In the Arab world, cats are considered vermin, dogs only get attention when they're put into rings to fight each other to the death, and where animal cruelty laws exist at all, they are taken about as seriously as jaywalking rules are here.

June 4, 2011

In the Arab world, cats are considered vermin, dogs only get attention when they're put into rings to fight each other to the death, and where animal cruelty laws exist at all, they are taken about as seriously as jaywalking rules are here.

Then there's Toronto, where attacking raccoons that are destroying your backyard garden gets you handcuffed and escorted by authorities to the police station, where you'll be charged, and perhaps even publicly shamed, before being released.

Such is the cultural gap that exists where treatment of animals is concerned, and 53-year-old Dong Nguyen, arrested and charged with animal cruelty after beating several baby raccoons in his backyard Wednesday, finds himself in the middle of a debate that is increasingly bitter.

Within hours of his arrest, a neighbour and her husband swung into action, printing flyers on which a photo of Mr. Nguyen was shown, identifying him as an "animal torturer" and calling for his expulsion from their west-end neighbourhood.

"This is barbaric cruelty, which has no place in our society or in this neighbourhood," said Nanette Lang. "His release so quickly speaks to our lack of animal justice here; animals aren't valued."

Two other neighbours of Mr. Nguyen reacted quickly to his arrest as well, albeit with different motivation. Jack Fava and Zabar Moursalien hit the streets Thursday night to rally support for a demonstration they have organized for Saturday, in defence of Mr. Nguyen and in opposition to what they see as the city's inertia in combating the "raccoon problem."

"I do not support violence against animals in any way," Mr. Moursalien said. "But the way this gentleman was treated -the handcuffs -it was like he killed a child. There were five to six police cruisers here [Wednesday]. I couldn't believe it."

Mr. Fava said his canvassing efforts revealed most neighbours sympathized with Mr. Nguyen, not the animals, who are plentiful in the area, nest in attics, get into residents' garbage and destroy lawns and gardens.

Friends and family of Mr. Nguyen told the National Post Wednesday his actions were misrepresented, claiming he was simply shooing the beasts away with a broom. They offered no insight into how two raccoons died and another suffered a fractured right paw.

Thuy Nguyen, a settlement worker at the Vietnamese Women's Association of Toronto who is not related to the man arrested Wednesday, used cultural relativism as one possible explanation for the accused's approach to the raccoons earlier this week.

"Wildlife is not respected in Vietnam; people kill them, hunt them, sometimes even eat them," she said. "Obviously, we don't have raccoons in Vietnam, but if someone there was beating a wild animal, this would not be a big issue. No."

Treatment of animals is one area that tends to highlight cultural differences, and while cruelty and abusive behaviour are not specific to any one culture, ethnicity or sex, Randall Lockwood, senior vice-president of Forensic Science and Anti-Cruelty Projects at the American SPCA, says it is important for cities with high levels of immigration to educate newcomers on local laws and customs.

"You have to be familiar with the laws of the culture where you live," he said, adding that there is potential for very real concern when the cultural norms of foreigners conflict with those of their countries of residency.

"Animals are used in religious sacrifice in some Afro-Caribbean cultures. In California, there are very active outreach programs in the Vietnamese and Korean communities as to how animals are treated in our culture. We have concerns over the attitude toward dogs on some Native reservations."

One country that exemplifies divergent attitudes toward animals is the United Arab Emirates, where the handful of shelters are run primarily by British and U.S. expatriates, who are generally shocked to learn the local attitudes toward animals and casual view of animal abuse.

It was the UAE's expats whose efforts led to the country's first animal welfare law being introduced in 2008.

One Dubai organization, Feline Friends, routinely saw cats that had been skinned, burned and thrown out of cars or apartment windows.

"There is a mentality that animals are dirty, they have diseases, and so they're treated like vermin," Robyn Crowley of Feline Friends told The National newspaper.

The repercussions of Mr. Nguyen's actions will become clear over the next months as he makes his way through the courts.

But regardless of whether raccoons are seen as cute and cuddly or diseased vermin, the animals are protected under our wildlife and animal cruelty laws that, though they vary widely among cities and countries, are generally guided by morality, Dr. Lockwood said. As for bludgeoning raccoons, he doesn't see much grey area there.

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