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Cultures Clash Over Sale of Live Animals for Food

Custom: San Francisco activists seek to control or ban the practice. But Chinatown markets, customers defend it.


SAN FRANCISCO — As far as Suzy Eum is concerned, the only chicken fit to feed her family is the one she can look in the eye before she takes it home and strangles it.

At least twice a month, Eum visits the Ming Kee Game Birds shop in Chinatown and picks out a large Rhode Island red. She inspects the squawking bird, then watches with satisfaction as the butcher stuffs the animal into a paper shopping bag for easy carrying.

"I want chickens that are very alive and have a lot of energy," Eum said as she paid $7 for a hen recently. "When you eat a fresh chicken, your body feels healthier the next day."

Across the food spectrum from Suzy Eum stands Patricia Briggs, a vegetarian and animal rights activist who thinks that the sale of live animals for food is reprehensible.

So outraged is Briggs by the practice that 18 months ago she petitioned the city and county of San Francisco to either tightly regulate or ban such sales. As an advisory commission moves closer to asking the County Board of Supervisors to restrict the sales of animals, debate on the issue has become increasingly heated.

On one side are animal rights advocates who accuse merchants of inhumane practices. On the other are Chinese merchants, chefs and activists who say that the animal rights groups are attacking Chinese culture.

"This whole thing just sort of mushroomed," said Matthew Kaplan, a member of the San Francisco Commission of Animal Control and Welfare.

The issue is not unique to San Francisco. Environmental health officials in Los Angeles and Orange counties say they apply state health, fish and game, and cruelty-to-animal regulations in policing such stores in their jurisdictions.

But only one live-animal food store operates in Orange County and only a few in Los Angeles County. Compact San Francisco, home to the largest Chinatown in the United States, has more than a dozen live-animal food stores, said Ben Gale, director of the San Francisco County Bureau for Environmental Control.

At the center of the controversy are half a dozen Chinese markets.

Every day, Chinatown merchants sell hundreds of live turtles, frogs, lobsters, crabs, fish and birds to customers who share Eum's belief that the best meat is the kind that enters your house still breathing. Chinese shoppers have long believed that fresh meat is tastier and more healthful.

The animals are displayed in tanks of bubbling seawater, plastic trays or wire cages, where discerning customers can see them, smell them and watch them move around before making their selection.

Most of the live animal shops are in Chinatown, strung along Stockton Street and Grant Avenue. Merchants say they have been a part of the community since its founding in the late 1800s.

As San Francisco's Asian population has spread across the city, live animal shops have opened outside Chinatown, in the Richmond and Sunset districts. Live animals also are sold at some of the city's farmers markets, and live crabs and lobsters are boiled in pots at Fisherman's Wharf.

Animal rights activists say they generally do not object to grocery store meat and poultry, which are slaughtered under U.S. Department of Agriculture guidelines intended to ensure a humane death. But the Chinatown establishments offer customers the option of taking the animals home live, so there is no way to control how they are killed. The activists contend that the creatures often are killed in ways that cause them unnecessary pain.

They also claim that the animals are treated inhumanely in the shops. They say that fish are crammed into dirty tanks, frogs and turtles are left in trays without water or food, and birds are kept in cages so small and crowded that they can't stand upright.

"There is no question that these animals are often kept in inadequate conditions," said Richard Avanzino, head of San Francisco's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, a national animal advocacy group.

The SPCA's investigators witnessed fish gasping for breath in a couple of inches of dirty water in some shops, merchants ripping the shells off live turtles, butchers chopping live fish in half, and frogs and turtles piled in bins without food or water, Avanzino said.

His group is preparing a videotape that it shot surreptitiously in live animal food shops and intends to show it to animal welfare commissioners at a public hearing in September.

Some Chinese activists acknowledge that conditions in some shops are less than perfect. But they resent the attempt to ban or tightly restrict the sale of live animals. And many merchants insist that they take good care of the animals and meet all state regulations.

"My animals get food, they get water. We clean their cages twice a day," said Astella Kung, owner of Ming Kee Game Birds.

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