Archives for category: Animals

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Before I went to Seoul last week for a visa run, I knew absolutely nothing about the city or Korean culture in general. I really only had one goal for my trip: go to a cat cafe.

I had read a couple of articles about the animal cafe phenomenon in Tokyo, as well as this post about a cat cafe in Oakland, California. Apparently, the idea developed in Taipei and spread to other urban areas across Asia where most people lack the space to keep their own cats (or other pets). The concept seems like heaven on earth: imagine sitting in a cozy cafe, with a purring cat in your lap, a mug of coffee in your hand, and free wifi all around! Okay, it may not seem like heaven to everyone. You have to really, really, like cats.

I had never heard of a cat cafe in China,* so I figured that my trip to Seoul would be my chance to experience the magic. I just had to cross my fingers that I’d be able to find one.

*I’ve since found out that both Beijing and Shanghai have cat cafes! But I didn’t know about them at the time.

Luck was on my side when I passed a sign for a cat cafe almost the moment I arrived in Seoul. I was staying in an awesome guesthouse (non-sponsored shout out to UBT!) in Hongdae, a vibrant, lively neighborhood located near Hongik University. If you ever find yourself in Seoul, Hongdae is the place to go for bars, clubs, public art, cheap accessory shops, and themed cafes of all varieties.

I made a mental note of the cat cafe sign, and decided to come back on my last full afternoon in Seoul. I would be doing a half-day tour of the Demilitarized Zone that morning, and I thought the cat cafe would make a fittingly surreal contrast.

On the appointed day, I bee-lined it back to Hongdae and followed the cat cafe signs…only to find that the cafe was closed, in willful defiance of the business hours printed on the door. I peered through the window where I could see a gray cat perched on a scratching post, just out of reach behind the glass.

Dejected, I used the free wifi from a neighboring hair salon to search for another cat cafe in Hongdae. The first result suggested Tom’s Cat, a cafe near the university gate that was apparently popular with foreigners. Filled with renewed hope, I wandered around and got lost several times before I eventually found the sign for Tom’s Cat—located in a building that was clearly undergoing a massive renovation. Sadly, Tom’s Cat is no more.

About to give up, I decided to look up one more cafe I’d seen online. This one was called Cat’s Attic (although I think this was the Korean name; the English just said “Hello Cat”). For detailed directions and lots of cute kitty pictures, check out this post.

I followed the directions and there it was, the bright yellow sign beckoning me inside like the pearly gates.

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Once inside, I was instructed to take off my shoes and put on some plastic flip-flops, then wash my hands with hand sanitizer. They had a poster on the wall with profiles of all the different cats, but sadly I couldn’t read this because it was all in Korean. I was handed a card with rules for how to interact peacefully and safely with the cats.

From what I have heard, all of this is considered standard procedure at cat cafes around the world.

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As for the actual “cafe” part, this works differently at different establishments. Some cat cafes charge per beverage like an ordinary coffee shop, while others charge by the hour. This particular cat cafe charged a flat cover fee of 8000 KRW (about $8), which included one drink from the menu and unlimited time in the cafe. This might seem steep for an ordinary beverage, but I figured it was worth it both for the experience, and because it covered the cost of caring for the cats.

It was very warm inside—probably for the cats’ comfort—so I decided to order an iced green tea latte. They drew a cat on it with chocolate syrup.

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Despite the heat, the air in the cafe felt very fresh due to several fans and air conditioners positioned around the room. It was also sparkling clean, without a hint of cat smell.

I picked a table by the wall and sat down to take in the scene. The walls were covered with shelves, scratching posts, and cozy cubbyholes, several of which were occupied. The chairs had little cat hammocks hanging underneath. I even noticed some flat platforms affixed a few inches below the ceiling for the cats to explore. It was hard to know how many cats there were, since many were hiding, but I would guess 15-20.

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After sitting for a while and drinking my latte, the owner came over to me carrying a big piece of flowery fabric, which she draped over my lap. I had no idea what was going on. Then she selected a cat who was curled up on a shelf on the wall, picked him up, and placed him abruptly into my lap. The cat barely even registered the disruption; he just curled back up and continued sleeping.

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Eventually, the cat woke up and jumped off (or maybe I was getting restless and gently nudged him, who knows). In the center of the room was a big gym mat where several customers were sitting and playing with the cats, and I went over to join them. This was where the social cats gathered, and there were lots of them: big, long-haired white ones, an orange one with short stubby ears, and a playful calico who started attacking this one girl’s trench coat with remarkable vigor. I noticed that the vast majority of customers were girls—in fact, I only saw two boys, and both looked like their girlfriends had dragged them in against their will. I realized that the flowery fabric I had been given was actually a long skirt, and that several of the girls were wearing them over their clothes to protect against shedding. There were a few foreigners in the mix too, including the owner of the aforementioned trench coat, who was Australian.

