic drugs but this requires costly overheads which are not practical for us.”
According to Robinson a synthetic substitute to bear bile already exists in the US; the professor was unaware of its existence.
“I have established a new centre to research alternative natural herbal medicines but one should be careful when being judgmental about the use of animals in medicine.
“The West uses animals to test its drugs, so no one can say animals are not killed in medicine,” Professor Zhang added.
Still in its tentative first phases, the move is another indication of how attitudes towards the use of animals are changing. In the meantime, Zhang Li of IFAW appears confident that China will develop a coherent animal welfare system.
“We are still at the beginning of an animal welfare movement but animal welfare is based on culture and the development of culture. I believe China is slowly developing this culture.”