Raccoon dogs freed twice in eight months
BEIJING, China––For the second time in eight months a Chinese fur farmer appears to have released his animals in response to three years of steeply falling pelt prices and fur garment demand worldwide, with no upturn in sight.
Reported the Beijing Daily News on April 13, 2016, “A few days after being set free in the wild, dozens of hoazi [raccoon dogs, also called li, or tanuki] and foxes were found dead in Huairou, an outlying Beijing suburb.
“Bred for fur but deliberately freed”
“A preliminary investigation suggested that the animals had been bred for their fur but were deliberately freed,” said a Beijing Daily News staff report.
“Two witnesses said about 300 to 400 foxes and hoazi were released from trucks on March 27, 2016. In the following days, villagers reported that their poultry had been harassed and killed as the hoazi and foxes sought food.
“To prevent further losses,” the Beijing Daily News continued, “the local forest authority sent out 30 officers to catch the hoazi and foxes. Eighty were found. Of those, 40 had died because they were incapable of surviving in the wild, the authorities said. The rest were sent to a wild animal rescue center in Beijing.”
Hoazi are non-domesticated members of the dog family with raccoon-like markings and habits, often raised for fur in recent decades.
September 2015 incident
The Huairou incident resembled another, in Houzhai, Jiyang County, Jinan province, reported by the Jinan Television Network on September 5, 2015.
Said the television broadcast, “Near a gully, in the underbrush and beside mounds of dirt, were more than a dozen hoazi. Some had died already. According to nearby villagers, there were probably 100-200 of the animals when they were first found. Surviving animals had made their way into cornfields. About 70-80 hoazi who were immobile or dead had already been buried.
“Villagers said that these animals had already started eating the carcasses of their deceased mates. Seeing this cruel scene unfold, villagers felt unsettled and wondered if those those who had gone into fields and the village would be a danger to residents.”
The Jiyang County Animal Husbandry Bureau “immediately carried out safe disposal of the hoazi,” the Jinan Television Network report concluded.
Animals farmed for fur are usually kept throughout the winter, to ensure that they grow thick coats, then are killed and pelted at the first hint of spring, before they molt.
The Houzhai case appeared to involve a farmer dumping unhealthy hoazi, rather than feeding them through a winter that many might not survive. The Huairou case involved hoazi and foxes who were released instead of being pelted.
There are possible explanations other than dumping by fur farmers for large numbers of fur-bearing animals having twice been found at large, suffering from malnutrition and disease, and showing signs of habituation to human care.
The possible explanation favored so far by Chinese authorities, which might be the explanation best enabling them to ignore the hoazi releases, in the name of respecting religious freedom, is that devout Buddhists have twice purchased farmed fur-bearing animals and then turned them loose to “make merit.”
Purchasing captive animals for release is an ancient custom practiced by devotees of many religions. Asian Buddhists, Hindus, Jains, and Muslims frequently practice bird release, though the custom is officially discouraged in most nations because it encourages temple vendors to capture wild birds.
The birds often do not survive transport, caging awaiting sale, and the struggle to survive after being released into unfamiliar habitat.
Bird releases are also associated with spreading avian disease, especially the deadly H5N1 avian influenza.
Fish & turtles
In addition to releasing birds, Buddhists in particular often buy and release fish and turtles. But live release of mammals is seldom if ever practiced by devotees of any religion.
Said China Daily, the official state newspaper, published from Beijing, “According to the Huairou Forestry Bureau, advance approval is required before setting living things free in the wild, including mammals, birds, or turtles. Neither the municipal forestry bureau nor the district bureau received any application for a large-scale release, they said.
“Driven by goodwill”
“Even though the police are still looking for the responsible parties,” China Daily continued, “it is believed likely the incident was driven by goodwill. Some people believe it is morally right to buy caged animals and then set them free. There is even an underground industry that derives profits from such feelings, according to the authorities.
Warned Beijing forestry authority law enforcement chief Kong Lingshui, “The hoazi and foxes released in March don’t know how to hunt for food in the wild. And after being set free the majority of them will die.”
Kong also mentioned that “in recent years many birds, snakes, and bullfrogs from the warm southern part of China have been bought and set free in cold Beijing,” where most cannot survive.
Another possible explanation for the hoazi and fox releases might be the emergence of direct action tactics against the Chinese fur farming industry, following the rise of anti-fur protest in China by about eight years, and the eruption at about the same time of direct action against the dog and cat meat trade.
The first such incident reported by China Daily came on June 17, 2006, when about 40 activists backed by “a large crowd including children” stormed the newly opened Fang Company Cat Meatball Restaurant in Shenzhen, extracting a promise from the owner to serve cats no more.
Among the activists was Gao Haiyun, Miss Shenzhen for 2005, who according to China Daily told restaurant customers to “stop eating cats and dogs and become civilized.”
On February 10, 2007 as many as 100 volunteers rallied by the I Love Cats Home in Tianjin stormed a cat meat market to rescue 444 cats, of whom 415 were taken in by the China Small Animal Protection Association, of Beijing.
Also in early 2007, recounted Zhang Kun of China Daily, “a truck packed with cats was stopped in Suzhou, where two crates of cats were rescued. A train car was found to be loaded with live cats in the Shanghai South Railway Station, but left despite protests from local animal protectors.”
Then, in July 2007, “cat lovers in suburban Shanghai’s Xinzhuang area stopped a truck carrying 840 cats to diners in Guangdong Province,” Zhang Kun wrote. “Activists as far away as Beijing teamed up to relay the cats to safety, provide veterinary care, and place them in adoptive homes.”
Dogs rescued since end of 2008
The last day of 2008 brought the first known mass seizure of dogs from meat traders in mainland China in almost 70 years, since the long defunct Shanghai SPCA won two convictions for illegal dog trafficking in 1939.