One of the more noteworthy cats was this little guy:

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I grew up with some very ugly cats (RIP Hobie), but this guy honestly out-uglied anything I’d ever seen before. In addition to lacking whiskers and generally looking like a plucked chicken, he also felt very, strangely, warm to the touch. But he was clearly a sweetheart, and he sought me out twice to sit on my lap.

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Here are a few pictures of the other cats, in case that last picture gives you nightmares.

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Although Cat’s Attic had a lot of cats in a pretty small space, I was happy to see that they all seemed clean and healthy, and that they had plenty of hidden spaces to retreat to when they wanted to get away from people.

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While Cat’s Attic exists purely for entertainment, I have heard of some inspiring places—particularly in the US—that operate as animal shelters as well. Meow Parlour in New York, for example, takes in rescue cats and encourages customers to adopt.

This doesn’t mean that classic cat cafes like Cat’s Attic aren’t worth a visit, however; if they can bring some joy to cat-less city dwellers, then cat cafes are making the world a better place! That said, I might need to start planning a trip to New York…

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I’ve been thinking a lot about culture lately. As I mentioned in my last blog post, I spent the Chinese New Year with my friend and her family in her hometown of Qiaojia, Yunnan. As the sole representative of all of Western Culture, I found myself thinking a lot about the cultural norms that have influenced me growing up in the United States.

In Qiaojia I met lots of interesting characters: the maybe-lesbian from a poor farming village who is studying to be an accountant; the fourteen-year-old cousin with her own motorcycle and more maturity then I’ll ever have; the dude who manages hotels in Chengdu and may or may not be part of the Qiaojia Mafia.

One of the most interesting people I met was my friend’s father, Mr. Zhu, who is a teacher, local historian, and respected figure in the community. Unlike most people of his generation in Qiaojia, he was: 1) able to speak Standard Mandarin, and 2) eager to speak it with me, delving deeper than just “where are you from” and “why are you so tall.” I was incredibly grateful to Mr. Zhu, not only for being such a generous host, but also for providing some of the most stimulating conversation I had with anyone in Qiaojia. He shared my dislike of violent Chinese movies in which the Japanese are always unequivocally evil. He loved looking at my pictures of Vermont, and concluded that my family always looked extremely happy in each other’s company.

As time went on, however, I began to get the sense that Mr. Zhu was not too fond of Western culture, and American culture in particular. There was the old argument that America has only a few hundred years of history, compared to China’s “five thousand years,” and the suggestion that American culture is shallow, empty, and hollow in comparison. He didn’t say any of these things outright, but I sensed his underlying meaning—and I always agreed readily. Why shouldn’t I? America is far from perfect. Because of Americans’ diverse backgrounds, we do indeed lack the singular, cohesive cultural history of which (Han) China is so proud.

Mr. Zhu’s opinions were epitomized in a discussion we had about the meaning of 羊 “yang,” the zodiac animal whose year we just entered. 羊 in English can be variously translated as “sheep,” “goat,” or “ram.” During the days leading up to the New Year, several lighthearted news articles appeared in the U.S. highlighting this confusion: so is it a sheep, or is it a goat?

I brought the subject up with Mr. Zhu, thinking he might find it amusing. Instead, he proceeded to write two characters onto a piece of paper for me. The first was 意, or meaning. The second was 形, or appearance. Chinese characters denote meaning, while English letters denote sound, or appearance. He further explained that 羊 has deep cultural meaning in China, symbolic of auspiciousness (since the character 祥, meaning auspicious, contains 羊). He explained that any differentiation between sheep and goats (绵羊 and 山羊) is irrelevant to this meaning. The distinction in English between sheep and goats refers to a difference in biological species, or a difference in appearance alone.

I nodded along as he said this, but I also felt myself becoming a little defensive.

First of all, written language does not necessarily correlate with cultural richness. Second of all, it is false to assume that American cultural development only began in 1776. It is false to assume that our sheep/goat distinction is purely based on taxonomy, and not on deeply held cultural beliefs of our own.

Because here’s the thing: there is a very significant difference between sheep and goats in my culture, American culture, a culture steeped in the traditions of Western Europe.

Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell, as the song goes.

