By Wayne Pacelle
Through the years, I’ve heard many flimsy arguments from the apologists for animal abuse, and among the most persistent has been an appeal to cultural prerogative or tradition—in short, that the conduct in question is an expression of the “culture” of a particular nationality, community, ethnicity, or race, and therefore, it should be somehow be treated as sacrosanct.
The bullfighters in Spain invoke culture as a defense for the staged stabbing or slaughter of a bull in arenas often packed full of non-Spaniards on vacation in the country. Or in Louisiana, the last state to outlaw animal fighting, cockfighters claimed that these staged slashing derbies, with knives attached to the birds’ legs to augment the bloodletting, are a Cajun tradition, even though the forebears of today’s Acadians seemed to have little to do with this ancient form of animal combat.
Yesterday, The New York Times reported on the latest instance in which the values of animal protection and cultural identity appear at odds—the debate in California over the consumption of shark-fin soup. There, a broad coalition, including The HSUS, is backing legislation to outlaw the possession, sale and trade of shark fins, which are the central ingredient in the soup that bears the same name.
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There is a small minority within the Chinese-American community who have claimed the legislation to be a sort of thinly veiled cultural attack, and they want to preserve their right to see sharks caught, their fins slashed off, and their bodies dumped back in the ocean, so that the fanciers of this appetizer—a symbol of wealth and prestige—can eat their shark fin soup in peace. To hell with the fact that up to 73 million sharks are killed across the globe each year for this soup. They want to eat the soup most describe as lacking flavor and if so many sharks have to suffer and die for it, then so be it.
It seems that their recklessly selfish argument is, however, not quite as popular within the Asian and Asian-American communities as The New York Times piece may suggest. The author of the shark protection bill is Assemblyman Paul Fong, D-Cupertino, one of only a handful of Chinese-American lawmakers in the state legislature. He’s called the killing of sharks for their fins “a horrific scene.” Humane advocate Judy Ki also proudly claims an Asian lineage, but she offers a similar message: “Asian-Pacific Americans that want to enjoy premium quality seafood have many sustainable alternatives to shark fin. Those who are profiting from the slaughter of sharks solely for their fins are misusing race and culture to defend the industry.” A cohort of Asian chefs has also joined the campaign, along with a raft of scientists, animal welfare advocates, environmentalists, and commercial and recreational fishermen aware of the terrible animal welfare and ocean health implications of shark finning.
There are also similar shark-protection bills in Oregon and Washington. The Washington legislation is sponsored by Senate Majority Assistant Whip Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island, and has passed the Natural Resources & Marine Waters Committee which he chairs. If these bills are passed, it will be a major advance for the global campaign to protect tens of millions of sharks from the cruel deaths they now endure. Among other Pacific Rim states and territories, Hawaii and the Northern Marianas have already adopted similar prohibitions, and a similar bill awaits the Guam governor's signature. And President Obama, who grew up in the Pacific Rim himself, signed legislation in January to ban landing sharks without their fins attached.
Culture is never a compelling defense for cruelty, especially when the cruelty is so dispensable and where alternatives abound. Animal protection is not the domain of any culture or community, but rather, it is a universal value. Good people of every background honor the notions of mercy and decency to other creatures. Stopping the killing of sharks for fins won’t diminish the proud culture of China or any other Asian nation. It will enhance it, since the presence of cruelty erodes the fabric of any civil society and mars the history books for any people who’ve ever elected to tolerate the vile mistreatment of helpless creatures.