Interview with Dr. Peter Li: When animal protection meets social reality

Author: Zilin Zhang; Translator: Andrea; @Animal Dialogue

First published on Animal Dialogue, 2018/06/22

During my studies in the United States, whenever professors or instructors in the field of animal rights heard that I was from China and interested in promoting animal legislation, they would mention a name to me: Dr. Peter Li, a professor at the University of Houston.

Since 2007, Dr. Peter Li had worked as the Chinese Policy Advisor for the Humane Society International for more than a decade. “At that time, in the entire United States, there was not another person who was fluent in both Chinese and English, researching animal-related policies, and well-informed about Mainland China.”

Dr. Peter Li interviewed by CNN (left)

On May 21, 2018, we met at a Cantonese teahouse in Houston. My first question after sitting down was: “Professor, are you Chinese?”

“What do you think?”

“…I don’t think you are.”

“Why don’t you think I am Chinese? Is it because my Mandarin is bad?”

“Yeah. Maybe it’s because you haven’t spoken it for too long. Where are you from?”

“Guess. Many people think that I am from Guangdong. Others think that I am from Xinjiang.”

“…Jiangsu? Jiangsu or Zhejiang?”

“I am from Jiangxi.”

“Could I take the liberty to ask what is your Chinese name?”

“Li Jianqiang. Now (after entering the US) that is no longer my legal name.”

Dr. Li’s deep facial features and imperfect Mandarin would often make people mistake him for a foreign-born Chinese. His appearance was even more deceptive: although he is over 50 years old, he seems to be in his early 30s. On the day of the meeting, he wore an orange shirt and light gray shorts, an outfit that matched the summer of Houston.

The second from the left is Dr. Peter Li.

I am particularly surprised that Dr. Li is not a vegetarian. After spending two years in the United States, I started to believe that people who care about animal welfare would be vegetarian or vegan by default, especially those who work in an animal protection organization. Dr. Li said that he does not eat red meat such as pork, beef or lamb, but he consumes chickens and fish not only because of animal welfare issues but also because of food safety considerations. Dr. Li stressed that the Humane Society is an animal welfare organization, unlike PETA, which is an animal rights organization. Each has a different position. Animal rights organizations believe that animals cannot be used by humans. Animal welfare organizations think that humans can use animal products under the premise of ensuring proper animal welfare.”

After graduating from the Diplomatic Academy in 1987, Dr. Li came to the United States to study at the Syracuse University in International Affairs. When Dr. Li first arrived in the United States, he once participated in a school-organized visit to American farms with a few other students. An activity at the farm was apple picking in the orchard. The owner told them to leave five or six apples in the tree. At that time, everyone was puzzled. “Isn’t that a waste?” The owner of the orchard replied, “No, they won’t be wasted. Winter is coming, I want to keep these apples for the birds when winter comes.” This experience had a deep impact on Dr. Li at that time in that it brought him a less self-centered perspective to think about the relationship between humans and animals.

“There were dozens of Chinese students visiting the farm at that time. Why was I the only one who eventually became an animal protectionist? I was truly shocked at the time, and my reaction was very much influenced by my family education. My mother was a remarkably kind person. I was very naughty as a child. I grabbed baby birds from birds’ nests just like other boys. My mother told me that if you took the baby away, someone will be sad. I didn’t understand, “Who would be sad?” I asked. “The mother bird. If you were abducted someday, I would be just like the mother bird of the baby bird you took.” Heeding my mother’s advice, I hastily put the little bird back. Another example would be how my mother treated the beggars. My neighbours would shoo the beggars away if they came asking for food, and they would even splash water on the beggars. On the contrary, my mother would always give them some food and change to the people who wanted to eat. Upon seeing toads on the country road, other parents would ask the children to trample the toads to death, but my mother always asked me not step on them. Her reasoning was: maybe that toad we saw was a mother, and its children would be sad to see the mother trampled to her death.”

What truly prompted Dr. Li to finally embark on the path of animal protectionism was the news about the live harvesting of bear gallbladders in China in 1998. He had been working in a large company for several years while writing a doctoral thesis. “(Seeing the news) I decided that I would go back to the university to study animal protection policies.” To this day, Dr. Li still teaches international politics at the University of Houston-Downtown while conducting public policy research on animal protection.

Perhaps because of his background in policy, Dr. Li gave the impression of being pragmatic and practical. “Policy research requires balancing the interests of all stakeholders. Take the example of Yulin dog meat festival, who are the dog vendors? They are people of relatively low social class with minimal education. If we do not let them sell dog meat, they will start a riot, and the government has no way of providing them with alternative careers. What should we do? It is difficult to say, but the industry would eventually decline, because the younger generation is greatly opposed to the dog meat trade, and even the vendors’ own children would not inherit their business. As the social consensus ethics around this issue improves in China, there would be no future for this industry. The government is hoping that the industry will naturally fade away so they can keep the cost at a minimum.”

“Kobe” is one of the two dogs that Dr. Li rescued from Yulin in 2014.

While we were on the sensitive topic of dog meat, I could not help but asked a long-awaited question. “Do you think there is any difference between the moral status of dogs, pigs, and sheep? Why should you oppose eating dog meat instead of pork, beef and mutton?”

He considered this for a second or two and quickly replied, “The moral status of the dog is the same as that of farm animals, but it was not the pigs and the sheep that entered the family homes of millions of people. I am not saying that farm animals are devoid of feelings, of course, they do, but the fact is that the Chinese stopped eating dog meat since the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The ancient Chinese had already discovered that dogs are much more valuable to people than just a dish.”

