You Say Culture, I Say Cruelty

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You Say Culture, I Say Cruelty

By Jill Howard-Church on Animals and Society Institute
April 2010

So just as many of us ultimately decided that our individual humane values precluded eating Grandma's cherished meatloaf any more, so too must states, nations and peoples acquiesce to a higher ethic that says, at the very least, that killing animals for sport, entertainment, ornamentation or any other "traditional" reason isn't acceptable any more

When people think of Hawaii, they think of blue waves, green palm trees, and...bloody chickens? Apparently not, although the Hawaii state legislature almost made it so. A proposed resolution - which thankfully failed in committee - would have recognized the "cultural value" of cockfighting there, supposedly because of the region's Filipino heritage.

Cockfighting is illegal in Hawaii, but is only a misdemeanor and reportedly seldom enforced. Why a state famous for its humpback whales would want to be infamous for its fighting chickens is beyond me, but the question raises the larger issue of why cruelty toward animals is allowed to persist for "cultural" reasons.

A similar debate is taking place this time of year in northeastern Canada, where thousands of young seals are clubbed to death in what the Canadian government characterizes as "a time-honoured tradition" and "an important part of Canada's cultural heritage."

In Israel, a proposed nationwide ban on the sale of fur - the first of its kind in the world - is being opposed by ultra-Orthodox Jews who believe the ban violates their religious tradition of wearing sable-trimmed shtreimel, even though the hats would be exempt from the ban.

Add that to Japanese and Icelandic whaling, the killing of tigers in India and China, the slaughter of rhinos in Africa, fox hunting in Britain and more, and you've got a worldwide debate over whether the killing of certain animals for certain purposes can be considered excusable based on "tradition." Indeed, the annual Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Endangered Flora and Fauna (CITES), which recently met in Qatar, often involves debate over the regulation of "cultural" practices that involve killing wildlife. One country's "culture" is another nation's abomination.

I've got a satirical poster that shows a photo of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, with the caption, "Just because you've always done it that way doesn't mean it's not incredibly stupid." And in the case of animal slaughter, just because your ancestors did horribly cruel things to animals out of superstition, greed or ignorance doesn't mean that practice has a right to continue in the 21st century. We apply that standard to the treatment of human beings who have been enslaved, exploited or mutilated in the name of "tradition," and we ought to have the collective humane dignity to apply it to animals as well.

I don't mean to sound culturally insensitive. I know what it means to cling to things that, in the stark light of day, aren't defensible. My favorite football team - whose games, in my family, rivaled the reverence of the Sunday church services that preceded them - was named after Native Americans decades ago but admittedly sounds offensive today.

So just as many of us ultimately decided that our individual humane values precluded eating Grandma's cherished meatloaf any more, so too must states, nations and peoples acquiesce to a higher ethic that says, at the very least, that killing animals for sport, entertainment, ornamentation or any other "traditional" reason isn't acceptable any more. Surely a culture of kindness would be a far greater legacy for the generations that follow.


Jill Howard-Church is a writer and editor who specializes in animal issues. She serves as the part-time communications director for the Animals and Society Institute, and is the volunteer president of the Vegetarian Society of Georgia.