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Traditional Rites With Animal Cruelty Spark New Debate Around The World

Many longstanding traditions in countries around the world are based on animal suffering. Is it time to bring them to an end?

Bullfighting in Spain.

Bullfighting during the festivities of San Fermün 2023, Pamplona, Navarra, Spain.

Yannick Champion-Osselin

As heat settles in, so does the height of grindadráp. Between Iceland and Norway, the Faroe Islands practice whaling in drive hunts known as the grindadráp, or “grind." For years, activists have called for an end to this practice, which has been called a “cruel and outdated tradition."

The Faroese government has said that this form of traditional hunting still makes “economic and environmental good sense”. They defend its sustainability – maintaining they hunt only the abundant pilot whale – while activists call it an uncontrolled, irresponsible practice that violates animal welfare standards. Since the grindadráp resumed in May, more than 500 dolphins have been killed.

Animal rights activists have called for the Faroes to be excluded from the International Island Games to put pressure on the Faroese government and bring attention to their cause. They have also set up a petition to end the grind. In June, the parliament of fellow island nation Jersey voted to condemn the practice.

Meanwhile, Iceland has suspended this year's summer whaling over animal welfare concerns, arguing the methods employed are no longer acceptable. Experts believe this may end Iceland’s controversial fin hunting altogether.

This tension between compassion for animals and respect for tradition is present all over the world. Debates around ritual slaughter question how to reconcile humane slaughter with deep religious practices around meat preparation.

In the EU, it is a particular sore point between animal rights activists and religious leaders. In some religions, for meat to be considered edible, it has to be killed ritualistically. To make meat Halal or Kosher, a restrained animal is killed with a single knife cut so that it bleeds to death.

The EU’s Court of Justice confirmed in 2020 that member states can ban ritual slaughter. To promote animal welfare, some countries forbid the killing of animals without prior non-lethal stunning. The European Muslim community remained mostly unaffected, as Halal practice allows for stunning the animal first. However, some Jewish representatives have condemned the EU law as, for Orthodox Jews, Kosher slaughter doesn't allow stunning.

Elephant hunters in front of a dead elephant.

Elephant hunters photographed in front of a dead elephant, Mandau, Riau, Indonesia.

Sijori Images/ZUMA

Killing endangered animals

Meanwhile, in traditional medicine, some endangered animals are used and killed for human consumption, which can hasten the decline of many of those species. Hunters go after endangered animals like rhino, banteng and water buffalo for their prized horns, alligator and the endangered Grevy’s zebra for their meat, and use most parts of pangolins, elephants and tigers. These animals are all believed to have healing properties, many of which have been scientifically disproved.

However, one product used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) has been proved to have some medicinal properties. Bear bile has been used in TCM for centuries, but modern production often leads to the mistreatment of bears in captivity. Endangered Sun bears and Asian black bears are captured or captive-bred so that bile can be extracted from their gallbladders. They tend to be kept in too-small cages and are often fitted with a permanent catheter to drain the fluid, causing pain and long-term health issues.

In France, bullfighting is allowed where there is an "unbroken local tradition."

The bile contains an acid that has anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial properties, and can help to protect the liver. Cruelty-free alternatives to bear bile exist, as the main ingredient, ursodeoxycholic acid, can be chemically synthesized, meaning that banning the practice would have no medical consequences for humans. In fact, Vietnam outlawed bear bile farming in 2005, but the extraction and demand for the ingredient still continues across the region.

There is some movement among TCM practitioners to switch to plant-based alternatives. A survey by World Animal Protection found that 35% of traditional medicine users used traditional medicine that contained animal parts, but that many were willing to use cruelty-free substitutes. In China, more than 50% are open to plant-based alternatives, which are also often cheaper.

Bullfighter in front of a bull lying on the floor.

Peruvian bullfighter Andres Roca Rey during the fifth bullfight at the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, northern Spain.