Dr. Peter Li and Kobe

Dr. Li had the same view of wildlife. “Wild animals have the same moral status as farm animals, and the only difference is that pigs, cattle and sheep have been used as food for a long time. Although the existence of vegetarian substitutes has made them less of a necessity, meats have been deeply ingrained in the Chinese social and food culture since the very beginning.” He said: “It is, of course, great that you are willing to give up meat, but I will not demand others to be vegetarian as well. However, I will oppose eating wild animals. Because eating wild animals is a retrogression in our food culture.”

Dr. Li’s pragmatic nature can also be shown in another example he gave.

“The zoo is feeding live bait to the captive animals, why should we stop this?” Asked Dr. Li.

I thought about it and answered, “Because it is not natural. It is totally different from the predation in nature. It is meaningless for the predator because it did not undergo the process of ‘chasing’. There is another perspective, though I am reluctant to consider it from this angle – seeing predator eat live bait may affect the mental health of tourists, especially the children.”

“You are right. It is not fair to the prey animal as well. They have no chance to escape. However, the second perspective you brought up is precisely an important aspect. Why are you not willing to consider it from this angle? Animal-centered considerations are not enough to convince most people.”

In the course of his policy research, Dr. Li conducted surveys via partners in China, personally talked with dog vendors when returning to China, and even entered factory (intensive) farm on some visits. I asked if it was useful to advise the Chinese Bureau of Agriculture to improve the welfare of farm animals. He almost did not hesitate to say, “It’s useless. They think (intensive farms) are great and efficient. People want productivity. It does not matter if the food is not safe, but if the meat supply does not meet the demand, the general public will become angry.”

In May of this year, Dr. Li attended the Global Animal Law Conference in Hong Kong. According to his point of view, it is indefensible to treat animals cruelly in the name of tradition and culture. Since ancient China, there had been examples of pardoning animals, releasing animals, and vegetarianism. The obstacles to China’s animal legislation today are mainly the political system and economic development policies (such as the contradiction between improving animal welfare and maintaining production efficiency). I asked where we should start now. For example, could we rely on the existing wildlife protection law, which is also the only animal legislation in China? Dr. Li shook his head. “The newly revised wildlife protection law already has a section against animal cruelty, but the scope is very narrow. We need a general anti-cruelty legislation (an all-encompassing, clearly-outlined anti-cruelty law) that can cover all animals. However, there will definitely a very strong resistance, especially against implementing regulations for (farm animals’) breeding standards because it certainly violates the interests of many stakeholders. We can learn from the United States and exclude farm animals at first.”

When I heard this statement, I was shocked and subconsciously opposed it. But even if I did not agree, I had to admit that in the process of promoting legislation, “inconsistency” and “unsynchronization” almost always exist. Just as Dr. Li said, “Animal rightists want to fight for the rights of all animals overnight, but it is impossible. Take the example of the fight for human rights, it was also a step-by-step process. In the United States, the law first started to include African Americans, then incorporated women’s rights. First, advance to the inside, and then give the rights to the ones outside.”

Concerned about the difficulty of promoting legislation, he added, “Don’t just wait for the anti-cruelty animal law. At the meeting (the Global Animal Law Conference mentioned earlier), one of the things we discussed was how to strategically make good use of existing legislation before the animal protection law is introduced. The laws we could utilize to punish animal abusers include public safety in public security regulations, youth protection laws, food safety regulations, etc..”

Dr. Li’s emphasis on “respect” and “civilization” was another important impression he left on me during our conversation.

He asked: “Some people are particularly uncomfortable with dog owners who also receive social security. They believe if people have the money to raise dogs, they should not receive social security. What do you think?”

“I feel that getting psychological comfort should be a right for all. The rich have mental health needs, and so do the poor. The dog provides companionship and spiritual comfort, and they should not be a luxury. The needs of the poor should also include two aspects: physical and mental.”

Two of Dr. Li’s many cats, Coco in the front, and Picaso in the back. Coco was originally a stray cat and was later taken home; Picaso was adopted from a shelter.

“Yes. Moving on, why can’t I feed the bears in the zoo? I went to a zoo in China and saw someone eating apples while throwing bits of apples to the bears. This action is very common in Chinese zoos. When I tried to stop him, he said to me aggressively, “If people can eat this, why can’t animals?” I told him,
“Of course, the bears can eat apples, but the apple spit out from your mouth has a big problem. Don’t you think there may be germs in our saliva? Don’t you think we might pass some tooth disease to the bear?'”

“Well… I’m also worried that if the tourists are allowed to feed the animals, some malicious people will poison the food. And also feeding captive animals is a sign of disrespect to the animals?”

“Correct. I have observed that many animal exhibition areas in the Chinese zoo use a pit-like design, with people on the top and animals at the bottom. This creates an environment that enhances people’s arrogance. When you look up at an object, you feel a sense of admiration. When you look down on an object, you will inadvertently show contempt, disrespect, scorn and even more negative emotions. If the zoo environment is dirty, it will encourage visitors to throw away their decency. If you walk into the Great Hall of the People in China, you naturally restrain your words and actions. In conclusion, people’s behaviors are influenced by the environment. This tells us that to prevent tourists from harassing and harming animals, the zoo must first be decent and raise the captivity conditions and improve the animal welfare.”

When recalling his childhood, Dr. Li suddenly said to me: “It’s actually a good thing you guys, the younger generation, especially those who grew up in the city, rarely see killing of chickens and pigs. “

I was taken aback, “Good thing?”

“Yes. Not seeing the killings would protect one’s compassion from being worn away.”

Is that correct? Deep down, I asked myself: Is the Chinese society, which is about to be taken over by “our younger generation”, truly ready to face the suffering of animals and be the voice for animals?

*All photos are provided by Dr. Peter Li.

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