Part II: Vietnam Animal Law Issues
IALA: What do you think are the most important and pressing animal law issues that exist in Vietnam?
Catherine: Enforcement of any law at all is what stands in the way of animal protection, and this is not something that can be addressed specifically by animal protection organizations if the rest of the legal system continues to function in the way it does. Welfare laws have done nothing to help the vast majority of animals in countries in which they exist as they protect mainly pets and not farmed animals or sea life. This will not be any different in Vietnam, so we need to really look at animal law as ALL species rather than just pets and how this can be most effectively addressed within the political system we work in.
Most organizations will tell you the dog meat trade is the most pressing issue for animal law and I will very, very strongly debate that. This is something that took me years to understand while working in rescue, dealing head-on with the dog meat trade on a daily basis, and living amongst the dog thieves and legal dog catchers in our neighborhood. People think that raising the punishment for dog and cat theft will change something, but again, this will do nothing. There have been cases in which entire villages beat dog thieves to death resulting in murder charges for dozens of people. Police have had to come to the rescue of dog thieves when villagers have attacked them. There is just no evidence that the police will in any way be able to end dog theft or will bother to punish perpetrators when the demand for dog meat continues and people still leave their dogs out to roam all day and night.
Looking at dog meat with a singular legal solution as promoted by so many welfare organizations misses the point. This has been a huge challenge for us to address publicly. Addressing the dog meat trade with laws has not been successful. Dog meat is the method Vietnam uses to prevent dog overpopulation which in turn keeps down infectious diseases and dog bites which neighboring countries struggle with, so ending it comes with a lot of problems as well. When you have infectious diseases like rabies coming from strays, culls happen, something the Vietnamese government would be more than happy to do.
The idea of a dog meat ban, which is heavily promoted by larger organizations whose donations rely on these campaigns, predominantly welfare-based rather than rights-based, is not realistic as a solution unless the veterinary industry is up to the task of mass sterilizations. On top of that, ending dog meat only means increasing demand for every other species of animal. Pig farmers will rejoice at a dog meat ban, but moving suffering and unnecessary death from one species to another is hardly what anyone should call a victory for the animals. If a dog meat ban is put in place, and no changes have been made to drastically increase access to mass sterilization and vaccination, we will end up with even worse overpopulation and eventually a cull as we see in all the countries around us. Veterinary capacity building and funding in both the public and private sectors have to come long before a dog meat ban that all the Western countries keep petitioning for. The current plans for lobbying against dog meat needs to be realistic of the situation in Vietnam for all species rather than being led by people across oceans who eat every other animal. This is a local problem with local solutions in demand reduction and legally/politically cannot even begin to be addressed by foreign institutions.
There are many opportunities in animal law to address the big picture of animal suffering, but the focus tends to remain on pet species or cute wildlife. Shifting food production and government subsidies away from fishing and animal agriculture to plant-based production will save millions of more animals than any welfare law that will go unenforced anyway. Animal law as it applies to the food system rather than 2 or 3 species humans think are cute enough for clickbait will make the biggest change. Shifting production in Vietnam means also developing an already existing demand for plant-based foods. These changes to the food economy will be more effective in the long run for the largest number of animals and all species will benefit from reduced animal production.
In terms of wild species such as macaques bred for research companies abroad (the U.S. particularly), crocodiles bred for leather products, and other wild species like porcupines in the exotic meat trade, a ban on these would be more effective, but there needs to be a shift away from the demand. The consumers of these products, particularly Americans with the primates and Russians and Chinese going for the crocodiles, have to be part of the solution, but the government cracking down on these facilities would make a difference. Unlike dogs, these animals are bred specifically for this market and if this market is made illegal and there is no longer a demand for it, it will close. Animals in captivity and in entertainment like traveling circuses and zoos are suffering so much in Vietnam, and there is nothing to protect them because there is just nowhere for these animals to go. Again, demand plays a huge part in this that laws just won’t touch.
IALA: In which ways do you think Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue - U.S. could help the animal advocacy field within the Alliance for Animal Law of Asia?
