Customs change with waves of immigration
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.––Escaping the Iranian Revolution with her parents at age 6, artist Sara Rahbar as an adult has produced an internationally recognized portfolio on themes often involving human and animal suffering.
Yet Rahbar found herself wholly unprepared for the misery she met close to hand on a recent visit to Twelve Baskets Inc. on Fowler Avenue in Flushing, one of New York City’s most notorious live animal markets and storefront slaughterhouses.
Called the cops, PETA, the ASPCA
“No food or water. Sick and injured animals. Cramped spaces. The animals are on top of each other. It’s a horrible situation,” Rahbar blurted in an email to ANIMALS 24-7. “I left there crying, determined to open an animal sanctuary, so that I never have to walk away from suffering animals again, without having the option of being able to rescue them. Everyone I called told me that’s not their job and there’s nothing they can do.
“I called the police -311 -to report them to the health department. I called PETA and the American SPCA. I called everyone I could think of,” Rahbar said, “but no one was able to do anything. Apparently animal abuse is legal. The workers were so rough and aggressive with the already sick and injured animals, it was heartbreaking beyond words.
“After speaking to the police and doing my research,” Rahbar added, “I saw that more and more of these shady mini-slaughterhouses are opening up all over the city. I don’t understand how the health department okays this and how this is legal? I found many videos and photos of protesters and people who were as shocked, angered and saddened as I was.”
Live markets and storefront slaughter are again controversial in New York City, scene of countless protests against the live animal marketing and killing practices of ethnic communities.
Undercover video of purported halal or Islamic slaughter, taken at Twelve Baskets by two members of Brooklyn/Queens Animal Save, was distributed in March 2018 by Voters for Animal Rights.
“Body bags” piled on sidewalk
“In one video,” said Voters for Animal Rights media contact Heather Greenhouse told ANIMALS 24-7, “you can see workers killing a cow on a filthy floor, in front of onlookers, while not even wearing gloves or proper clothing. The other video shows [alleged] violations of health codes on the public sidewalk,” as apparent participants in the slaughter piled up black plastic bags believed to contain offal.
“There are over 80 of these [storefront slaughterhouses] in our city,” Greenhouse said, emailing a list on a spreadsheet to which ANIMALS 24-7 within minutes was able to add at least three more.
Number of live markets “doubled”
“The number of live markets has nearly doubled in the past decade and a half, despite a 2008 state law banning their construction within 1,500 feet of residences,” New York Daily News staff writers Lore Croghan and Patty Lee reported in June 2011.
Since Croghan and Lee said the number was “nearly 80,” growth appears to have continued, but at a somewhat slower pace now than New York City population growth, filling an estimated 1% or less of the meat demand in the city. That nonetheless involves the slaughter of perhaps as many as 100,000 animals per year, primarily poultry.
Who does it?
Of the current 89-plus live markets in New York City and close suburbs that are known to do storefront slaughter, 29 advertise that they do halal slaughter; six cater chiefly to ethnic Puerto Rican or Cuban customers; five cater mainly to Asians; three are specifically kosher; and the remainder appear to have no specific ethnic accent, while serving a variety of clients’ specialized preferences.
Fowler Avenue in Flushing, where Twelve Baskets Inc. is located, has been the scene of live poultry marketing and slaughter for probably as long as New York City and surrounding suburbs have existed. The street name itself indicates the historical presence of fowl vendors.
From Hassidic to Asian to Halal
An influx of Asian immigrants caused the neighborhood to be nicknamed first “Little Taipei” and then simply “Chinatown,” beginning in the mid-1970s. About 60,000 people of Asian descent reputedly live within a mile of Twelve Baskets Inc., but the neighborhood was previously heavily Hassidic Jewish.
The storefront slaughterhouse was described in a 2014 Columbia Spectator article by senior staff writer Christian Zhang as having been opened in 2002 “to serve a predominantly Jewish clientele. According to manager Lili Yu,” Zhang wrote, “it’s the only live poultry market in New York City to employ its own rabbi for kosher slaughters.”
The Brooklyn/Queens Animal Save video showed only the “halal” slaughter of a cow or steer, although a Hassidic rabbi was present. The killing, though apparently performed by an imam, involved several evident violations of halal and kosher slaughter rules as prescribed by the Q’ran and the Biblical books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy.
