CATS - FRIEND OR FOOD (1) WHAT THE WEST SEES, WHAT THE WEST IGNORES
Copyright 1999-2013, Sarah Hartwell

Everyone must eat in order to live. Most of us think that what we eat, and the way they eat it, is the normal or correct pattern. Therefore anyone who eats different things is considered odd. Until relatively recently, human societies were localised and had their own localised eating habits. In the 20th and 21st centuries, globalization has led to culinary conflicts as one culture's delicacy is another culture's taboo. To some the cat is a legitimate food source. Others find the concept of cat-eating abhorrent. Is it right for cat-loving countries to impose their cultural values on cat-eating societies?

WHAT THE WEST IS SHOWN

Some years ago, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation show "Witness" explored the exploitation of animals and the great love of pets, especially in western countries. The show documented the worst and the best that people mete out to animals. Many Canadians and Americans were most horrified at the segments showing how cats and dogs, companion animals in the west, were raised for slaughter and food in certain South East Asian countries.

Previously a British TV programme had shown the preparation of cat at restaurants in part of China. The diner selected a cat and observed its preparation. The conscious cat was thrown into boiling water then dumped in a pail of cold water. This made skinning easier. Some "boiled" cats were alive and moving feebly when dumped in cold water. Some were still moving during skinning and would ultimately have bled to death, perhaps during evisceration. The Chinese place great emphasis on freshness of food hence the live skinning of food animals. I spoke to a Chinese colleague who said that the word for "animal" in his native tongue translates as "moving thing" - animals are considered no more sentient than vegetables.

An image from campaign leaflets shows kittens being sold in a Cantonese market.

Cat forms a part of Cantonese cuisine, but the fact that these are longhaired kittens suggests they are on sale as pets. Where cats are kept as pets, longhairs are preferred. Where they are sold for meat, a plump adult cat offers better eating than a small kitten.

 

Even earlier IFAW, WSPA and others had distributed leaflets depicting the barbaric slaughter of cats and dogs for the Korea and Philippine pet-flesh trade. Images showed dozens of cats and kittens stuffed into a single wire mesh cage, a cat tethered beneath a boiling cauldron into which it was to be thrown alive, the soaking body of the previous victim dumped on the ground and rows of boiled cats ready for the next stages of preparation. A veterinarian observing the boiling of cats claims that they remain conscious and struggle for some seconds and that he could hear them trying to claw their way out of the metal cauldron of boiling water for up to 10 seconds.

A woman's magazine in Britain printed images of Korean housewives "shopping" - a terrified cat being dragged from its mesh cage by string around its neck while the woman struck its head repeatedly with a household hammer. Another photo showed the purchaser carrying a plastic grocery bag containing one or more dead or dying cats. Accompanying text suggested that the cats were bought and sold just like cabbages with no regard for the fact that they were living, breathing, conscious animals capable of feeling terror and pain.

The overall message was clear - killing cats and dogs for food is wrong. Cats and dogs are family members. Cats and dogs are companion animals. South East Asian countries who eat cats and dogs are barbaric, primitive, uncultured etc. In 2001, WSPA's magazine carried and article on the dog-meat trade in China telling readers that those countries must be educated that eating cat and dog is unacceptable and that those animals are companion animals not foodstuffs. While the pictures are distressing to Westerners, the message is skewed. It appears to be an attempt to impose Western cultural values on foreign cultures. What is undoubtedly wrong is the level of cruelty. Instead of re-educating certain countries about what can and cannot form part of their diet, it would be better to make the farming/slaughter process a humane one.

In 2010 China appeared ready to end the centuries-old custom of offering cat and dog on the menu. State media announced that a draft law was expected to go to the National People's Congress (Chinese parliament) in April 2010. Anyone caught eating cat or dog meat would face a fine of as much as 5,000 yuan (£450) and up to 15 days in jail. Organisations involved in selling cats or dogs for consumption, or their meat, could be fined between 10,000 and 500,000 yuan. How effective this is remains to be seen, since dog meat is technically "off the menu" in other countries yet is openly transported and eaten.

WHAT THE WEST IGNORES

Western viewers commented on how the Asians depicted in the programme treated animals the same way as they treat vegetables - trussed, crated, roughly handled etc. Many Western countries raise farm animals such as chickens, pigs and veal calves in sunless factory farm conditions, transporting them in crowded trucks with insufficient water to a distant slaughterhouse. "Efficient" Western factory farming gives us battery chickens, broiler-house turkeys, lactating sows immobilised in crush cages, calves in veal crates, cattle with insufficient room for exercise on concrete beef lots etc.

