Friday, May 28, 2010

Cultural intolerance or animal rights? The menu at the Beijing Zoo's restaurant raises some interesting ethical issues

My friend Tamra Holt, a food writer, alerted me to a Beijing brouhaha that recently made the pages of the UK's Guardian newspaper. It seems that the restaurant at the Beijing Zoo isn't drawing as strict a line as some would like between what's in the cages and what's on the plate. Among the delicacies served at the zoo restaurant are crocodile meat, webbed hippopotamus toes, deer penis, kangaroo tails, peacocks, ostrich eggs and ant soup. In the recent past, signs on the animal's enclosures could have acted as promos for the restaurant: among other facts about the animals, they listed which parts were tastiest and which animals were used in Chinese traditional medicines.

 (Pandas are on display, but not on the menu, at the Beijing Zoo; photo by May Wong)

Animal rights activists convinced the zoo to change the signs and are now lobbying for a change in menu. The Guardian quotes Ge Rui, the Asian regional director of the International Fund of Animal Welfare, as saying "One of the zoo's missions is to foster love of animals and a desire to protect them. But by selling the meat of caged beasts, this zoo stimulates consumption and increases pressure on the animals in the wild. It is socially irresponsible."

While I'd agree that the zoo shouldn't be selling the meats of any endangered animals, like hippos (added to the endangered species list in 2006), why is it any more wrong for park visitors to be eating venison (ie deer meat) or crocodile than it is for them to eat chicken? Holt posted an intriguing insight on Facebook "I think it is a great idea to make the connection between live animals and meat on the plate. If people had reverence for the animals they ate, we might be able to get rid of factory farms and develop a more humane food system. Should the restaurant only serve cows and sheep and chicken? Are some animals more worthy of respect than others?".

As a carnivore, someone who ate beef just last night, I have to agree. Don't the consumption issues that Rui refers to have more to do with the explosion of the human population than with how zoos present their animals? Yes, the restaurant's choices seem a bit tawdry, considering the location of the restaurant, but are they fundamentally unethical? Or do they simply represent the different cultural norms for acceptable foods that exist in China?

Obviously, there are no easy answers. But I'm not convinced that pushing the restaurant to remove the non-endangered animals on its menu makes any kind of coherent statement.

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