Sheep herding has a long history in Europe and its subsequent cultures. Sheep herding and the peaceful, idyllic life of the shepherd have inspired countless works of literature, art, and classical music. I’ve played the clarinet part in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony myself, and that piece is indisputably a beautiful, complex accomplishment of human culture. Sheep herding meant the breeding of sheep-herding dogs—collies, corgis, and shepherds—which have in turn created cultural icons from Lassie to K9. Sheep herding meant Fair Isle knitting. Haggis. Little Bo Peep. Jesus was a shepherd, his followers a flock.

And goats? Traditionally more common in Eastern Europe and Western Asia, goats are a bit more exotic. They’re tricksters. The devil takes the form of a goat, and his followers wear goatees. That Taylor Swift “Trouble” video would have been much less hilarious with a sheep.

My point is this: our distinction between sheep and goats is much more than a line drawn between two scientifically classified species. It is a deep cultural division of no less validity or significance than the 羊 in Chinese culture. Sheep go to heaven and goats go to hell.

I wish I could have explained this to Mr. Zhu, but at the time my mind drew a blank. It took me several days of mulling it over before I could put into words what I had felt all along—that while American culture may be young, it does not exist in a vacuum.

But even if I’d had the presence of mind to explain the goat/sheep distinction at the time, I’m not sure if I would have dared to open my mouth.

Would it have offended Mr. Zhu, my incredibly generous host?

Did I even have a point at all?

Or was I desperately trying to justify a culture that is objectively shallow compared to the culture of China?

I would love to hear your thoughts on this!

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Until I started working in the Laohegou Land Trust Reserve last month, I had never strayed very far off the beaten path in China. Nanjing was a bustling city filled with foreign exchange students. Lijiang was one of the top tourist destinations in China. Sure, I’ve been to rural areas and visited villages accessible only by foot, but almost all of these places had been developed with tourism in mind. There were always guesthouses and hotels to stay in. There were always vans or buses set up to transport visitors to local areas of interest. I almost always saw other foreigners traveling the same route I was, usually a route outlined in The Lonely Planet or recommended on Trip Advisor.

But when I traveled to Laohegou for the first time, I knew that I was in for a different experience. Laohegou is located in Minzhu Village, Pingwu County. Pingwu County is technically under the jurisdiction of Mianyang City (Sichuan’s second-largest urban center), but a good two or three hours away by car. The receptionist at the hostel where I stayed in Chengdu had never even heard of Pingwu County, and had no idea that Laohegou existed. Same thing with several of my friends who had spent extensive time in Sichuan.

Following my supervisor’s instructions, I took a bus from Chengdu to Pingwu, getting off at a stop called Baicao. I stood in the middle of a tiny intersection as the bus drove away. There was a convenience store to my right, a couple of houses to my left, and nothing else. I had a moment of panic when I realized that it was almost dark, I had no idea where I was, and this might not even be the right stop. Luckily, barely a minute had passed before a big muddy pickup truck stopped to pick me up, and we rumbled off into the mountains, past Minzhu Village, through the big metal gate marking the entrance to the reserve, and finally arrived at the compound where Laohegou staff eat, sleep, and work.

It would be overly romantic to call Laohegou “wild.” The forest is all secondary growth, having been logged for timber in the past. Scattered throughout the woods are old stone walls and the decaying foundations of hunting cabins. But the lack of human presence has inspired a resurgence of wildlife in the area. In my short time in the reserve, I have already seen wild boars, tufted deer, and Sichuan snub nosed monkeys.

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Laohegou is no Yellowstone, teeming with busloads of tourists all year round. It’s no Laojunshan, in Lijiang, where visitors from all over China come to experience a (literal) breath of fresh air.

Laohegou is different. Over and over again, various staff members have emphasized to me that the reserve’s first and foremost goal is conservation. That means a strictly enforced “core zone” in which no human activity is allowed. That means limited access to the reserve, and a big metal gate blocking the entrance (although locals are still allowed inside, and I see visitors almost every weekend coming from nearby villages to check out the reserve or visit the dilapidated little temple up the road).

There are no plans to develop tourism in Laohegou, and there likely never will be. The area is beautiful, yes, like all natural places are—forests, mountains, stonebed rivers—but the landscape isn’t spectacular enough to attract visitors from across the country or even from Chengdu. The local villages aren’t set up to accommodate travellers. Everyone agrees that an influx of tourists would bring more harm than good. With a solid source of funding from the Sichuan Nature Conservation Foundation, backed by some of China’s richest investors, Laohegou is free to focus on protecting biodiversity for biodiversity’s sake.

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A ranger checks one of the infrared cameras used to monitor wildlife in the reserve.