Ruben Albarran/ZUMA

Blood sports

Another point of contention are blood sports which involve the hunting, wounding or killing of animals for entertainment, maintained as a cultural tradition.

In France, Iberia and Latin America, there is fierce debate around bullfighting. As Colombia looks ready to ban the practice nationally, activists still regularly disrupt events in Spain. The traditional blood sport still takes place in eight countries, five of which are in Latin America: Mexico, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela and Peru. Brought over by Europeans 500 years ago, bullfights continue in Latin America, but this perceived cultural heritage is being put into question over animal welfare concerns.

Defenders of the sport say that abolishing bullfighting is an attack on the culture, entertainment and livelihoods of those who participate. Meanwhile, Viviana Morales Naranjo, a professor at the Universidad de Las Américas in Ecuador, writes that “Bullfighting represents a manifestation of Spanish ideological colonization since it caused the collective consciousness to normalize a practice based on cruelty towards the sentient beings.” She argues that bullfighting is unethical, as bulls are sentient beings that have a right to be treated fairly and without pain.

Yet in Europe it is still protected under national heritage laws. In France, bullfighting is allowed where there is an "unbroken local tradition," and it remains legal throughout the majority of Spain as an "indisputable" part of Spain's cultural heritage.

In other countries, the sport is only partially banned. Regional bans exist in Mexico, its capital home to the world's biggest bullring with a capacity of 48,000. In 2022, Mexico City officially banned the blood sport, stopping shows – in which an animal was injured, tortured and finally killed – for good.

In 2011, Ecuador banned lethal bullfighting as a part of a referendum that also outlawed cockfighting and casino gambling. Colombia is close to following their example, with the country’s Senate having approved a nationwide ban in Dec. 2022. If it is passed by the House of Representatives, in three years time bullfights will be completely banned. The practice would be adjusted immediately so that the animals aren’t killed or wounded in arenas as the country phases out the blood sport entirely.

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The Unsustainable Future Of Fish Farming — On Vivid Display In Turkish Waters

Currently, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming, compared to just 10% two decades ago. The short-sightedness of this shift risks eliminating fishing output from both the farms and the open seas along Turkey's 5,200 miles of coastline.

Photograph of two fishermen throwing a net into the Tigris river in Turkey.

Traditional fishermen on the Tigris river, Turkey.

Dûrzan Cîrano/Wikimeidia
İrfan Donat

ISTANBUL — Turkey's annual fish production includes 515,000 tons from cultivation and 335,000 tons came from fishing in open waters. In other words, 60% of Turkey's fish currently comes from cultivation, also known as fish farming.

It's a radical shift from just 20 years ago when some 600,000 tons, or 90% of the total output, came from fishing. Now, researchers are warning the current system dominated by fish farming is ultimately unsustainable in the country with 8,333 kilometers (5,177 miles) long.

Professor Mustafa Sarı from the Maritime Studies Faculty of Bandırma 17 Eylül University believes urgent action is needed: “Why were we getting 600,000 tons of fish from the seas in the 2000’s and only 300,000 now? Where did the other 300,000 tons of fish go?”

Professor Sarı is challenging the argument from certain sectors of the industry that cultivation is the more sustainable approach. “Now we are feeding the fish that we cultivate at the farms with the fish that we catch from nature," he explained. "The fish types that we cultivate at the farms are sea bass, sea bram, trout and salmon, which are fed with artificial feed produced at fish-feed factories. All of these fish-feeds must have a significant amount of fish flour and fish oil in them.”

That fish flour and fish oil inevitably must come from the sea. "We have to get them from natural sources. We need to catch 5.7 kilogram of fish from the seas in order to cultivate a sea bream of 1 kg," Sarı said. "Therefore, we are feeding the fish to the fish. We cannot cultivate fish at the farms if the fish in nature becomes extinct. The natural fish need to be protected. The consequences would be severe if the current policy is continued.”

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