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Is it okay to eat dogs?

Thursday, July 16, 2015
Photos like these with dogs in cages in China angered animal rights activists all over the world.

Last week, a video of Chinese men skinning a dog, purportedly in Trinidad, went viral prompting a lot of comment about the practice of dog eating by Chinese people. Many questioned what they called the hypocrisy of this criticism, saying that people in T&T proudly boast about eating wild meat, so why the big fuss about dogs?

In some parts of China, dogs are eaten as a delicacy and there is even an annual dog meat festival held to celebrate the summer solstice. Before this year's Festival in Yulin, China, there was worldwide condemnation of this practice by animal lovers and animal rights activists.

Writing in the UK Guardian, author Julian Baggini spoke about what he sees as the hypocrisy of the condemnation of eating dog meat. 

Whenever western meat-eaters get up in arms over barbarous foreigners eating cute animals, it's easy to throw around accusations of gross hypocrisy. Easy, because such accusations are often true. But responses to the dog meat festival in Yulin, China, which draws to a close today, merit more careful consideration. The double standards at play here are numerous, complicated and not always obvious.

One so-called hypocrisy is nothing of the sort. If you find yourself disgusted by the thought of dogs being killed, cooked and eaten, but you eat other animals, that does not make you a hypocrite. If you've grown up seeing dogs as companion animals and haven't even seen the reality of livestock slaughter, of course you're going to find the idea somewhat distressing. You only become a hypocrite if you take your personal revulsion as a reason to morally oppose the eating of dogs. If you accept that your gut reaction—quite literally, in this case—is no more morally significant than the disgust you might feel when thinking about eating insects, you are no hypocrite for feeling it.

If you are one of the more than 3.8 million people who signed an online petition against the festival, however, you might be standing on shakier ground. Obviously if your only objection is that the animals being eaten are dogs rather than pigs, who are equally as intelligent, your indignation is fairly hollow. But I imagine most objectors believe there is more to it than just their preference for friendly, furry beasts with names.

For instance, some may be moved to sign because the petition claims the dogs are "beaten to death, skinned alive and eaten."

The festival organisers dispute this. I have no idea if the claim stands up, but given that we know that the web is awash with misinformation, I would think it irresponsible to simply believe it without question. After all, if you want to skin an animal it makes much more sense to kill it first, purely for practical reasons. Is there not a whiff of orientalism here: a too-quick readiness to believe that the Chinese behave barbarously?

Others might have been motivated by the pictures of dogs crammed together in cages. This is indeed cruel, but this is how animals are abused in many parts of the world. If you don't like how the Chinese treat their dogs, then protest against their pork and chicken farming, too.

Remember also that in westernised industrial farming, animals are often kept in similar conditions all their lives, not just on market day. So do sign the petition, just as long as you also campaign against intensive farming and studiously ignore any meat that comes from it.

That point also applies to vegetarians. Vegans are the only group who can oppose the festival without any fear of hypocrisy. Vegetarians who do not avoid dairy products or eggs from intensively reared animals cannot complain when they see dogs in cages. Saying "at least dairy cows and egg-laying hens aren't killed" is no escape clause. It is an odd kind of concern for animal welfare that accepts animals suffering day after day but objects to swift slaughter. The moral choice between killing a well-reared animal and keeping a tortured one alive only until it has fulfilled its use is clear.

Some might be appalled by the petition's claim that the trade relies on "the abduction of strays and pets." But "abduction" is a loaded word when it comes to strays. After all, usually it is considered more ethical to eat wild animals than farmed meat, not less. The stealing of pets is, of course wrong, but not primarily on animal welfare grounds.

Moral outrage is always easier when the target appears to be far from home. What should appal us about Yulin is not which particular animal is being killed, but that too many animals in the west are treated nearly or just as cruelly. Our problem is not that we ought to be less disgusted at what's happening in China, but that we ought to be more disgusted by what's going on in many farms here. Signing a petition about what's happening in China is easy—and unlikely to have much effect. Refusing to buy from producers here that treat animals just as badly takes more work. But at least it might have an effect.

• Julian Baggini is the author of Freedom Regained: The Possibility of Free Will.