What is Mercy Release?

This image is taken from a Scientific American Slideshow.

I’ve now been living in Asia pretty consistently for 10 years now. I have been lucky to spend decent lengths of time in Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia (and although not in Asia, I have spent a year in France and also Morocco).  The first five years were spent tour-leading for a company that focused on trips that were considered culturally appropriate, fun and low impact. I spent much of my time having local interaction with the local people, taking my clients to local restaurants. markets, temples, taught them a bit of language and I have to say, I really enjoyed it It was during that time, that I started to doubt my vegetarianism values. As I have discussed on my Story of Transformation post, I really felt that  not eating animals and participating in some of the activities that were such a significant part of culture, I was somehow disrespecting the practices of the locals. For more selfish reasons, I thought that I was perhaps missing out on so much by not eating an ‘authentic’ Tom Yum Goong with the shrimp inside rather than having it with mushrooms instead.

Fast forward a few years, I am now a committed vegan, and because of my interest in other cultures and traditions relating to animals, I was fascinated to learn about mercy release today and also completely shocked by it.

Anyone who has spent any time in Asia, will be familiar with the concept. It’s a Buddhist tradition and involves the release of captive animals. Buddhists will release animals as a way to gain merit. The origin of this centuries old tradition is the idea that spontaneous acts of kindness and compassion will mean something when judgment day comes.

I have posted about religious reasons for using animals just last year when I wrote about Eid Al Adha – which is the ritualistic slaughter of an animal at the end of the fasting month.

I have recently found out a lot more about mercy release and like most traditions (cultural or religious) that we practice today that involve animals, the origins of those traditions were started out of necessity, but today have become a commercial operation and / or are no longer necessary.

I myself have witnessed mercy release in my wanderings around Asia in the few years in the following places.

  • In the lead up to Tet (Vietnamese New Year) when fish are released in to bodies of water (that is often not the cleanest it could be).
  • Walking through the streets of Bangkok, there will be people walking around with cages full of finches. The vendor will gesture to tourists and of course to anyone who will pay the money to come over the release the birds.
  • In Thai temples (of which I visited sooooo many in my tour-leading days) there are often vendors who will sell the opportunity to release animals (often birds, turtles and eels) to those who are visiting. Of course, Buddhists who are coming to the temple are in merit-making mode and will often participate in this. Tourists often do this too. Of course, all those little animals in small cages, of course we want to let them  go.

I have to admit, that until just a couple of hours ago, I had little idea about this industry. I don’t think I have ever participated in it even in my tour-leading days. I heard rumours from other tour leaders that the animals are often recaptured. I have to admit, I wondered how an animal could be captured twice (What terrible luck!) and wondered if this was THAT bad, but at the same time, there were a heck of a lot of these animals in the cages. I probably should have found out more, but you know… I never got around to it.

Well, I just found out a whole lot more in one of favourite animal rights podcasts, Our Hen House. There were interviewing Iris Ho from Human Society International who was interviewed about this issue.

Some of the incredible takeaways from learning about this issue are:

  • In Taiwan, there are 200 million animals that are ‘mercy released’ a year. I cannot imagine how many animals go through this fate altogether considering China is a country that also practices Mercy Release. Considering these animals are trapped from the wild or bred in terrible conditions, this is an almost unbelievable.
  • The animals are often transported long distances and suffer incredible stress. Many die during this process or shortly after release. They are released in places that are not native to the animals there so there can be considerable environmental impacts.
  • The animals are trapped and the traps are often not checked for a long time. Many die before they are even collected by the trappers. Many can be injured during this trapping process.

To hear the podcast interview, listen here from 28:24  for about 20 minutes.

For a snapshot of the issue, here is a video that has been produced by HIS. It’s in Chinese, for the Taiwanese communities. Please take a few minutes to find out about more about mercy release.

The idea of showing compassion towards animals to gain merit is certainly a noble one. I would like to suggest that very often these traditions and rituals have become involved in ego, rather than about what the actual message was about when the tradition started. Here’s a few examples.

