China, as yet, has no law against cruelty to animals, despite calls for the introduction of such laws from the country’s animal rights activists, NGOs, and legal professionals.
Recently, this problem came to the forefront of public attention in China, and was reported in the mainstream media.
In 2019, Chinese Internet exploded with livestreaming and advertisements for pet turtles (red-eared sliders) with cartoon characters such as Peppa Pig, Hello Kitty and SpongeBob SquarePants, painted on their shells. The “colourful turtles”, as they were called, became “wang hong” – Internet celebrities, triggering a massive demand. The target customers were parents with small children.
"Colourful turtles" sold on-line in China last year. Delivery is promised within 24 hours, and the buyer also gets a turtle tank or turtle food for free. Prices are low - 8.25 and 12.5 yuan (USD 1.3 and 2). The advertisement on the right offers turtles wholesale - at 1.4 yuan (22 cents) each if 100 are bought. These are likely to have been bought by traders who then resold the turtles on animal markets and in pet shops. Now these on-line adverts have disappeared.
One “colourful turtle” cost around 10 yuan (1.6 US dollars), double the usual price for a small red-eared slider. The turtles were sold in pet shops and at animal markets as well as on-line, with customers receiving their turtles by post. The trade was brisk - one pet shop reported sales of 5,000 “colourful turtles” a month.
Fluorescent turtles that glowed in the dark also appeared on sale at the same time, mainly on-line, but they did not become as popular as painted turtles. It is not known what chemicals were used to turn the turtles phosphorescent.
The print on the shells was guaranteed by sellers not to come off or fade. Some sellers also claimed that “high tech” and “environmentally friendly” methods were used to paint the turtles. However, it was revealed in the media that the designs were printed on a plastic film that was then applied to shells of live animals.
"Colourful turtles" on sale at a market in China.
Gu Dangen, of the Chinese Academy of Fisheries Science, said in an interview with Shenzhen Evening News that such treatment corrodes the shells of turtles and possibly has negative effects on children’s health too.
Gu also highlighted the fact that the “colourful turtles” were red-eared sliders, a notorious invasive species. Red-eared sliders, whose original distribution is the USA and Mexico, are included in the 100 worst invasive species list by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). The species is now common in lakes and ponds in south China.
Red eared sliders (Trachemys scripta), known in China as "Brazilian turtles", are farmed and sold as pets in huge numbers. The species is now living in the wild across Southern China because of releases by pet owners.
Gu urged the public not to buy “colourful turtles” – both because of the cruelty involved in painting their shells, but also because many will inevitably end up in the wild, causing further ecological damage.
Shenzhen Evening News also interviewed a Guangzhou lawyer Su Shuchao on the legality of such treatment of turtles. Su called painting of turtles “inhumane”, and confirmed that China has no laws against animal cruelty.
Su, however, pointed out that sending live animals in the mail was against the postal regulations in China, and a delivery company could lose their business license for such conduct. The lawyer appealed to the public not to buy painted turtles and also to report to the authorities any delivery company that ships live animals.
The majority of the comments by the public to articles on “colourful turtles” were condemning the trade, calling for the authorities to investigate and prosecute.
After such negative exposure in the media and a public outcry, the trade in “colourful turtles” and phosphorescent turtles vanished – from the Internet as well as animal markets and pet shops.
The “colourful turtles” controversy shows that the majority of the Chinese public, especially the urban, educated middle class, are ready to take a stand against animal cruelty. What they now need is a law.