Food fight: Controversy anew over live-animal markets

When the California Fish and Game Commission meets in Sacramento this week, live animal markets won’t be high on the agenda.

But after a near miss last year at limiting and regulating vendors who sell live turtles and frogs for food, and banning numerous species from these markets, several groups plan on pushing the idea during the commission’s meeting on Thursday.

This is the latest round in an obscure but hard-fought battle that combines ethnic politics and the animal rights movement. When members of the commission attempted to ban the importation of turtles and frogs for food last year, a half-dozen Asian-American legislators joined together to block the idea, noting that the animals were traditional to the Asian diet.  

The de facto leader of that group, Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, is now viewed as the front-runner to replace Gavin Newsom as mayor of San Francisco. The heavily Asian city, with its famed Chinatown, is ground zero of the live-animal market fight.

Meanwhile, the other side joins the unlikely bedfellows of Bay Area animal rights activists and a conservative southern California developer who has been their main voice on the commission. Commissioner Dan Richards has been a major donor to Republicans in California, but he’s also supported a ban on turtle and frog imports on the grounds that they could worsen the state’s problems with invasive species.

After 15 years of efforts by animal groups, the Commission voted last March to ban bringing frogs and turtles into the state for food. Eric Mills, coordinator of the Oakland-based group Action for Animals and one of the driving forces behind the ban, said that these markets import about 300,000 turtles into the state each year for human consumption. He is one of those planning on speaking at the meeting this week.

Mills said the representatives from the Humane Society, Defenders of Wildlife, Animal Switchboard and other groups will be on hand.

This decision to ban the import of these animals led Yee to join with five Asian-American Democrats – including four current members of the Assembly and one former lawmaker — to send a letter to the Commission: Mike Eng of Monterrey Park, Paul Fong of Mountain View, Warren Furutani of Long Beach, Fiona Ma of San Francisco and former Assemblyman Ted Lieu of Torrance. They signed the May 4 letter to commission members urging them to oppose an import 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. 

Yee, Ma and Lieu also were on a May 20 teleconference with the commission where they again spoke out against the proposal.

“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,” Yee said in his testimony. “They are part of our staple. They are part of our culture. They are part of our heritage.”

This led to a testy exchange with Richards, in which the commissioner wondered whether Yee was concerned about invasive species. Richards also brought up the trade in bear parts, used in some traditional Chinese medicines.

“The state is being permeated with invasive species across the board,” Richards said.

In the end, the commission opted to continue to study the issue and ordered a California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) review, essentially shelving the idea rather than issuing a strong regulation. The Fish and Game Department operates separately from the Commission, but generally enforces regulations the commission hands down.

Yee has been a strong environmental and animal-rights vote for many years. He’s received perfect voting scores from numerous environmental groups, authored several pieces of green energy and conservation legislation, and opposed allowing more hunting of black bears. 

But he’s long had his ire up about attacks on Asian-Americans and their culture. In recent days, he’s made headlines for his fight with conservative talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh.

On Jan. 19, Limbaugh on his radio show mocked Hu Jintao with a fake version of Chinese during the premier’s visit to Washington, D.C. After Yee issued a statement demanding that Limbaugh apologize, Yee’s office released a faxed death threat against the lawmaker that stemmed from Yee’s criticism against Limbaugh. The radio host declined.

Yee also targeted women golfers.

On Jan. 18, he introduced SB 111, which would add protections for “language rights” into the state’s civil rights act. The bill was inspired by a short-lived 2008 effort by the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) to suspend players who do not speak English. Players from Korea, Japan and Taiwan held 14 of the tour’s top 25 spots according to the Jan. 31 rankings.

“It just seems like there is an assault on Asian culture and staples of their communities,” said Yee’s chief of staff, Adam Keigwin. “Senator Yee is not just going to sit idly by while that happens.”

Mills has a different take: “The six legislators who signed that letter have been really good votes on animal and environmental issues overall. But when push comes to shove, they play the race card.”

Former Fish and Game warden Miles Young takes issue with the idea that a ban is an affront to anyone’s culture. For one thing, he said, the main turtle species involved is the red-eared slider, a turtle that is native to neither Asia nor California. These animals have been imported in huge numbers from southeastern states like Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina.

“Literally millions of turtles from those states have been shipped to our live animal markets out here,” Young said. “There’s hardly a 5,000-year history of red-eared sliders.”

Even while their numbers are plummeting in Dixie, Young added, they’re now loose in several places around California — including in the Capitol grounds (though they are generally inactive this time of year, going into to an amphibian version of hibernation known as brumation.

“Go to the pond in the Capitol,” Young said. “You’re not going to see western pond turtles, our native species. You’ll see red-eared sliders.”

Young spent 27 years as a warden — most of it on the urban beat of San Francisco, and much of that in Chinatown. He said he had good relations with many business owners in the area. But after retiring in 2004, he’s become a volunteer expert consultant to many animal groups on the live market issue.

Current California law calls for animals to be killed before a customer can take them away. But both Mills and Young said this often doesn’t happen. Mills pointed to a 1997 report from the San Francisco Sunset Beacon newspaper detailing how a group of more than two dozen people were detained by wardens pouring sack-loads of turtles and frogs into Lake Merced, a freshwater lake near the beach in San Francisco.

When asked if he had worked that particular incident, Young said he couldn’t remember because he had come across similar situations too many times during his time with as a warden.

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 h
as been blamed for the extinction of over 100 species of amphibians since the 1970s.

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