Halal requirements violated
Specifically, either halal or kosher slaughter requires that the animal who is to be killed should be handled gently and individually. The cow or steer who was killed was tied by both front and hind feet and had been thrown down on his/her right side.
Either halal or kosher slaughter requires that the animal should not be slaughtered in front of other animals, and no blood should been seen by the animal who is to be killed. The cow or steer was slaughtered beneath the hanging carcass of several other animals, with blood on every visible surface.
Either halal or kosher slaughter requires that the fur of the animal who is to be killed must be clean prior to slaughter, and must be free from feces, dirt, and/or any other sources of contamination––not a requirement that could have been met in those surroundings.
All have birds
All of the New York live markets and storefront slaughtering businesses “have at least birds––chickens, ducks, turkeys––and rabbits,” said Greenhouse. “Most do not have larger animals like goats, sheep, and cows,” though as well as showing the slaughter of the cow or steer, the Brooklyn/Queens Animal Save video shows pens of sheep awaiting slaughter.
Such facilities “pose a significant public health and safety risk,” Greenhouse charged, “constantly violating health codes. It is common for blood, feces, guts, and other body parts to contaminate public sidewalks and streets,” Greenhouse claimed, “causing pathogens and potential infectious disease to be spread all over the city. The odor is also horrific and offensive to neighbors. Not to mention the extreme cruelty the animals must endure, being tortured, humiliated, and killed.
“Slaughterhouses do not belong in residential neighborhoods,” Greenhouse finished. “Voters for Animal Rights is working towards legislation that will extend a permanent moratorium on licensing new slaughterhouses within city limits.”
NYC has most live markets
Such issues are perennial in New York City, though scarcely unique to the city.
New York City has, New York Times reporter Anne Barnard wrote in 2009, “probably the country’s highest concentration of live animal markets,” in part because New York City also has the most distinctively ethnic neighborhoods, filled with relatively recent immigrants from parts of the world where animal slaughter customarily occurs much closer to the point of consumption than is the U.S. norm.
Flashpoints for protest in New York City in recent years have included curbside sales of chickens used by some Hassidic Jews at Passover in Kaporos rituals, in which men swing the birds around their heads while chanting prayers; sales of a variety of species, but mostly poultry, at botanicas for Santerian sacrifice; and sales of poultry, snakes, turtles, and frogs for use in various traditional Asian cuisines.
Sales of live goats for use in traditional Greek cuisine was a flashpoint for protest in some of the same neighborhoods several decades ago.
Live markets vs. “Easter pets”
Some of the live marketing for slaughter differs little from the sales of live rabbits, ducklings, and chicks seen at Easter in mostly Caucasian suburbs, also often in violation of health, sanitation, zoning and humane laws. Whether sold to be killed soon as food, or sold as living toys, to die slowly from neglect and mistreatment, the animals suffer, but the deaths of Easter pets are not made a public spectacle.
But inviting customers to watch the killing, as assurance that the meat will be fresh and the slaughter will be in accord with religious requirements, is often a focal part of storefront slaughter––and not just in New York City.
Live markets practicing on-site slaughter can be found in the ethnic neighborhoods of almost every major U.S. city, operating with relative impunity despite frequent blatant violations of the laws governing other food-related businesses––especially when the pretext is intertwined with religion.
U.S. Supreme Court
Fewer than a dozen on-site slaughtering establishments claiming to serve individual customers’ religious needs have been successfully prosecuted since June 1993, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision for religious freedom in Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah (Florida).
The Supreme Court verdict specifically recognized that facilities conducting sacrifices and other forms of ritual killing might be closed and prosecuted for reasons “unrelated to religious animosity [such as] the suffering or mistreatment visited upon the sacrificed animals, and health hazards from improper disposal.”
Nonetheless, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors have tended ever since to shy away from cases involving claims pertaining to religious need, especially since a failed attempt to prosecute a Santerian priest in Euless, Texas in 2008-2009 cost the city $175,000 in reimbursement of the priest’s legal fees, as well as the prosecutorial costs.
Some live markets and on-site slaughtering businesses have been closed through public protest, notably in San Francisco and nearby suburbs as result of campaigns led in 2009-2011 by an organization called Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender Compassion, led by Andrew Zollman and partner Alex Felsinger.
The San Francisco humane community had often conflicted with the owners and customers of live markets, who in recent times have mostly been ethnic Asian.
