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SARS Generates Fear Of Animals In China

by Antoaneta Bezlova

(IPS) BEIJING -- The latest casualties in the continued panic over SARS in China range from pampered pets that have been beaten to death or abandoned for fear of carrying the virus, to animosity toward southern Chinese who feast on exotic animals.

People from the north, including from the capital Beijing, are becoming suspicious of people in the south, especially Guangdong where the origin of the virus is believed to have originated.

The World Health Organization said the total number of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome infections in China rose to 4,884 over the weekend, and the death toll reached 235.

Aiming to spread hygiene awareness, China's state press has been churning out dozens of articles condemning "the taste for wild game," typical of people in Guangdong where snakes, frogs and fowl are a much sought-after delicacy.

SARS has been described as an animal disease that has spread to humans, although experts are not yet sure what kind of animal could breed the virus.

Still, the suspected involvement of animals in the life of the virus has spelled the end of affection of many Beijing people with their pets and have driven many others to panic at the mere sight of dogs walking on the streets.

"I told my employer I'm not going to walk her dog anymore," declared Xiao Cui, a maid for a foreign family who lives in the Beijing suburbs. "She might fire me but I'm terrified I can get the disease and be sent to the hospital."

Xiao Cui is not the only one terrified. 'Beijing Star Daily', a popular tabloid, touched a raw nerve when it carried a story of a pet owner in Fengtai district who threw his dog out of a sixth-story window for fear it had caught SARS.

In another well-publicized case, a dog was beaten to death after it sneezed repeatedly while waiting for his owner at an open-air market.

Responding to public pressure, many residential compounds have banned pet owners from walking their dogs within public gardens. Pest extermination patrols are out in force and their work is being aided by informers among the residents who become upset even by the sight of dogs on the streets.

As news spread that the pets of SARS victims would be put down by the authorities in order to avoid spreading the virus, some owners have opted to abandon their dogs.

"We look down at Guangdong people for eating all kinds of flying and crawling creatures but what some Beijing people have done to dogs is worse than killing and eating them," says Li Aimei, a real estate woman who was pressured by her family to give her pet into a shelter.

In the past, China has launched regular persecution campaigns against household pets, which are seen by communist ideologues as playthings for rich capitalists. Soon after taking control of the city in 1949, the authorities began rounding up and exterminating all dogs including household pets, declaring canines unproductive beasts that ate an undeserved share of the food grown by peasants.

Then in 1983, the anti-spiritual pollution campaign went hand in hand with a another brutal round of city-wide hunts for dogs - those who refused to cooperate found that their pets mysteriously disappeared.

In the mid-1990s, the state issued fresh regulations authorizing citizens to keep certain kinds of dogs provided they were not more than 35 centimeters high -- namely the Pekingese, the Shi Tzu, Tibetan Terriers and West Highland White Terrier.

On the other hand, the "people's war" against SARS is helping somewhat the cause of those campaigning to protect China's endangered animals from being eaten in up market restaurants.

Some suspect the Cantonese passion for feasting on exotic animals -- the rarer, the more valued -- is somehow connected to the sudden emergence of this new virus, perhaps a mutation that sprang up when wild and domestic animals came into contact in the markets catering for southern epicures.

The state media is now loudly condemning the practice, which has become ever more popular as living standards rose over the years.

A recent survey by the State Forest Administration conducted in 21 Chinese cities, including Beijing and Shanghai, found out that 46 percent of the surveyed have tried wild game. Some 45 percent believed that eating wild animals could boost one's energies and replenish the body's deficiencies.

While Beijing has its own restaurants of exotic cuisine, the SARS epidemic has made people keep away from them and look with disdain at once well-respected Guangdong chefs.

Guangdong, where the SARS virus is believed to have originated in November, has largely succeeded in containing the epidemic reported just 17 new cases on Thursday. In Beijing by contrast, another 94 new cases were reported that day and two deaths.

China reported 85 new probable cases of SARS on Saturday, including 54 new cases in Beijing, and five new deaths.

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Albion Monitor May 14, 2003 (

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