A Canadian in Beijing: FOR SALE! Live Animals (Trapped) in Small Cages

Walking along the sidewalk here in Wudaokou in the late afternoon and evening is not a passive exercise. The sidewalk markets take a wide space and transform it into a narrow, colourful corridor as vendors roll out their ware on square pieces of fabric on both sides and then call for your attention as you pass. That doesn’t keep people off the sidewalks, of course, but instead draws more to this small area. As a result, congestion is intense and the going is slow. If you’re not headed anywhere in particular then it’s worth the stroll. (If you’re trying to get somewhere on time, I suggest walking along the street!)

I have been taking in these kinds of street markets all over the city since I arrived and I’ve noticed one common element: there are always small, live animals for sale.

I hate to see it. Small rabbits in cages that are just slightly larger than they are with barely enough room to turn their bodies around. There are always puppies and kittens, turtles, snakes and lizards of various sizes. All of them are miserably tucked into cages or plastic cubicles and lay taking in the afternoon heat in their cells.

I can’t free them and I can’t save them . . .

I feel helpless and powerless walking by. I wonder who actually buys them and why. Do the rabbits become pets or food? And the reptiles must simply become pets, right?!

The huge box of baby chicks would make a lot more sense to me if this were a rural area. I can understand people having farms or small lots on which they would raise chickens for eggs and/or meat. Now, if this were the intention for the chicks, then I can understand wanting to sell them and wanting to buy them. But, here in the city? What would a person do with a baby chick here? Is it legal to keep chickens here? Something tells me that it’s not, especially since almost everyone lives in an apartment.

I have seen a lot of things like this here, i.e. things about China that I don’t understand and don’t want to see but simply have to accept as being part of the way it is here. I know I have my cultural background that fuels my opinions and I know there’s so much more to everything than meets the eye. Still, life here in Beijing has occasionally challenged my values and beliefs. I have chosen to sit back and take in the culture rather than passing judgements before I understand.

Two months later (and then some) and I still don’t understand the reason for selling these small animals in this way. And, I still want to set them all free in a park somewhere… which is, of course, not the answer. Nor will any amount of discussion with a vendor change the fact that they’re being sold, especially not in my third language.

About a month ago, I expressed to a vendor in Chinese that I felt sorry for the animals. I said they were “poor things” and said that their “houses were too small” (lacking the word for “cage” in my vocabulary.) The vendor just laughed at me with a look that told me he has heard it before from the foreigners and he has no time or space for it. This is his livelihood. This is his job.

Who buys them?

My friend Sarah told me that she knew two people who had bought puppies or kittens from a street or sidewalk vendor only to watch them die just a few days later. There is a compulsion to want to give one – if even just one – a safe and cage-free life and many ex-pats succumb to that urge. Apparently, these puppies and kittens are often drugged so that they appear more docile and cute while being sold (rather than active and hard to contain.) If the dosage is too high at that time that they are drugged, it eventually kills them but long after the vendor and customer have exchanged money for merchandise. I haven’t heard this since, but I was horrified to hear it at all.

Back in North America, we have done lots of work to make pet stores more humane. There is often a lot of anger towards them and over time I have noticed that most people just don’t trust these stores to care for the pets properly, preferring to find new pets at the Humane Society or the local pound.

So, buying live animals on the street is just another level altogether.

Now, when I’m strolling through the sidewalk markets, I just steer around the animal vendors. I can’t bear to see the congestion of turtles or chicks in boxes too small for their volume. I can’t bear to look at the puppies lolling in their drugged state and worry about whether or not they’ll pull through into adulthood.

After driving my gaze deep into the vendors’ eyes and telepathically communicating “how could you?” alongside of an amazed expression, I turn my head.

This technique doesn’t make it go away, however. Maybe this post will inspire more people to ask the vendors the “why?” questions – especially those fluent enough in Chinese to carry on a conversation. Until then, I can write about it.

(And always be open to other suggestions…)