In Turtle’s Shoes

by Sabine Kaupp.

Soft chiming of an Asian carillon fills the air when entering The New Da Hsin Trading company in Chinatown in Washington, D.C. One can hear water fountains, one can smell herbs and one can see hundreds of little figures, porcelain or silk stacked in the back of the room. A older, tiny lady with Asian looks comes silently round the corner and smiles.

This whole place seems to belong somewhere else, in a place where you can see rice fields through the windows, which do not need glasses because it never gets cold. In a place filled with the singing of crickets, sometimes broken with sounds that do not sound like a western language, but are more of a melodic chant floating through the air.

“Turtles symbolize long life. It moves always slowly, down in the sea. It has patience. That means, it has a long life.” (Lin, employee at New Da Hsin)

This long life that a turtle symbolizes does apparently not count for its own life, at least in some parts of China, overall in metropolises like Hong Kong or Beijing. One of the newest trends there is putting little turtles, salamanders or fish into tiny plastic bags, filling them with colored water that is claimed to have nutrition and oxygen in it, and being sold as a decorative key chain or lucky charm. Since China does not have animal welfare or an anti-cruelty legislation, this is perfectly legal. One cannot do much about it, even though organizations like PETA try to raise the awareness amongst the Chinese people that animals are actually living beings and have feelings, too.

“PETA tries to put people into a frog’s shoes”, says Lindsay Rajt, 31, Associate Director of Campaigns at PETA. “People need to start thinking, start speaking up.” PETA knows about this case since it has first appeared in 2011. The vendors are mostly positioned at metro stations, selling the key chains directly from a cold box filled with ice. They claim that the animals will bring luck, and that they can survive at least three months in the enriched water. That the animal will suffer does not necessarily come into people’s minds. “It looks nice and it brings luck”, says a man in his 30, asked by the Global Times, who was going to hang the key ring, containing a turtle, on the wall in his office.

“There are three different kinds of people”, Peter Li, China policy specialist of Human Society International, says. “The most enlightened people in China are the ones that own a pet themselves. There are more than 130 Million dogs held as pets, and the number is growing. The owners do care about animal rights. But by far the biggest group is the one of the ignorant people. Once you talk to them, they might change their minds, but as long as nobody talks to them, they just keep their eyes and ears shut and do not think about what they are doing.” The third group he talks about is the one of the “die-hard animal abusers”. This would be the vendors and producers, who try to make their profits, no matter what they have to sacrifice for that. But this seems to be the minority.

The situation of the animals in China is changing. 26 years ago, there were no animal protection groups in China. Now, they are everywhere. On April 15th 2012 in Beijing, a truckload full of dogs was on its way to the slaughterhouse. Somebody got to know about that and contacted his friends on Twitter. They themselves contacted their friends, and within a short amount of time, the truck was surrounded by cars, detained from moving, and all the 460 dogs got rescued.

China needs this and other peerless actions. Still seen as the country that eats other people’s pets, the Chinese government starts caring more and more about how they are seen in the public opinion. But still, there is no animal welfare or anti cruelty legislation. “You can slaughter an animal right next to an elementary school”, Li says. Even though there is a wildlife protection law, it has never been seriously implemented by the local authorities. They have to generate profit to be able to show the growth and development of their area to Beijing. “One of the main reasons for the animal abuse in China is the demand in the Chinese market”, Steve Feldman, spokesman for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums says. “But these key chains don’t bring you luck. We need people to stop believing that this brings luck. They bring you bad luck. And you can quote me here!”

A good example for the demand is Guangdong. This region in China has the highest amount of tourists and the highest income. That seems strange when one gets to know that Guangdong does not have any considerable sights. What they do have is the biggest illegal import of ivory (about 40 %) and are popular for the exotic food. “If you ask the chef in a restaurant to fry you a cat, he will fry you a cat”, Li says. It seems as if China keeps its eyes shut for the sake of its economy. The tourists, who keep the economy up, are not only foreigners, but also day trippers from other Chinese regions and cities, for example Hong Kong. “I don’t think that a lot of European tourists would be the key charms. They are mostly bought by the tourists from other Chinese regions.”