In Europe, animals might be transported across several countries in baking heat without being fed, watered or rested. Slaughter methods range from humane on family run organic farms in England through to unacceptable such as killing sheep by stabbing it through the eye with a long screwdriver (reported in Italy) and skinning live sheep and goats (reported by an ex-patriot Briton in rural Spain) or the simple failure to pre-stun an animal before it is bled.

Our treatment of cattle appals Hindus. How would Western cultures feel if Indian Hindus began huge public campaigns to re-educate us that it was unacceptable to eat cows as we offend whose who consider cows sacred? Americans in particular would feel it an infringement of their divine right to eat burgers and hotdogs! Yet this is exactly what Western countries are doing by re-educating other cultures that it is wrong to eat cats and dogs. While Western countries might (if economically viable) be willing to improve farming standards in order to cause less offence, they would not be willing to forgo their burgers or their steaks. Likewise, the pet-flesh trade needs to be made humane, but attempts to completely eradicate the eating of cat and dog could be interpreted "Western Imperialism".

The British have long been appalled that anyone could eat equine. Eating horses and ponies is taboo in British culture and causes friction with its nearest European neighbour, France. The fact that surplus wild ponies are rounded up and shipped (in often appalling conditions) to continental Europe for consumption remains a convenient blind spot. Many British cat owners cannot believe that some American cat foods contain horsemeat. The concept is anathema to most Britons yet during the Second World War when meat was rationed, many families unknowingly ate horsemeat believing it to be beef.

An anonymous writer in the magazine "All the Year Round" (edited by Charles Dickens) in 1861 wrote of human cultural food prejudices : "The Christian pities the Jew and the Mussulman [Muslim], because they hold pork in abhorrence, and yet the Christian repulses the notion of touching horse-flesh. The Hindoo has an equal horror of beef. Mutton is by no means a cosmopolitan dish. ... The Russians still abstain from pigeon ... the Italians hold the rabbit in aversion. ... The French eat on a small scale frogs, and on a large scale snails ... which would be rejected by the English labourer, even if starving." (the writer admitted that some intrepid Frenchmen ate horse-flesh)

Historically cats have been eaten in the West. Tales of cat-eating are nothing new and can be found in Charles Dickens’ "The Pickwick Papers" (1836/7) where Sam Weller tells Mr. Pickwick that he’s heard about pies made from kittens being sold on the London streets as ordinary meat pies. In 1885 an English newspaper reported the story of a woman convicted of trapping and butchering cats and selling them to people as rabbit meat.

Le Monde Illustre, April 1871. During the Siege of Paris (Franco-Prussian War) market stalls did a thriving business in cat, dog and rat meat.

During the siege, with no food to spare, even the animals would have been starving.

This recipe for "Roast Cat as It Should Be Prepared" is from Ruperto de Nola, Libro de Cozina, 1529: Take a cat that should be plump: and cut its throat, and once it is dead cut off its head, and throw it away for this is not to be eaten; for it is said that he who eats the brains will lose his own sense and judgement. Then skin it very cleanly, and open it and clean it well; and then wrap it in a clean linen cloth and bury it in the earth where it should remain for a day and a night; then take it out and put it on a spit; and roast it over the fire, and when beginning to roast, baste it with good garlic and oil, and when you are finished basting it, beat it well with a green branch; and this should be done until it is well roasted, basting and beating; and when it is roasted carve it as if it were rabbit or kid and put it on a large plate; and take the garlic with oil mixed with good broth so that it is coarse, and pour it over the cat and you can eat it for it is a good dish.

In England in the Middle Ages, it was considered lucky to roast a cat alive on a spit before a slow fire prior to eating the first meal in a new house. Whether the cat formed part of the meal was uncertain as cat-torture was rife at the time. However, the cat was also used in medicine. An old recipe "for hym that haves the squyhansy [quinsy" begins "tak a fatte katte, flae hot wele and clene." The cat is then stuffed with hedgehog fat, resin, fenugreek, wax and other ingredients before being roast. After roasting, it's not the flesh that is consumed, but the grease that is used to anoint the patient. While not eating a cat, it certainly demonstrates a willingness to roast one.

