The Curious Case of a Turtle on a Stick

One of my most curious, yet horrifying, discoveries in China was a turtle mounted on a stick. I remember walking through a light drizzle in pursuit of culinary satisfaction, about a block away from the academic building. When there, by the intersection, stood a woman holding a wooden staff with a turtle dangling on top, dead or alive, lashed to the tip with shredded rags and a debatable purpose.

I was disgusted, first sharply, then not at all. Was this kind of event to be expected in China? What was the purpose of a turtle tied to the top of a stick? My mind whirred. My hunger depleted. Without the Chinese proficiency nor the inclination to confront the turtle keeper, I continued on, querying my sighting ever since.

However, finding answers to my turtle-based questions was always going to be difficult.

Google says that animal welfare in China is improving, but infringements are still consistently surfacing. In recent years there has been a plethora of unpalatable instances; the skinning and cooking of live cats in Guangdong, drunken shrimp which are eaten whilst struggling to get away, the farming of Asiatic black bears for bile production, angora rabbits being skinned alive in Northwestern China, dog meat festivals in Yulin, SHARK FIN SOUP. The horrors continue. Partly because until 2009 there was no comprehensive Animal Protection Law in China and, even still, there has yet to be any significant progress – the definition of progress being that animals should have rights.

But animal rights aren’t a finite concept. Is any suffering valid like Bentham suggests, or do you need a consciousness and the ability to communicate to be worthy? The West seems to have come to the conclusion that living beings should not suffer, regardless of the human-animal hierarchy. China, however, is naturally conflicted. Traditional Chinese philosophies, such as Taoist and Buddhist vegetarianism emphasize the importance of caring for animals, but after Mao’s campaigns against the bourgeoisie, this care was rebranded as ‘counter-revolutionary.’ Now, with Western influences flooding the East, the younger generation of China is concerned, and in some cases, even actively protesting. This method, considering the lack of legislation, is essentially the only way to accomplish change.

One would expect Shanghai to be one of the most progressive places in China regarding the animal rights movement. 老外 are commonplace and, increasingly, so are their customs and beliefs. The belief that a turtle should not be bound to the tip of a stick is perhaps a Western one, but arguments can be made that the right not to suffer is a universal one.

That being said, I went on a turtle hunt. I heard of more stick sightings – from the window of the shuttle bus, on the corner of the road next to Carrefour, another close to the school. But the most interesting tale was one of a pet shop in Puxi.

Perhaps deliberately, it was extremely hard to locate. After minutes of pointless meandering, I was confronted with a cramped shack-like construction, at the end of a narrow alleyway. Inside tanks were precariously stacked on top of each other, each pinnacle exhibiting the desire to fall, shattering the glass with the crowd of turtles that lay inside. Some were so big they filled the entire floor, unable to turn, sitting with nowhere to go, either silently content or silently distressed.  

I was the only customer and I was definitely the only 老外. Any approach to a tank brought the immediate attention of the owners. With a sudden movement, they morphed from lethargic indifference to enthusiastically gesturing to each turtle and chanting ‘很好,很好.’ I didn’t quite know what to say. Attempts at expressing disgust were met with zero response and the turtles didn’t look particularly unhealthy. They wanted people to buy them.

And, I almost did. I wanted to liberate them all. Set all the tiny turtles free from their wicked confines.

But, I didn’t.

Perhaps my Western sensibility got the best of me. Maybe I was being overly-sensitive. Or, it could actually have been a case of real abuse. The turtles represent a clash of ideals. China continues to infringe what many would call fundamental rights of living beings. The country is experiencing a movement of sorts, but it is also being heavily criticized as a Western concept. In reality it is a waiting game to see whether the Chinese organically adopt animal rights as younger generations appear to be doing, whether global pressure will be strong enough in itself to create a paradigm shift, or whether Shanghai will continue to be a hub of mistreated turtles.

This article was written by Stephanie Bailey. Send an email to to get in touch.
Photo Credit: Marjorie Wang

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