It is interesting to me that such a “pure” nature reserve would be founded by The Nature Conservancy, an organization known in the United States for cooperating with Big Business and supporting “sustainable” industry development. Mark Tercek, CEO and president of The Nature Conservancy, believes that quantifying natural resources for financial markets is the only way to make lasting improvements in the health of the global ecosystem. In a New Yorker article published last spring by D. T. Max, Tercek explains that without catering to the needs of industry, environmental protection would never gain enough support to make a real difference.

My high school classmate Ethan Linck wrote a great discussion of this New Yorker article here.

On one hand, I absolutely agree with Tercek. If we truly hope to achieve a sustainable global society in the future, in which human beings thrive without damaging ecosystems or depleting natural resources, then every industry, every business, and every individual must be committed to achieving this goal. Simply walling off choice patches of natural landscape isn’t going to cut it.

However, I also believe that “nature” is more than the sum of its parts, and that in quantifying nature, you lose sight of the reasons why it’s worth protecting in the first place. As the New Yorker article points out, it’s all well and good when a big factory realizes that it is both more cost effective and smog-reducing to plant a thousand acres of trees, rather than to install new smoke scrubbers. But what if it hadn’t worked out that way? What if it was actually more cost effective to install the scrubbers? The factory would have no incentive to plant trees, the local people and animals would never benefit from the beautiful forest, and the factory’s air pollution would continue as it has always continued.

I was lucky enough to have grown up in a natural place, with the freedom to run around and climb trees and catch salamanders. There was no economic value to my childhood exploration, and it would be impossible to quantify how these experiences have influenced my adult life.

This is why I believe that there is no single blanket approach to conservation; every natural area should be evaluated individually, taking into account the needs of its particular people, plants, and animals.

Therefore, Laohegou represents an extremely interesting—and I’d argue, successful—approach to nature conservation. Laohegou recognizes that to succeed as a protector of biodiversity, it must maintain friendly, neighborly relations with the surrounding communities. Staff members are currently working with local farmers to develop a market for custom-order agricultural products: walnuts, honey, persimmons, meat, and poultry.

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But the reserve still puts conservation first. The locals may never get rich selling walnuts and sausages, but they won’t be destitute either. They won’t have to change their lives around completely to accommodate tourism or another new industry with no history in the area. They will always have a beautiful natural area to visit, without competing with busloads of visitors from all over the country.

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As for me, I’m excited for the chance to play a small role in the continued success of such a unique nature reserve, as a volunteer for The Nature Conservancy. Although Laohegou is very isolated (I often find myself craving a bubble tea or wishing I didn’t have to beg somebody to drive me half an hour to the nearest store just so I can buy shampoo), I am enjoying living in a truly non-touristy area of China. As a foreigner, I actually feel less conspicuous here than I do in China’s second or third-tier cities. City-dwellers, raised on a diet of Hollywood movies and stereotypes about white people, are likely to point and stare and giggle.

Rural people might express mild surprise at finding a foreigner in their midst, but they are generally too preoccupied with more important matters to give me a second thought.

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I noticed the restaurant from the window of a speeding bus as we were exiting Lijiang New City: 狗肉—dog meat. There it was, clear as day. Evidence that in many parts of China, meat is meat, and it doesn’t much matter what animal it comes from.

Have I ever eaten dog meat? No. I came close once, during my semester abroad in Hangzhou when it was served at a banquet. Would I ever be willing to try it? I’m still not sure. More on that later.

Just a few days before I noticed the dog restaurant, someone was walking a husky past the Water Wheel in Old Town, one of the busiest, most touristy parts of the city. The dog was enormous and beautifully groomed, his long gray-and-white fur gleaming in the evening sun. He attracted lots of attention. A little girl stopped and reached up over her head to pat his back. The girls in “traditional” Naxi costumes who pose for tourist pictures by the Water Wheel glanced away from the sea of cameras and watched the husky march past like a king.

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One thing is clear in China—dogs are everywhere. They sniff around the ditches and sun themselves in the public squares. They wander around underfoot and growl from behind closed doors. Some dogs are escorted through the markets with little fleece booties on their paws, and others are hanging from hooks, waiting for the spicy hotpot. Based on my own observations, I’ve identified roughly four categories of dogs in China, as follows:

  1. Scraggly dogs
  2. Country dogs
  3. Teddies
  4. Food

1. Scraggly dogs:

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These are the most ubiquitous and difficult to characterize of Chinese dogs. They wander through the streets, weave in and out of bicycles, and curl up to sleep in random patches of sunlight. They’re ugly, usually; short-legged and bug-eyed, with under-bites and dirty fur. Sometimes they’re strays. Sometimes I think they’re strays, but then someone whistles and they prick up their dirty little ears and run back home. Sometimes they’re in cages for sale, 50 RMB each. What are the fates of those mangy little streetside puppies? I can only imagine that they get split up among the following three categories.