In earlier times San Francisco also featured live markets serving mainly Italian and Hispanic customers.
LGBT Compassion succeeded where SF/SPCA failed
Before the LGBT Compassion campaigns, however, the live markets had usually withstood humane pressure, beginning in 1868, when banker James Sloan Hutchinson became so upset at the abuse of a pig he saw dragged to slaughter that he founded the San Francisco SPCA. The San Francisco SPCA grew into one of the largest and most influential in the world, yet has never succeeded––despite many attempts––in closing a live market or in passing local legislation to restrict their activity.
The LGBT Compassion campaign uniquely morphed into a clash between San Francisco’s two most prominent minority cultures, especially after alleged assaults and anti-gay remarks by some of the live marketers led to Zollman and Felsinger filing a complaint with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission.
About 45% of the San Francisco population are of Asian descent, according to polls done during the LGBT campaigns; 14.5% declare themselves to be lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender.
First generation immigrants
The limited available demographic information about live market and storefront slaughter customers suggests that while some are millennial thrill-seekers, most are first-generation immigrants, whose motivations originate with the health and sanitation considerations of societies which until very recently have tended to lack access to refrigeration––and also to lack the access to reliable electricity needed to ensure that refrigerators work properly.
As recently as 1920 most of the meat consumed in the U.S. was bought at open-air live markets. Poultry usually came home alive for slaughter in kitchens or back yards. Even pigs were often fattened on household waste for a time before being slaughtered in yards. Only beef, horsemeat, mutton, and canned pork most often came from commercial slaughterhouses. Most slaughterhouses were small, serving only their immediate neighborhoods.
Refrigeration changed the food culture
The typhoid epidemics that swept many cities, including New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago between 1910 and 1917, abruptly changed the public perspective on buying live meat. The turnabout in buying behavior began in 1917, when 31-year-old Clarence Birdseye discovered the technique of freezing food without precooking. Suddenly food products of every kind could be preserved without risk of typhoid contamination at a cost within the means of average citizens.
Before World War I, only the homes of the wealthy came with built-in iceboxes. Mechanical refrigeration, invented by John Gorrie in 1851 and almost immediately used by Jacob Fossel to make ice cream, remained mainly an industrial process used to cool whole sides of beef until the discovery of freon in 1930 made building home-sized refrigerators practical. Few U.S. kitchens were without refrigerators by 1950, and traditional live markets, outside of ethnic immigrant neighborhoods, rapidly disappeared into history.
Trends in immigration
Trends in live marketing and storefront slaughter have followed trends in immigration ever since.
Kosher live markets and storefront slaughter, while persisting to a limited extent, mostly faded out a generation after the short-term peak in Jewish immigration from Europe following World War II and the Nazi holocaust.
Asian live markets and storefront slaughter expanded rapidly, however, with the post-Vietnam War arrival of Southeast Asian refugees, and in many cities now appear to be contracting, as younger people of Asian descent become assimilated into the larger U.S. culture.
Islamic immigration increased during the past three decades as result of conflict in the Middle East. Patronage of halal meat businesses soared with the wave of immigration, but the longterm trend among Islamic immigrants and their descendants also appears to be toward assimilation.
“Kosher” or “halal” slaughter in the U.K.
A contrary trend in slaughtering, at least, may be evident in the United Kingdom, where Parliament is currently considering how to amend slaughter laws as part of the nation leaving the European Union. But the trend in the United Kingdom appears to have little to do with immigration or ethnicity.
Unlike the U.S. Humane Methods of Livestock Slaughter Act, passed in 1958 and never extended to poultry, European Union law requires that poultry be pre-stunned, unless slaughtered according to kosher or halal requirements, which forbid pre-stunning.
Reported Tom Embury-Dennis for The Independent on March 18, 2018, “Around 180 million chickens and other poultry were killed last year using an electric shock vets deem insufficient to guarantee unconsciousness because of a loophole in the law, government figures suggest.”
The data from 2015 and 2017, Embury-Dennis wrote, shows “that while 20% of chickens were slaughtered under religious rites rules, less than 5% of the population – followers of Islamic and Jewish law – need to buy meat produced this way.”
The existence of a pre-stunning requirement for poultry in the European Union, Embury-Dennis suggested, appears to have motivated British slaughterhouses to kill about four times more birds according to kosher and/or halal rules than market demand would indicate, simply as a cost-cutting efficiency measure.
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