When in a Rome where cats and dogs are eaten

A dog surveys an eerily quiet street in a motobike-free zone in the World Heritage part of Hoi An, in Central Vietnam. This is not Hanoi, but any roving dog in Vietnam is at some risk of being lassoed from a motorbike and eaten
Photo: Huynh Van Nam

Vietnam Heritage, February 2011 -- When I turn off Boulevard Nguyen Chi Thanh into my street, I come to a public eatery famous for its large outdoor spit. Around it, dozens of tables are set for lunch. On the spit is speared a glistening carcass - usually a cow or a pig. Every once in a while it’s a dog. I avert my face and hurry by, deferential to the mores of a culture different from mine. All the same, the quotation below from a Vietnamese monthly made me flinch.
Hanoi is the dog capital of Vietnam. In the markets, dog carcasses hang on iron hooks over displays of chicken legs and pork chops. Tourists snicker or cover their mouths; some vow never to come back to Vietnam. They are cat- and dog-owners, or cat- and dog-lovers. They understand the loving connection between humans and their pets.
Vietnamese people are touchy about western censure. They point out that women don’t eat dogs, that most consumers live in the countryside, and that dog meat is never served in the pagodas. Cultural historians argue that dog-meat-eaters share a strong communal feeling because they have tasted something singular and rarified. Ancient superstitions claim that consuming dog meat will vanquish bad luck. I listen and bear it in silence, because for me the worst is still to come.
Cat meat is not part of the traditional food of Vietnam, but finds its way to the plate from time to time. In Thai Binh, a coastal province south-east of Hanoi, several dozen restaurants serve cat dishes. You can choose your cat live from a wire cage, like you would choose a red snapper from the restaurant fish tank, and have it cooked to your taste. White cats are never offered, but black cats are the most expensive and usually reserved for connoisseurs. The walk-in crowd gets the run-of-the-mill colour.
In 1998, a decree issued in Hanoi threatened to revoke business licences of restaurants serving cat meat, and to punish cat thieves and traders. The then Prime Minister, who sponsored the initiative, has since left office, and the enforcement has been lax. Cat farms do not need a licence from the state and suppliers are numerous. From time to time, a government spokesman announces, without offering any statistical proof, that fewer and fewer cats are being slaughtered for human consumption. Restaurant-owners balk at the idea that cat meat cannot be as freely available as dog meat.
I’ve been an inveterate cat-owner for half a century, and sleeping without my cat on my bed ranked as a major adjustment to life in Hanoi. I grew up sharing Anne of Green Gables’ tender feelings for her unruly cow, and adoring Lassie, the Scottish collie  worshiped by the western world. I read Bambi and Peter Rabbit to my children until they knew them by heart. My daughter must have kissed or hugged every cat and dog in Ottawa. Two years ago, my son spent an unholy four-digit sum on tests, shots, cages, air fares and quarantine to take his two beloved cats from Ottawa to Sydney.
With such stellar family credentials, I do want to exercise my right to be offended by what I hear and see around me. But one cannot live in a state of perpetual indignation. So I practise tolerance – a quintessential Canadian virtue. Or grasp at any conscience-easing piece of wisdom. ‘Si fueris Romae, Romano vivito more,’ St Ambrose is said to have advised St Augustine – ‘When in Rome, do as the Romans do.’ St Augustine’s objection was about food. He arrived in Milan and questioned why the Church there did not fast on Saturday as the Church at Rome did. St Ambrose obliged that Rome was Rome, but Milan was different.  That was 16 centuries ago, and ‘Thou shall respect the culture you visit,’ has been the 11th Commandment since.
But Rome is a hard place in Hanoi. Living here requires me to suspend judgment and accept the unacceptable. I remind myself that in an agricultural country like Vietnam, dogs are part of the farmer’s animal domain, which includes pigs, ducks, chickens and other edibles. They rarely have special status as pets. Dog sculptures, carved in limestone, symbolically guard villages and temples, but breathing dogs are mostly raised for consumption. Cats, on the other hand, are crucial to protect crops, and farmers prefer to use cats rather than chemical poisons to control rodents. Many favour the measures against slaughtering cats.
Do I – a meat-eater and a cat-and-dog-loving expat – have a stomach for all this? Not for a minute. My culture has instilled in me a lasting love for selected animals, who for me are friends and companions, not dinner. I cannot deny my abhorrence at knowing that they are killed for food or fur. So I console myself with the hope that things are likely to change with rising affluence. After all, it wasn’t that long ago that horsemeat was routinely consumed in the Western world. The Asians might just become more like us. In February 2007, for example, in the province of Hebei, in China, animal-lovers confronted animal traders, and, after a showdown with them and with the police, secured the transfer of some 400 death-row cats to a shelter in Beijing.
Vietnam has some way to go in this respect. For now, the way to calm my heartbeat is to summon up guilt: I come from a rich country and can afford pets; in my culture, pets have acquired ‘human’ rights; the cost of flying two cats from Canada to Australia would cover the food bill of a Vietnamese orphanage for a year; while my children have grown up with household pets and storybook animals, Vietnamese children are raised without gushy musings, but surrounded by real animals – at their feet and on their plates.
Still, like most westerners in Hanoi, I wouldn’t dream of seeking out dog or cat meat. It’s hard enough to walk in the market among the sinewy carcasses. But the final reckoning will come. One of these days, at a celebratory dinner in a Vietnamese home, or at a wedding reception of one of my students, someone will nudge me and say, ‘By the way, do you know what you’re eating?’  Back to Rome then.

By Elizabeth McLean
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