2. Country dogs:

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Every village family has at least one dog. They bark menacingly as you walk by, although sometimes their tails wag as they do so, giving away their true disposition. As soon as one dog starts barking, all the dogs in the village start barking, and they keep going and going long after you’ve passed through the village and continued on your way, feeding off each others’ nervous energy until the whole village is whipped into a frenzy. Once I saw an adorable village puppy who trotted over and nuzzled my hand, tail wagging furiously. He looked like he wanted to play, so I picked up a little stick and prepared to toss it. But as soon as he saw the stick, he instantly flinched and cowered, tail between his legs. Country dogs aren’t pets.

3. Teddies:

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The greatest cultural divide in China is between rural and urban, and nowhere is this more apparent than in their dogs. Rural people have guard dogs; urban ladies with false eyelashes have teddies. Teddy dogs (泰迪犬tàidí quăn) are small poodles, usually reddish-brown in color, who have been bred to have a short, flat face and groomed so that they look like teddy bears. More than once in Nanjing, I saw someone walk by carrying a teddy dog in a baby carrier, as if it were a helpless doll and not a healthy dog who needs to run and sniff the ground. In recent years, pampered purebreds have spread beyond teddies to include golden retrievers, huskies, labs, and other dogs utterly unsuited to high-rise living in a polluted megalopolis. The poor things.

4. Food:

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No, I take it back. The pampered dogs are the lucky ones. Although most middle class Chinese today are horrified by eating dog and swear they’d never touch the stuff, the dog meat industry is alive and well. Especially in poor places like rural Guizhou and Guangxi, and ethnically Korean places in northeast China, dog meat is perfectly acceptable for human consumption. Also in Guangzhou, which is neither poor nor Korean; it’s just Guangzhou. Every year in the city of Yulin, Guangxi, residents hold a dog meat festival in which an estimated 10,000 dogs are slaughtered and consumed. It is unclear how many dogs were strays, how many were farmed for meat, and how many were abducted. Dog meat is believed to be very nutritious and able to cure conditions like impotence and poor circulation. Animal rights activists protested the festival this year, but it happened anyway.

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At first glance, it might seem monstrous for a single culture to embrace dogs both as pets and as food.

But hold on a second.

I’m not vegetarian. Are you?

The way we distinguish between Food Animals and Companion Animals is completely arbitrary. When most people express disgust at the thought of eating dog, they justify their aversion by arguing that dogs are Man’s Best Friend, plus they had a dog growing up and can never imagine eating little Fluffy. I include myself in this hypothetical “they,” by the way. My family has two dogs at home, and I love them. I admire their intelligence, their individual personalities, and their complex social interactions. But does this make them inherently better than the animals we Westerners routinely consume as meat? Pigs have complex social relationships, can understand the principle of reflection and use mirrors to assess their surroundings, and learn circus routines faster than any other animal. Even chickens, which are hardly known for their intelligence, may possess more mental faculties than we give them credit for; recent studies have shown that chickens outperform dogs in many cognitive tests and are even able to delay gratification, something many human toddlers are unable to do.

In short, it is senseless to “rank” animals by their supposed intelligence and use this as a justification of which animals are fit to eat and which are not. All animals are uniquely adapted to their environments, and it is impossible for us to ever truly know what goes on inside their furry, feathery, and scaly heads.

So am I morally opposed to eating dog? No. In theory, I believe that since we cannot draw a line between animals that are appropriate to eat and animals are not, and since I do eat animals like pigs, therefore I should be willing to eat dog. The people who eat dog meat in China are usually rural and relatively poor; they live alongside many different kinds of animals, all of which are eaten. Assuming that humans can ethically consume meat of any kind, there is theoretically nothing wrong with eating dogs.

But if faced with an actual plate of dog meat, would I eat it? I don’t think so. I am heavily influenced by cultural norms and my own experiences—and yes, that makes me hypocritical. I think everyone who refuses to eat dog meat should simply acknowledge their hypocrisy. Don’t try to argue that some animals are inherently fit to eat, while others are not. Acknowledge that your mindset is influenced by society and limited by your own familiarity with different animals, instead of trying to impose false categories on the diverse and complex creatures who live and die alongside humans.