Clash between cultural heritage and animal welfare

A golden eagle attacks a tethered and muzzled wolf as part of a cultural hunting festival.

OPINION: Last May, the dailypetfwd blog posted a piece about the Salburun Festival in the village of Tyup some 370km from Bishkek near Issyk-Kul lake in Kyrgyzstan. In the climax event of the festival hunters muzzle a wild wolf and tether it to a stake in an open field. Trained eagles dive on the defenceless wolf and eventually kill it.

The festival itself (see documentary footage here) is stage to perpetuate and revitalise the hunting cultural practice in the area. It attracts hunters from all over the country. Much of the event is devoted to demonstrating the prowess of their hunting dogs and eagles, taking pheasants and other prey. Wolves are killed as part of this festival because they are considered a menace in rural Kyrgyzstan, responsible for killing horses, sheep and cows. The event also demonstrates the skill of the trainer and the prowess of the bird.

A bull suffers in the ring in Mexico

To those of us looking from the outside, torturing an animal to death as part of a public festival is highly distasteful. The condemnation of bull fighting is, for instance, becoming increasingly universal, even within Spain and Mexico, in a debate that has been going since the 16th century. In the recent book Intangible Natural Heritage: New Perspectives on Natural Objects, published by Routledge and sponsored by ICOM NATHIST, the concept of intangible natural heritage specifically does not include activities that are contrary to the health and well being of animals.

The faithful prepare to slaughter buffalo as part of the Gadhimai Festival in Nepal

The question, however, remains, of whether cultural practice that involves the ritual killing of animals contravenes some ‘universal’ moral or ethical law. Every five years, about 5 million people participate in the Gadhimai festival, a month-long Hindu festival that is held once every five years at the temple of Bariyarpur in southern Nepal. The event comprises the world’s largest sacrifice of animals, including countless water buffalo, pigs, goats, cows, chicken and pigeons, in honour of Gadhimai, the Hindu goddess of power. It draws many adherents from India, where the practice is banned.

Cock fighting draws huge crowds in Thailand

Nations have the sovereign right to decide their ethical boundaries in legislation. Ethical codes and, in most countries, social mores are matters of personal choice. An activity, such as cock fighting, that that is illegal in many countries still an officially sanctioned sport in Thailand, drawing huge crowds and corporate sponsorship.

There is no simple answer. Despite the existence of an enormous and persuasive body of thought on animal rights, States may choose to adhere to, or ignore, the tenets put forward by philosophers; their citizens may act in accordance with their country’s legislation, whatever it allows them to do. Do we have the right to say an activity is wrong, even when a State does not agree? Arguably, and admitting the risk of paternalism, we do. Discussing, protesting, commenting on one’s beliefs lead to change in practice. Otherwise, there seems little reason to have a moral code in first place.


One thought on “Clash between cultural heritage and animal welfare

  1. What did Gandhi say:

    “The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated” — Mahatma Gandhi

    So what does this behavior say about these countries?

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