Eating Frogs and Turtles in California Just Got Easier

turtles frogs at market photo
Photo: flickr4jazz / CC

For those in the market for frogs and turtles sold at live animal markets in California, it's been a difficult year -- but things are looking up. Last March, the state's Department of Fish and Game issued a ban on the importation of potentially the invasive reptiles after complaints from animal rights activists, and less than a year later, the ban has been lifted. Now, some are saying that "Political hackdom" and "ethnic politics" have been used to overturn legislation which protected animals from inhumane treatment while others defend longstanding tradition -- raising questions about whether culture and the environment can be preserved together.For well over a decade, animal rights activists had been lobbying for a ban on the practice of importing frogs and turtles intended for human consumption, citing the potential for such species to devastate local ecosystems if released into the wild. Adding more urgency to the cause was the fact that the animals are often inhumanely treated.

"All suffer cruelly on this journey," writes Madeline Bernstein, president of the spcaLA. "From capture, to transport, to sordid shop conditions, to being flayed while still alive, these animals are in constant misery."

In what was hailed by advocacy groups as a victory for the mistreated reptiles, last March the California Fish and Game Commission moved to cease issuing permits that allowed the animals to be imported.

According a report from Capitol Weekly, the Commission's recent move to lift the ban "is the latest round in an obscure but hard-fought battle that combines ethnic politics and the animal rights movement," with the most vocal opponents of the legislation being six Asian-American state politicians who submitted a letter outlining their disagreements with the ban.

The letter stated that it was "disturbing" that the regulation "appears to disproportionately target Asian-American owned businesses" and implied that the commission didn't "proactively seek the involvement" of members of "the Asian-American community." The letter also noted that the regulation would not affect pet stores, where someone could buy an animal and release it into the wild.

State Senator from San Francisco, Leland Lee, submitted testimony to the Commission, making a case for the tradition of consuming imported frogs and turtles. "For over 5,000 years, it has been the practice of both the Chinese community and the Asian-American community to consume these particular animals. They are part of our staple. They are part of our culture. They are part of our heritage."

Lee, who is viewed as a leading candidate for mayor of San Francisco, also has spoken out against a ban on shark-fin soup, another popular Asian cuisine which has drawn ire from conservationist groups for it's impact on shark populations.

For many animal rights activists, the importation of non-native frogs and turtle for human consumption may raise moral issues -- but with millions of cows, chickens, and pigs killed every year, such an argument does seem rooted in a sort of culinary hypocrisy. The current debate, however, has environmental implications beyond which animals are culturally deemed 'OK' to eat and which are not.

An estimated 300,000 non-native turtles are shipped into California each year for human consumption, but too many find their way into the local ecosystem to the detriment of native species. Retired Fish and Game warden Miles Young tells Capitol Weekly that the number of invasive species entering California is part of a troubling trend.

In many cases, he added, these releases appeared to be related to Buddhist religious rituals, or sometimes are just the work of well-meaning people. Non-native species introduced in this way can not only out-compete natives but spread diseases like the Chytrid Fungus, a fungal infection that has been blamed for the extinction of over 100 species of amphibians since the 1970s.

While all cultures are worthy of preservation and protection, particularly those in the minority, doing so requires that action be taken to defend the environment that they share. And each concession made towards a more sustainable and livable world helps ensure that both culture and the environment are strong and healthy for future generations to enjoy as well.

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