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This article is from the In-Depth Report China, the Olympics, and the Environment

The Changing Fortunes of Wild and Captive Animals in China [Slide Show]

A tale of the continuing collision between the needs of traditional Chinese medicine and Western sensibilities



David Biello

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BEIJING—The plight of stray cats in Beijing has long drawn the sympathy of Juan "Crystal" Wang. The demure, soft-spoken young woman has spent the past few years placing forlorn felines in good homes.

View a slide show of the animal market

But more recently, she boosted the fortunes of larger cats as well by helping expose the fact that the Xiongsen Bear & Tiger Zoo near the city of Guilin was killing the endangered cats in its "zoo" and serving the meat at its snack bar or dropping the carcasses into vats of wine. (The tiger additive was intended to replicate a now banned traditional Chinese medicine treatment for rheumatism of tiger bone powder in wine; that concoction also is hawked online and in newspaper ads as a cure for all ailments.)

But today Wang is taking me to a pet market, as part of her work for a U.S.-based animal protection group, the International Fund for Animal Welfare—or, as it's translated into Chinese, the "International Animal Love and Care Fund". In general, the Chinese have so far found it difficult to embrace the concept of providing welfare for animals when so many people don't have it, Grace Ge Gabriel, IFAW's regional director for Asia explained to me later.

That doesn't mean they don't love pets. Throughout the city, I saw residents strolling the streets with petite Pekingese dogs. And this animal market—a sprawling rundown building honeycombed with cubicle-size stores and pierced by grungy skylights that filter the strong Beijing light—boasted scores of twittering songbirds, mewling kittens and chirping crickets. A young girl laughed with glee as she walked with her father carrying two songbirds in a large metal cage.

The critters—a profusion of different varieties and sizes from tiny turtle to giant carp—must make do with close quarters. So close, that one good-size turtle—wider than a dinner plate—couldn't turn around in its tank and the rabbits confined in wire pens could not move at all.

But four-legged and finned friends have value beyond mere companionship in China: they are food and fodder for healing balms. The pet market boasted many of the same animals (if slightly smaller in size) as the markets for live food that I have seen. In another example, a fish dealer in a farm produce market in Zhejiang Province tried to sell a 25-pound (11.5-kilogram) turtle that he mistook for a rock before it moved, according to the Shanghai Morning Post. And Beijing has a locally famous restaurant that serves all manner of different animal penises, which are supposedly good for vigor. "The Chinese believe that eating the same part of the animal is good for that part of you," Gabriel explained.

That belief extends to traditional Chinese medicine. When Wang and I visited a Beijing shop, I did not find any tiger bone powder for sale (not even the "tiger" powder containing leopard bones that began to be sold after the Chinese government banned the sale of the striped predator's skeletal remains). I did, however, find deer and seal penis—imported from Canada!—as well as tablets made from essence of kangaroo, sheep placenta extract, and fur seal oil, all of which are thought to be good for the mind and general health.

Although animal ingredients are used, the majority of such traditional treatments rely on bitter herbs and flowers to cure everything from insomnia to high cholesterol, as I found out after submitting to an examination by a trained doctor at the store. Using an electrical penlike device to prod various regions of my right hand, the physician asked me if I felt anything. She ran the device along the heel of my hand, producing a tingling feeling—which apparently meant that I had back trouble.

Poking the middle part of my hand yielded a diagnosis that confirmed what I already knew: I had not been sleeping well and I had sinus problems—perhaps from the bad Beijing air? The doctor selected specific herbs to cure these woes, at which point Wang fortunately helped me beat a hasty retreat.

During the car ride to meet Gabriel, Wang showed me a snapshot of a wee kitten on her cell phone. When she found him, she explained, he was no bigger than the palm of her hand; now he is a big, fat cat living contentedly with his adoptive family. And that former kitten—and others like him that still roam Beijing’s streets at night—may have helped to save its larger and more endangered cousin by inspiring Wang's helpful actions. The tigers in their tiny metal and concrete cages may not be free, but at least they are no longer on the menu or in the wine.

View a slide show of the animal market

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