During Britain's Industrial Revolution (late 18th to early 19th century), the Livestock Journal and Fancier's Gazette published and article called "Eating Cats in West Bromwich" (a West Midlands town close to Birmingham). Cat has also been eaten in Britain. During wartime rationing, cats found their way into "rabbit" stews/pies and hence earned themselves the nickname "roof-rabbit". With so many city strays and pets abandoned by bombed out families, cats were a substitute for rabbit. A former colleague whose father was in the butchery trade during that time told me that butchers sometimes kept cats as ratters; the cat later ended up being sold as "rabbit". The rationale was simple - a surplus of homeless cats living off of vermin, plus the fact that the supply of wild rabbit from the countryside had been suspended. The following rhyme summed up the keeping of cats in peace-time and the eating of them in times of hardship.

Oh kittens, in our hours of ease
Uncertain toys and full of fleas,
When pain and anguish hang o’er men,
We turn you into sausage then.

Today, pet cats in the UK are apparently stolen to satisfy the continental fur trade; the skinned carcasses have sometimes offered to butchers as "wild rabbit". A former colleague who controlled rabbits on local farms supplied wild rabbit to a local butcher. In 1993, the butcher asked him to leave the head and feet on the carcass because he had been offered skinned cat by other shooters and wanted to be sure of the true identity of the meat. Once the paws, head and tail are removed, the only way to distinguish cat from rabbit or hare is by looking at the processus hamatus of the scapula. In the cat, this should have a processus suprahamatus.

The Spanish expression "pasar gato por liebre" (to pass off a cat as a hare) and the Portuguese expression "Comprar gato por lebre" (to buy a cat as a hare) are derived from this practice and mean "to pull the wool over someone's eyes". These expressions derive from the practice of hunters trying to sell skinned cats as hares. When butchered, the animals are supposed to look almost identical. In "Our Cats" may 1950, correspondent Mrs Lois Hutton of Saint-Paul, Alpes, Maritime, France wrote of French "chasseurs" (hunters) attitudes to cats: "It is a common 'joke' to serve cat for rabbit to one's friends and afterwards display the head and tail."

Food historians said that Italians in cities such as Vicenza devised cat recipes in times of economic hardship. Inhabitants of Vicenza are still nicknamed magnagati (cat eaters), and in some butchers' shops rabbits are sold with their heads to assure buyers that they are not cats. In the 1930s and 1940s when wartime food shortages in Tuscany, Italy put cat on the menu. The meat was tenderised by leaving it under running water e.g. a stream for three days resulting in pale and tender meat used in stews. This has also been claimed to be a long-held tradition in Valdarno, a town near Florence, although eating cat is now illegal throughout Italy.

In one region of Europe, the traditional Christmas meal is not a turkey or a beef joint, but a cat specially fattened for the occasion. It is served stuffed and roasted. A cat rescue shelter in a French town became aware that a local man who adopted kittens from them was rearing those kittens for food, killing and eating them at six months of age. He considered them a delicacy.

As well as feeding cats to humans, Diego Rivera wrote in his memoirs "My Art, My Life: An Autobiography" of a Parisian fur dealer who fed cat flesh to his cats to make their pelts firmer and glossier.

While Western activists attempt to eradicate pet-eating, they fail to realise that the animals eaten are not "pets" but livestock. Having pets is a luxury. It is also conveniently forgotten that Western farming and slaughter methods are frequently inhumane in order to achieve high turnover. Some of the animals routinely eaten in Western cultures are considered taboo or sacred elsewhere, making Europeans and Americans appear barbaric by somebody else's standards.

"It is inappropriate for someone to denounce another country's food just because it differs from his or hers," said Korean consular staffer Sok-Bae Lee in a December 1996 interview with Ciaran Ganley of the Toronto Sun. "Eating is a result of longstanding cultural practices, not an issue of morality. In Korea, there are dogs who are bred to be pets and there are certain kinds of dogs who are bred to be used as food."

Westerners equate eating cats and dogs to cannibalism (particularly to cannibalism of children) because we are raised to think of them as family members and are attached to them as such, yet millions of unwanted cats and dogs in Western countries are either euthanized in shelters or abandoned on the streets. Is this somehow a better fate than being eaten?

Postscript

Having been told that my refusal to condemn Asians (an inaccurate blanket term) outright for of eating cats and dogs (as opposed to condemning the avoidable cruelty) makes me a disgrace to "whites", those critics (who are primarily racist rather than being entirely concerned with animal-welfare) should consider the following acts of cruelty from "white" culture:-

2. Racial Slurs and Stereotypes
3. Where and Why Cats are Eaten
4. Recent Cases
5. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Cat Eaters

MESSYBEAST : GENERAL INTEREST

 

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