Common markets. Exploring the ethics and idiosyncrasies of live animal markets, near and far, old and new

A friend of mine recently came across a live owl for sale in a market in Bali, South East Asia. The nocturnal bird was scrunched up in tiny cage, left out in the brutal heat and unforgiving sunlight of the day. Incensed at seeing such a magnificent creature being kept in the most miserable circumstances, my friend couldn’t help herself. She bought the owl for $25 and, later that night, took a motorbike transport to a treed hilltop and set it free.

I saw a comment about this on Facebook and, like lots of other people, applauded her act of humanity and kindness. But then I thought about it a bit more. I know she acted with the very best intentions, but did she actually do the right thing? What if the vendor simply goes out and catches another wild owl (or, indeed, recaptures the original one), to earn more cash from the next compassionate traveller passing through, perpetuating the cycle of misery for the animals?

Not many of us have bought a bird of prey from street market, I’m sure, but morally troubling dilemmas do crop up when you’re travelling around the globe, exploring new places, experiencing other cultures and sampling exotic cuisines.

Goldfish market Mong Kok Kowloon in Hong Kong
Goldfish market Mong Kok Kowloon in Hong Kong

Travel, as the old adage insists, broadens the mind. This is true, of course, but some aspects of it can also bruise your brain, no matter how open-minded you think you are, especially if you blunder into a scene where perceived cruelty of one sort or another is taking place.

Plenty of people find themselves inadvertently witnessing the ill-treatment of animals while abroad—in zoos, sporting arenas, circuses and bazaars—which can cause great distress and leave disturbing mental images that are hard to erase.

Many are avoidable. If you go to a bullfight, you know what you’re in for (and effectively endorsing), and in the age of social media and Trip Advisor, it’s not hard to figure out that some wildlife-based tourist experiences are not in the interests of the animals involved. Love Nature’s news pages are full of examples. You make your choices, pay (or withhold) your money and influence the existence of such places.

Some of the most confronting scenes jump at you out of the blue, however, with no question of complicity on your part. In the curious corners of far-flung country markets you often see animals kept in the most awful conditions, or encounter rare species being offered for sale, dead or alive—sometimes already hacked to bits. These are usually circumstances that are beyond your control. But how should you react?

Asia is infamously confronting in this respect. The live animal markets in Guangdong province, southeast China, are renowned for the menagerie of apparently edible or curative species on offer, from fish and fowls through to insects, snakes and reptiles—via just about everything else that would flap, walk, squawk, wriggle or run away as fast as it could given half a chance.

Live turtles for sale in Guangdong
Live turtles for sale in Guangdong

But you can find disturbing examples of apparent animal maltreatment in and around marketplaces all around the world, whether the species involved are destined for the dinner plate or intended to be sold as pets or curiosities.

In some ways, our visceral reaction to some such scenes should be measured. It’s important to consider the living standards of the local human population before you jump in and start making judgments about how livestock is being treated, particularly when drawing comparisons to conditions back in the comfort of the wealthy West.

This isn’t always easy, of course. I’ve sat on buses in Bolivia with sheep and goat urine running through the ceiling like yellow rain, because live animals have had their legs tied together and been slung up on the roof with all the rest of the baggage being taken to market. And then, while their bleats beat a frenzied rhythm on my conscience, I’ve looked around and realised my fellow passengers have other things to worry about, like day-to-day survival and scraping enough food together to ensure their children’s bellies aren’t entirely empty.

It’s also worth considering a couple of other things. Firstly, even the most urbane centres in the West were typically built around livestock markets where animals were, and in some cases still are, treated like dead meat while they’re still walking. In the United States, many metropolises are still home to perfectly legal live animal markets, where customers buy breathing beasts and fresh blood gets spilt on the floor in the butchers’ killing rooms.

Susan Trock, from the State Department of Agriculture and Markets, recently told the New York Times that she believes NYC has the highest concentration of live animal markets in the country, catering for a range of customers with all kinds of cultural requirements.

And even in Britain, which was the first country on the planet to implement laws protecting animals—ranging right back to 1822, when an Act to Prevent the Cruel and Improper Treatment of Cattle was passed by Parliament—you don’t have to travel too far back in time to discover livestock and pets being bought and sold in the most colourful and confronting conditions.

Found in the East End of London, Club Row Market in Shoreditch, just north of Bethnal Green Road, was the British capital’s only live animal market in living memory. As recorded in the East End Review, it enjoyed a long history, selling everything from dogs, cats and gerbils through to snakes, monkeys and even lion cubs to the public.

Historic scenes from Club Row Market in East London
Historic scenes from Club Row Market in East London, where a lion cub meets a whippet in 1977 (above, photo by Marketa Luskacova, sourced via Pintrest) and puppies are sold from children’s cots in the 1920s (below).

Selling puppies in the 1920s at Club Row market

The market was born many centuries ago, as a place where farmers could buy and sell animals outside the city walls, but it evolved into something a bit more exotic when the Huguenots arrived in the area after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. These Protestant silk-weavers from France and the Low Countries settled in Spitalfields, and they quickly introduced Cockneys to their custom of keeping canaries and various songbirds.

A cacophonous bird market came to dominate the street. The journalist and author George R Sims wrote that, ‘On Sunday nothing but bird-cages are to be seen from roofs to pavement in almost every house.’

