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Animal Welfare Across Cultural Landscapes

"The transition from dependence to independence provided me with a novel perspective on how animals are used and valued in different cultural settings, namely the UK and China."

Hui Pin Julia Lee

Coming from China to study veterinary medicine in the UK, Hui Pin Julia Lee’s understanding of animals and their welfare was transformed. In this blog post, Julia, a final year vet student at the Royal Veterinary College, gives a personal view on the cultural contrasts in the way both people and animals are considered in Chinese and British societies, and considers how these shape pathways for improving animal welfare.

Animal welfare is at the heart of the UK veterinary profession. We learn it, we take an oath on it, we honour it in practice. According to the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS), protecting and enhancing animal welfare is the overriding duty of veterinarians in the UK, which guides our decisions for disease treatment and prevention.

However, in China, this advocacy for the welfare of individual animals contrasts with the growth of “one collective community”. Rather than perceived as sentient beings with individual interests, animals in China are largely defined by their contributions to society.

Ironically, I had never heard of the term and concept of ‘animal welfare’ before I embarked on this journey to become a vet in the UK. All I knew was that animals (namely dogs and cats) get sick and vets treat them, which is followed by a bill for the client and hopefully a bright future for me and my family. Even recognising farm animals as patients was a great leap forward for me.

Unsurprisingly, animals in a communist country like China are hardly perceived as individuals. They, like the citizens, are viewed more as components of a collective family and society rather than entities in themselves. A dog serves as a companion in a family (especially for people living alone), a pig is no more valuable than her production output on a farm. This lack of concern and intrinsic value are further reiterated in the Chinese language.

"Animal is 动物 (dong wu) in Chinese, where means movement (sometimes may be translated to animation), and is object. Together, animals are merely moving objects and their interests or sentience are hardly acknowledged."

From this lack of individualism, it was difficult for me to conceptualise the idea of the ‘five freedoms’, as ‘freedom’ is a foreign ideology in China. Information is highly controlled and critical thinking is suppressed: we can’t access Facebook and Google, nor do we have the autonomy to vote for the central government and leaders who dictate the country. Freedom of choice and speech are only available when one reaches the top of the hierarchy, yet the follower’s ideology would already be strictly moulded in favour of the China Communist Party before one sets foot on the ladder.

People function as a coherent society in China: children follow adults, who thereby follow elders and chiefs. The leaders determine the values of the community, then the community determines the behaviours of the individuals. Our mindset and moral compass are more often family- or society-orientated towards what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, differing from the self-introspection and personal development of core values such as honesty and compassion encouraged in many Western cultures. This synchrony and unity of the citizens are the exact qualities that have allowed a country as large and populous as China to rise to world power extremely efficiently.

From my own experience, even though I came from a relatively wealthy and open-minded family, my decisions before I came to the UK were still largely influenced by my parents due to the deep cultural values woven into Chinese societies. I believed and trusted my mom dearly, often above myself. I perceived her opinions and values superior to mine, and so it must be the ‘right’ or at least the ‘better’ choice. This has shown to be a major determinant of my decisions to 1) study veterinary medicine, and 2) choose the Royal Veterinary College (RVC). Veterinary medicine is considered more favourable than other general subjects, such as animal biology, due to the honour and job security that follows. I passively accepted this value from my mom rather than reflecting upon my own interests and moral values. Choosing the RVC over other vet schools was also based on the title and location instead of teaching style and research focuses, though I have no regrets.

After I came to the UK, I embraced the diversity and numerous opportunities London has to offer. I began to look further than a cat with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, to how the diagnostic and treatment plans change if the cat is living in India rather than the UK, and why it’s important to acknowledge cultural differences when considering the value for companion animals. Speaking from experience, I’ve always been told what is ‘right’ in China, and often only been offered this choice, compared to being provided with a variety of choices in London and encouraged to make the choice that is ‘right’ for me.

"This transition from dependence to independence provides me with a novel perspective on how animals are used and valued in different cultural settings, namely the UK and China."

In the light of a blooming middle class and the exponential economic growth in China, farm animals are among the most vulnerable populations that will suffer if their welfare is not addressed. Rapidly developing technology and increasing production scale will undeniably lead to further exploitations of these animals. Family farms are overtaken by large-scale commercial farms, consumers are demanding more meat at lower prices. It is quite daunting to even imagine how production animals, as well as labour workers in those factories, are being treated, as their individual interests are often trumped by the ‘common interest’ of the country and economy to maximise profit and production.

As an individual with a deep passion for animal welfare, I cannot accept the severe lack of protection for farm animals in China, the world’s biggest livestock producer. Farm animal welfare is currently not recognised in legislation (the only animal law is appointed for wildlife, but even this is unfortunately flawed in many aspects), although many attempted in the past. It is crucial to address and rectify the issue now: legislation needs to change for the production and use of animals, education needs to incorporate animal welfare teaching (especially for training veterinarians), meat industries need to implement anti-cruelty policies, farmers and abattoir workers need to change their attitude and practices around animals, veterinarians need to advocate good welfare, consumers need to buy less but better meat.

In short, numerous stakeholders need to be considered and compromises need to be addressed. Many western animal rights and welfare activists use bottom-up strategies that focus on individual-driven changes, for example by triggering moral distress with undercover images in abattoirs. However, models utilising a top-down approach may be more effective in China, for example framing animal welfare issues in light of public health, food safety and economic growth, gaining more acceptance by aligning with existing values.

"Ultimately, a One Health/One Welfare approach that appreciates the symbiotic connections between humans, animals, and the environment will, I believe, be the solution."

Advocating for animals will be futile if the interests of the people (i.e. health and safety and food security) are not addressed or met. Stakeholders ranging from farm labour workers to the China Communist Party will need to be reminded of the inherent qualities of respect, kindness, loyalty and harmony embedded deeply within Chinese culture and identities, and shall be reinforced to create a civilised future. Harmony, in particular, needs to be strengthened in public morality not only between humans, but also between humans and animals, and humans and the environment.