“The 149 dogs were confiscated from the trading station in Pengzhou, 30 kilometres north of Chengdu, by the local Animal Husbandry Bureau, after it discovered that the trader was operating without a license,” announced the Animals Asia Foundation.
Such incidents are now commonplace.
For-profit animal control
Much of China relies for dog and cat population control on for-profit contractors. The Beijing government has for more than 15 years quietly encouraged Chinese cities to form western-style animal care and control agencies. Meanwhile, like the U.S. bunchers who for nearly 100 years supplied dogs and cats to laboratories, the Chinese for-profit contractors make money mostly by selling the animals––including stolen pets, who are often more easily obtained than dogs and cats running at large.
While the market in the U.S. from the early 20th century into the 21st century was mainly for lab use, the market in China is mostly for human consumption in Guangdong province and several smaller southern provinces.
Guangdong alone, including the cities of Guangzhou and Shenzen, accounts for about 85% of Chinese dog meat consumption and close to 100% of cat consumption.
Rabies control law
Activists working to interdict the traffic in dogs and cats to Guangdong monitor the highways leading in that direction, block truckloads of dogs and cats when they are identified, summon reinforcements by cell phone, and notify police.
The Chinese national rabies control law requires vaccination of any dogs moving interstate, but forbids vaccination of animals who are to be eaten. No exemptions are granted to permit interstate movement of animals who are to be eaten.
Since April 2011, when Beijing activists intercepted and eventually rescued 500 dogs from a truck that was transporting them from Henan province to dog meat restaurants in Jilin province, the Chinese rabies control law has routinely been invoked to force the release to animal charities of dogs and cats intercepted from the meat trade.
Wary government eye on activism
Because the pelts of dogs and cats killed for human consumption are usually sold to fur garment makers, the anti-dog and cat meat actions overlap anti-fur activity.
However, the Beijing government is likely to keep a wary eye––at least––on any form of direct action in support of animal advocacy which does not strike at activities that are already either illegal or officially discouraged, such as live skinning of hoazi. This was exposed by the Beijing Daily on April 12, 2005, months before images from the Beijing Daily exposé began making the rounds of western social media.
Fur burned in Tibet
A hint that western-style anti-fur direct action would not be tolerated came in April 2006, when troops and police were dispatched to Rebkong, Quinghai Province, Tibet, to prevent a bonfire of wild-trapped pelts.
“It appears that the Chinese government has banned the public burning of chuba [ceremonial] costumes trimmed with tiger, leopard and otter skins,” the Wildlife Protection Society of India posted, based on information received from Tibet Info Net.
Fiery protests resembling western-style direct action had already erupted repeatedly in Tibet for at least eight months.
The fur-burnings appeared to have been inspired by anti-fur remarks made in January 2006 by the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, at the 2006 Kalachakra celebration in Amravati, Andhra Pradesh, India.
The bonfires were politically awkward for the Beijing government. Committed by global treaty to conserving tigers, snow leopards, chiru antelope, and other species benefiting by the Tibetan turn against fur, the Beijing government is also sensitive to expressions of Tibetan nationalism and allegiance to outside authority.
Social media coverage of recent U.S. and European releases of animals farmed for fur might have inspired some Chinese activists to have attempted similar. But the most recent U.S. releases of note ended in criminal convictions and significant sentences.
U.S. fur farm release convictions
In particular, the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois on March 23, 2016––four days before the Huairou hoazi releases––sentenced activist Tyler Lang to three months time served, six months home imprisonment, six months community confinement, and one year of supervised release. Lang was further ordered to make $200,000 restitution for releasing 2,000 mink from an Illinois fur farm in 2014.
While about 1,400 mink were reportedly recaptured, 600 were either found dead or were not accounted for.
Codefendant Kevin Johnson, who had several prior criminal convictions was on February 29, 2016 sentenced to serve three years in prison. Both Lang and Johnson were also convicted on state-level burglary charges.
The Lang and Johnson sentences came soon after California activists Joseph Buddenberg and Nicole Kissane pleaded guilty to anti-fur actions including mink releases in Montana, Idaho and Minnesota, and agreed to pay $398,000 in restitution to two fur stores and seven mink farms.
Prosecutors recommended two-year prison terms for Buddenberg and Kissane.
Fur prices plummet
Despite the possibilities that the Huairou and Houzhai hoazi and fox releases were either acts of religious devotion or anti-fur protest, the simplest, most obvious explanation––including for the possible willingness of a fur farmer to sell animals to be released––is that the bottom has dropped out of the pelt market.
Globally, mink pelt prices, which tend to be the best indicator of overall fur demand, “have fallen to around $30 from being as high as $140,” reported Shane Fowler of CBC News on February 22, 2016.
“Mink pelts were, until recently, highly valued in international markets, including Russia and China,” Fowler continued. Russia has historically been among the largest markets for finished fur garments, while China has long been the leading buyer of pelts for manufacture into garments that are then exported to other nations.
Trying to keep more fur trade money at home, China was briefly first in mink pelt production, as well as purchases, but in recent years has cut back from peak output of about 18 million to less than half as many.
Demand for wild-trapped furs has also fallen. Wild-trapped pelt prices currently run about 60% below the prices paid circa 2010.
Retail sales depressed since 1988
Total U.S. retail fur sales volume peaked at $1.85 billion in 1987-1988, plummeted to $950 million by 1992, and rebounded to $1.8 billion in 2003––but by then $1.8 billion was worth only $927 million in 1988 dollars.
U.S. retail fur sales totals in recent years were $1.3 billion in 2012, $1.4 billion in 2013, and $1.5 billion in 2014, essentially tracking inflation, and respectively equivalent to about $750 million in 1988 dollars.