They even took over the local pub, the Knave of Clubs. This is now a posh restaurant, but it must have once resembled a scene from Diagon Alley in the Harry Potter stories, if the description offered on the Spitalfields Life blog by one local, Derek Brown, is to be believed: ‘It was an extraordinary sight,’ he says. ‘This marvellous old pub full of stacked up cages of exotic screeching birds.’

By Derek’s day the market was selling much more than just birds, with breeders and individuals flogging all kinds of creatures to an entranced public. It was still doing a very lively trade in the mid 20th Century, as the writer Kaye Webb evocatively explains in her 1953 book Looking at London and People Worth Meeting:

‘A cacophony of whimpers, yaps, yelps and just plain barking will guide you to the spot where Bethnal Green Rd branches off to Sclater St. There you may find them – the unclaimed pets of a hundred homes: new-born litters of puppies tumbling over each other in children’s cots (the most popular form of window display); “mixed bags” of less lively youngsters huddling docilely together in laundry baskets; lively-looking sheepdogs, greyhounds and bulldogs straining at the ends of leashes and furry little faces peering incongruously from the jackets of hawkers, who often look as if they’d be happier in the boxing ring.’

Unsurprisingly, conditions were not strictly controlled and, amid all the rose-tinted recollections, are disturbing stories about boot polish being used to cover up sores on animals and whole litters of puppies being sold for scientific experiments.

Eventually, in 1983, at the urging of the RSPCA, the UK government introduced legislation specifically outlawing the street sale of live animals. This brought to an end centuries of tradition in the East End, but improved the lot of puppies, cattle and caged birds—at least at street level, and in front of the public.

Off course, all kinds of horrors can continue behind closed doors in Britain, as myriad stories about unethical breeders and dodgy pet shops repeatedly reveal. And, despite bans on live animal street markets, it remains perfectly legal for funfairs and the like in England and Wales to give away live fish as prizes—typically goldfish in plastic bags, in the same way that they’re sold in Mong Kok Kowloon market in Hong Kong, to the dismay of animal welfare groups.

And as for the animals that end up on our plate, they might not be getting taken to market on the roof of a bus, but being dealt with out of the eyeshot of the public is not necessarily a positive thing. Out of sight means out of mind, and many modern agricultural practices—including large-scale live export to countries where butchery rules are very different—might make meat-eaters (myself included) think twice about what they buy, if it was happening in front of our faces.

It’s worth remembering that the era of factory farming began in Britain after World War II, vastly increasing the volume of animals being fed up for the abattoir, and removing any semblance of a quality of life before the knife.

Western-style cattle farming is notoriously inefficient and damaging to the environment, greedily sucking up vast amounts of water and perpetuating a situation where grain that could sustain all the starving people in the world is instead fed to animals kept in questionable conditions that spend all day emitting costly carbon-loaded farts.

Ethical eating is an enormous subject—too big to cover here—but suffice to say, the tubs of creepy crawlies that you might find so gut-churning in markets across Asia are actually a much more sustainable choice of snackfood than almost anything you’ll find on a shelf in Tesco’s. Many people believe the harvesting of protein-rich insects, available by the billion-load, is the future when it comes to feeding the ever-growing population on our planet.

Edible insects and arachnids could be the sustainable cuisine of the future
Edible insects and arachnids could be the sustainable cuisine of the future. Yum.

The bushmeat trade, and use of less common species in meals and medicines is, of course, a completely different kettle of endangered fish. Travellers are best advised to avoid contributing to the problem by not experimenting with such exotic tastes, no matter how cool a Facebook post it might make.

These problems are also often being addressed by concerned locals too, with one good example being provided by the Asian Turtle Rehabilitation Centre. Established by Luo Xinmei, this NGO is attempting to save wild animals by changing Chinese tastes, with particular emphasis on Asian turtles, populations of which are being decimated by the live export market.

Likewise, there really is no argument to be made for the unethical sale of animal species as pets and curiosities, or the trade in body parts. And there is now something you can do about the situation if you come across an example of an animal being kept in substandard conditions, or suspect that products have been illegally made using the skin, bone, fur, teeth or shells of at-risk animals.

A smartphone app, designed to combat these practices head on, was released by conservationists last month. The app—Wildlife Witness, which was conceived by Taronga Conservation Society Australia in partnership with Traffic and a number of zoos worldwide—enables people to immediately report examples of suspicious animal products being sold wherever they see them.

Wrens' livers. Chaffinch brains. Jaguars' earlobes. Wolf nipple chips. Get 'em while they're hot. They're lovely. But are they illegal? Report such scenes on the Wildlife Witness app.
Wrens’ livers. Chaffinch brains. Jaguars’ earlobes. Wolf nipple chips. Get ’em while they’re hot. They’re lovely. But are they illegal? Report such scenes on the Wildlife Witness app.

‘If people are travelling, or are on holiday, and they are walking through the markets and they see something—say a baby sun bear that should not be there, or ivory on sale that they suspect is illegal—they can record it with this app and the data goes straight to Traffic,’ Scott Wilson, head of field programmes at Chester Zoo, explains.

‘This will really boost the amount of information that is coming through to them, and this helps them to identify trends in wildlife trade and—more importantly—they can use that data to try to influence the enforcement policies and the really big changes that need to take place.’

So there you go. If you’re heading off travelling, or just visiting your local market, download this app and keep your phone handy. It’s a lot easier—and hopefully a lot more effective—than buying an owl every time you see one in need of liberation.