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December 13, 2015

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Animal lovers liberate wildlife

ZHANG Ping, 52, goes now and then to her local wet market to buy live frogs, eels or fish. But she doesn’t cook them. Rather, she takes them to a nearby river and releases them in the water.

Zhang, a retiree and committed Buddhist, said returning the creatures to the wild gives her peace of mind.

“It started when I accompanied a group of Buddhists to Fangsheng Bridge, which literally means “life releasing bridge,” in the Jing’an District,” she said. “The group was led by a young white collar worker who was very learned in Buddhist customs.”

Zhang said she doesn’t know whether the animals she releases survive or not. What matters, she said, is the “good intention.”

Her story isn’t all that unusual anymore in China. In recent years, the rise of animal protection organizations has prompted even non-Buddhists to engage in similar activities.

Freeing captive animals tends to be associated with Buddhism, but in fact, the practice existed in China hundreds of years before Buddhism was introduced.

During the Spring and Autumn Period (770-476 BC), there were records of people “catching birds and fish just to set them free.”

At the time, ideologist Yan Zi said that “greater love and kindness should include beasts as well.” That became a crux of sorts for the concept of freeing captive animals.

After Buddhism was introduced into China, the tradition became a governmental deed. Imperial families of several dynasties would release animals during festivals. In modern times, most Buddhist temples still retain “life freeing ponds” where believers can release aquatic and amphibians.

Social media has proven a swift channel for popularizing the idea beyond temples. WeChat, QQ and other platforms are all used to organize wildlife-release activities that don’t hinge on the idea that attaining virtue requires the proximity of a temple.

The problem is that the explosion of organized activities releasing fish, loaches, mice, snakes, turtles and squirrels ­— among other wildlife ­­— back to nature can cause havoc.

In Shanghai every weekend, some people are pouring thousands of fish and loaches into the Huangpu River from the Dongchang Riverside Greenery Area. Just a mile downstream, other people are there trying to catch them for dinner. And the number of profiteers trying to make some quick cash is also on the rise.

“It is a bit ridiculous,” said Wu Ping, a resident who goes to the greenery area every day for morning exercise. “There are people selling aquatic products to the animal-release people to make money, and there are people waiting for them to pour the products into the river in order to catch them. This absurdity goes on week after week.”

Outside Shanghai, the profit chain has formed around freeing larger captives.

In northeastern China, freeing birds is more popular than freeing aquatic animals. Hunters catch birds and sell them to wildlife-release advocates. But many of the birds are weak after periods of captivity and aren’t able to fly and escape predators like cats.

“Freeing birds has become a business,” said Tang Jingwen, deputy director of the Jilin Province Wildlife Protection Association. “Bird dealers receive orders from ‘freers,’ and then book orders for birds from hunters. It is a vicious cycle.”

Apart from animal abuse, the road to environmental destruction is paved with good intentions.

In southeastern China’s Fujian Province, people released more than 1,500 Brazilian turtles into a park in the capital Fuzhou. Local environmental protection officers said the turtles were an invasive species that bred rapidly and squeezed native turtles out of their habitats.

In Liuzhou in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, people released cobras and other venomous snakes into a local park last month, provoking widespread panic in the city.

“We saw several people releasing gunnysacks full of snakes,” said Ye Fei, director of the Security Section of the park. “When the weather is good, the snakes congregate in certain areas to get some sunshine. Local people are really unsettled by the sight of them.”

In 2012, squirrels released into the Taishan Mountain area of Shandong Province also caused great damage. The squirrels proliferated in an area where there were no such animals in the past, and quickly decimated local walnut crops.

The problem is that China doesn’t have any laws regulating the release of captive animals.

“Government departments need to start cooperating on this issue,” said Wang Zuo’an, director of the State Administration for Religious Affairs. “Such activities should be regulated by environmental protection, agricultural, forestry and quarantine authorities, or they should be declared illegal.”

The Buddhist Association of China is also calling for restraint.

Master Xuecheng, director of the association, said that freeing life expresses the Buddhist theory of rescue and mercy, but not to the extent of causing harm, which is contrary to Buddhist beliefs.

“We have posted a notice at temples, urging people to ensure that any release of wildlife won’t harm the animals, the environment or people living in the area,” said Xuecheng. “And we don’t support the idea of profit-making business attached to animal release.”


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