  • At Christmas it’s become about parties and gifts rather than peace and goodwill
  • Thanksgiving has become about Black Friday sales and gluttony rather than simple gratitude.
  • Eid el Adha has become about who has the biggest animal to slaughter (the rich will often have the bigger more expensive animal) rather than breaking fast and sharing meat with the poor in a time of scarcity where there wasn’t much food out there.
  • Kosher and halal slaughter – the idea that the animal has to be fully conscious so that consumers could be sure that the meat was healthy has now become a reason NOT to stun the animal before slaughter.

There is plenty we can all do to raise awareness about this practice and practice alternative types of mercy release to gain merit whether you are Buddhist or not.

Things you can do.

  • Don’t participate in the practice and educate others about it. Support HSI’s work and share the information around your social networks and over the water cooler.
  • If you work in the tourism industry, please educate your passengers about this issue and ask them to not participate. Don’t visit temples that support this practice and explain why to the monks. I wish I had known more about this issue when I was tour-leading.
  • Even if you are Buddhist, you can still gain merit by spontaneous acts of compassion towards animals. Become involved with legitimate release of animals, like ones that have been rescued and then help release them back in to the wild (turtle release programs, cleaning animals after oil spills etc) or perhaps even better, help animals 3 times a day by NOT doing something! That’s right….. Not eating them! OK. It might not be looked on as favorably in your religious community, but if you are into pleasing the Gods, I am sure they will think your intentions  will gain you loads more merit.

 

Eid Al-Adha

It’s been a very tough day for me. An emotional rollar coaster day. I have so much going on at work, but it is hard to focus when there is so much pain and suffering. Today was one of those days. I just felt like crying all day and it kept getting worse.

It started off with buckets of tears as I watched the new film released by Animals Australia to coincide with their new campaign to ban factory farming. A fantastic video that tugs at the heart strings. It was comforting to see it shared on so many Facebook pages. I hope it opens hearts and minds and that people make changes.

A long hard day at work came to an end and as I was cycling home. I saw this fella. There was another in his place this time last year. Now, despite living in suburban Indonesia, I live in a gated community and it doesn’t look that much different from one in the US except security is tighter here. An animal like here tied up is certainly a novelty. This guy will be slaughtered on Friday to ‘celebrate’ Eid Al Adha.

I approached him. I tried to pet him, but he wouldn’t let me. He sniffed my hand and I felt his warm breath on my hand. I was welcomed by the guys there who were setting up  what I think must be a tent or a shelter. Possibly for the after slaughter party, I’m not sure. As I looked him in the eye and knew that this was a creature that would be literally fighting for his life in less than 36 hours. That he probably did not want to die. According to Wikipedia, the animal that is slaughtered is just a symbol. A symbol to represent what Abraham’s sacrifice and 100 million animals will be slaughtered over the course of 2 days. I am sure that much of this meat goes to waste. Instead of this senseless violence, can’t we just spend a few minutes thinking deeply about Abraham’s sacrifice instead of having to bring an innocent animal in to it?

In case anyone thinks I am being anti-Islamic here, I swear I am not. I have had several discussions with some behavioral omnivores who feel that this holiday is incredibly barbaric. I agree… But I find any ritual or tradition that needlessly kills an animal for the sake of tradition barbaric. The turkey that is the centre of the dinner table at Christmas and Thanksgiving, hunting for eggs at Easter time, steak on BBQ, it’s all unnecessary. The difference is in Islamic countries you look in to the animals eyes and use the knife. With turkey, someone else has been paid to do that for you. I have observed many rituals and festivals without the use of animals and the feeling that my special meal has come together without intentionally harming any living thing is so wonderful. I celebrate Christmas. Isn’t peace supposed to be a focus of Christmas? Christmas took on new meaning for me when I gave up all animal products.

To the beautiful bull with a gentle face and kind eyes not 50 metres from my house. I wish I could save you. I will just keep raising awareness so that your death was not in vein. I hope your death is swift and as painless as possible. Know that there are some people speaking for you and your kind.