Tradition: You've Got to Be Carefully Taught
by Ardeth Baxter
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Tradition is a neutral term. There are good and bad traditions. But good peoplemany of whom define themselves as animal loversoften hide behind that loaded word to do bad things to other creatures. A tongue-in-cheek song from the Broadway musical “South Pacific” talks about how families must “carefully” teach children hatred and fear. It satirizes the roots of racism but could easily apply to human disrespect for animalsspeciesismas reflected by established traditions. With the approaching holiday season in mind, here’s a small sampling of the culturally sanctioned ways humans exploit animals and ignore their right not to suffer.
From serving factory-farmed turkeys on Thanksgiving to buying baby chicks and rabbits at Easter that are later often discarded, Americans are very creative when it comes to using tradition as an excuse to torment animals. The foxhunting tradition is still alive and well among the upper crust in the Eastern states. Other less than venerable American traditions are greyhound and horse racing, bloodless bullfights and hog dogging.
Bloodless bullfights are legal in many states. They sound innocent enough, but bulls are still teased and terrified in the ring and slaughtered immediately after the show.
Hog dogging is an up-and-coming tradition in the South. A wild hog has its tusks ripped off and is then thrown into a pen with one or two hunting dogs whose job is to either bay it (corner it and make it stand still) or, in the more violent version, to attack it. Hog dogging was initiated in honor of ex-Governor Earl K. Long of Louisiana’s 100th birthday in 1995 because he was a long-time hog hunter. Some states have passed laws to prohibit it, citing the cruelty to both dogs and hogs, but the cock breeding industry is fighting against animal combat bans.
The Iditarod, a sadistic race that ostensibly celebrates the transport of diphtheria medicine by sled dogs to curb an epidemic in Alaska in 1925, is really an excuse to overexert dogs and make lots of money for its sponsors and competitors. Almost every year dogs die in this traditional event.
Animal sacrifice is practiced in the Santeria religious tradition (a blend of African religion and Catholicism) in the U.S. and Latin America to mark events such as birth, marriage and death. Sacrificed animals include chickens, goats, bird and turtles.
New Mexico is a center for cockfighting and rodeo, their fans insisting that they are important elements of their cultures. Gory rattlesnake roundups are an annual tradition in Alamogordo. The Hispanic community hosts matanzas (animal slaughters) to celebrate special events. At some northern pueblos, the corrida de gallo, or rooster pull, is still played. A cock is buried in the ground with only his head sticking out and men on horseback try to pull it off. Alternatively, a chicken is hung from a rope by his feet and horsemen compete to remove it, after which children are encouraged to attack the chicken, if he’s still alive.
In China, dogs, cats and wild animals are slaughtered to make traditional medicine, including wild bears “milked” repeatedly for their bile at bile farms. Stray dogs and cats are culturally considered vermin and killed in all sorts of sadistic ways in Asia and eastern Europe: strangled, poisoned, shot, dumped live into rivers, suffocated in bags, etc. Pakistan and India practice bear baiting, violent fights between three dogs and a tethered wild bear that have taken place at village festivals for centuries.
Spanish hunters often hang their dogs in trees after the season to die slowly and painfully. Many villages in Spain celebrate Blood Fiestas in which cattle, chickens, pigs, geese, ducks, donkeys, and wildlife are tortured and killed, usually in honor of a saint’s dayalthough it’s hard to imagine that any saint would approve of such events. In one village, a goat is thrown off a church tower after being paraded in the streets. In others, chickens are tormented and beheaded. Pigeons and squirrels are crammed into clay pots and stoned to death in another fiesta. In many villages, bulls are chased by a crowd, sometimes bound with ropes, dragged, and brutalized until they die. Often their testicles are chopped off for good measure. In one Spanish town, balls of pitch placed on the horns are set afire and the bulls are forced to run while their heads and bodies slowly cook.
Bullfighting, performed in Spain, France, Portugal, Latin America, and the Middle East (Oman), is ostensibly a reenactment of ancient fertility rites and easily rates a 10 on the animal cruelty meter. Bulls are weakened before the corrida with tranquilizers and laxatives, electric shocks to the testicles, beatings to the kidneys, petroleum jelly in their eyes to blur vision, heavy weights around their necks for weeks, and confinement in darkness for hours before being released into the bright arena. Painful horn shaving is another common practice, which results in the bull miscalculating his thrusts at the matador.
In the arena, the bull is stabbed repeatedly until weakened by fear, blood loss, and exhaustion, at which point the “brave” matador tries to pierce him through the heart. But he usually misses, and the bull’s spinal cord is then cut with a dagger to paralyze him and allow the matador to cut his ears and tail off while he’s fully conscious, as symbols of victory. In a novillada, or baby bullfight, spectators, many of them children, hack off the ears and tails of young bulls and stab them to death. The horses used in a bullfight are often seriously wounded by the bull’s horns. They’ve been tranquilized, blindfolded, their ears stuffed and their vocal cords cut so they don’t distract the crowd by screaming in fear and pain. Often a horse injured by a bull is stitched up without anesthetic and returned to the ring immediately.
How can a compassionate person participate in such events? I don’t believe that most people are naturally violent toward animals. Culturally sanctioned animal cruelty is a learned behavior passed on from generation to generation. Traditions whose origins have been long forgotten can acquire a life of their own, encouraged by authority figures and peer pressure. Participants typically reassure each other that X Tradition has been around for hundreds of years, so it must be OK. Cultural brainwashing from an early age is an important element in keeping animal cruelty flourishing. And the bottom line is that promoting traditions often translates into big bucks.
How can you, as an animal advocate, fight back? Celebrate special occasions without making animals pay for your enjoyment. Write letters to the editor protesting traditions that harm animals. Work to get laws passed that protect animals. Boycott events that feature animal exploitation. Don’t spend your tourist dollars in countries with animal-cruel traditions and let their governments know how you feel. Host a potluck vegan holiday dinner. Donate to groups that teach kindness to animals. Above all, never hesitate to be a voice for the voiceless out of fear that you may be ridiculed.
Ardeth Baxter is a writer, animal rights advocate and ethical vegan, and the guardian of four dogs and five cats. For more of her writing, visit: Associated Content