This belief of the Western world being much more aware of cruelty against animals is not entirely true. In 2009, so called Frog-O-Sphere boxes were sold all over the U.S. and Canada. They’re miniscule plastic cubes that measure 6 inches (15 cm) by 4 inches (10 cm) and contain two dwarf African clawed frogs, a bamboo stalk, gravel, “living gravel”, and a rock. They were mainly produced and distributed in the United States and marketed as self-contained ecosystems, perfect as low-maintenance, educational pets for young children. When one looks behind the scenes, one sees a cruel violation of the frog’s lifestyle. In the wild, they are a prey species that seek dimly lit areas to conceal themselves or hide under or around natural objects to evade perceived threats, which is obviously impossible in a glass plastic tube. Also, the frogs cannot regulate their temperature themselves. When in captivity, they need something like a heater to help them keep their body temperature steady. The instructions for feeding and water replacement are suitable for keeping the frog alive without much effort, but certainly not for providing it a good living.

After PETA received a lot of complaints, they went undercover at Wild Creations, the company that supplies the frogs and boxes (often called “EcoAquariums”) to stores across the U.S and Canada. They found Employees carelessly grabbed frogs by the handful and pinched their delicate limbs when picking them up for packaging. Hundreds of frogs were crammed into uncovered plastic tubs. The unfiltered water grew increasingly murky from excrement and molted skin with each passing day before the frogs were finally removed and packaged. Weeks passed before PETA’s investigator saw any of the frogs being fed. Due to this, the frogs started to chew on each other’s legs, causing wounds, infections, and, eventually, rot and loss of limbs, which came clear when some customers called and complained about frogs with missing limbs. No training in basic amphibian health assessment was provided to employees. As a result, live frogs were mistaken for dead ones and sick or injured frogs were thrown into the trash instead of being quarantined and given veterinary care or being humanely euthanized. Frogs suspected of being sick were mistakenly shipped to customers instead of being properly quarantined, as were frogs who were plucked from tubs containing the bloated, fungus-covered remains of decomposing frogs. Above all, the frogs can cause severe health problems for humans beings around them. According to the Centres for Disease Control (CDC), an ongoing nationwide outbreak of Salmonella linked to the dwarf African clawed frog and the water from their tanks. A total of 241 individuals have been infected across 42 states since 2009, with 69% of the victims being younger than 10 years old.

„We have a long way to go“, says Rajt. „Somehow the people seem to disconnect between lizards and pets. The campaign against Frog-O-Spheres lasted about one year, before this trends vanished.“ But here comes a problem. “It is not like in the western world”, Rajt says. “You cannot just go on the streets and protest. There are cultural differences. The key component is awareness rising, it is really little about legislation.” The Chinese people think different. And to evoke changes, one needs to think different, too. “In the U.S., people shout at Obama to stop animal testing”, Li says. “They are taking the opposite side of the government. In China, people would say something like ‘We should support our government, so that they can stop animal testing.’ A protest would embarrass the government. You have to find the right office and knock gently on the door. That is how changes happen in China.”

As long as changes happen in the end, one can adjust the way they are initiated. Back in the shop, it feels wrong wanting to change this secret, lost world, full of little mojos, water fountains, herbs and simples. The Asian culture can be transfixing for people of the Western world, with all its gods and rules, with Feng Shui and its bunch of things that are sacred or doomed. With all its legends and myths, the story tales and narratives. The fairies of the East are the dragons of the West and the knights are ninjas. The princesses are wearing sarongs instead of ball gowns and the symbol for wisdom is among other things not an owl, but a turtle. “A dragon means power”, an employee at the Kung Fu Gift shop in Chinatown, Washington, D.C., says. “It’s male. Turtles are for both sexes. They are for everyone.”