Catherine: We have been working in Vietnam for 8 years with international and local staff and have extensive experience with grassroots advocacy and interaction with veterinary educational institutions. We have watched the country change so much over the years and we know very well how things really operate there in the government. Lobbying as a foreign-run organization with or without INGO status in Vietnam is illegal and as the US 501(c)(3) also not possible from what I understand, but we have nearly a decade of experience with domestic pets, wildlife, and farmed animals in a country most people only know from war movies and viral videos about the dog meat trade which say nothing of the reality of working and living here with animals now. Our CFO and Operations Manager are both Vietnamese with a deep understanding of Vietnamese law in regards to the veterinary industry, property, and animal protection. We know a lot about how Vietnam differs from other parts of Asia and the work of other animal advocacy organizations in our region due to the political, legal, cultural, and economic situations that differ so much from our own. We have a network of organizations that we have worked with and been in communication with over these years that can also help consult on legal issues here. Our side of the work for animals involves education in society, managing cases that come to us, building up the veterinary industry to effectively manage the existing animals and prevent more animals from being born.
IALA: In many Asian countries, the regulations with regard to animals exist but lack enforcement. What is the situation in Vietnam and how do you think animal protection can be improved?
Catherine: It is not animal protection that requires improvement but a rule of law in general. This really needs to be addressed as the big picture and international organizations simply do not have the ability to do much about this. The Vietnamese are responsible for this and are the only people capable of handling it. We can support them to a degree, but this is their country, their language, their culture, and their government. They face incredible difficulty in this, however. Lobbying does not work while there is censorship rife and obstacles from the government on dissent. Speaking up for animals means starting with speaking up for people and doing so in a very crafty way that either involves numbers of people so large that the government cannot control them (unlikely), or is done in a non-confrontational way in which the politicians don’t feel attacked though this is very slow. The fact is that the laws that protect humans in the most basic way like helmet laws for children on motorbikes or drunk driving laws are absolutely useless and if they cannot protect the skulls of children from the roads, a dog, cat, chicken, sea turtle, or bear will not be a priority.
Animal protection ultimately will improve with social change rather than legal. Vietnamese animal organizations are popping up everywhere and while these kids know little to nothing about animal rights or animal care, they are media crazy and the attitude towards animals is changing. This is a very conformist culture, and sticking your head up for anyone is very hard, but the shift towards a younger generation being advocates for animals in their daily lives is happening and that needs to be fostered. It is difficult to speak of legal protections for animals without going off on a long tirade about Vietnamese law and political culture in general, so we need to really put animal protection into the public discourse in Vietnam regarding politics and laws. That feels like the only real possibility to change things. Doing this through a non-speciesist format is also vital in a country in which rising wealth comes with rising animal product consumption.
IALA: What are the attitudes of the government and the public towards legal protection of animals, animal law movements, animal welfarism, and animal rights activism in Vietnam?
Catherine: It is very difficult to get an animal protection organization registered as a nonprofit or organization of any kind in Vietnam. In general, the Vietnamese government frowns on organizing any social change issue. We had some Anonymous for the Voiceless types of gatherings in a few cities, which were always stopped by the police. Vietnam is also very non-confrontational so much of the objections to animal rights activists are rather quiet by the public. They tend to be dismissed by most people, but the movement is growing. The animal rights movement does need to do what works for Vietnam, however, not what works for Paris or Los Angeles. The Save Movement, street protests, and anything else that confronts people will fail and be smashed by the government. Vegan festivals are very successful in Vietnam now, especially as vegan food is the best in the world in my opinion. That is not confrontational and it is supported by the local authorities usually, so it is an avenue we are exploring a lot more in the coming years.
Welfarists tend to focus on rescue and hoarding cats and dogs in shelters in which there is no oversight at all. This, unfortunately, leads to a lot of problems, but the young Facebook generation thinks it is adorable so they want to emulate it wherever they are in the country. The government stays far away from this issue. There are a lot of people who really love animals, but the resources for caring for them with vets who are simply clueless about them, and the pervasive issues with the dog and cat meat trade plus animal farming, in general, makes it hard for them to find a way to help animals. We are faced with many abuse cases in which owners insist that the animals are their property and they have the legal right to do whatever they want to them. Ownership of animals as property tends to be the basis for abuse around the world regardless of whether the animal is for-profit or a pet, and again, the government will not be involved in this at all. Vietnam is no different in that regard. In general, I would say the movement towards anti-speciesism is small but growing, and vegan food businesses are everywhere and well supported, and this is something the government can help with as they make it so easy to start a business and get financial help with it. Vietnam is a very capitalist communist country, and it is easy to use that to our advantage for the support of private sector work that helps animals.