Live animal markets in San Francisco accused of mistreatment

Undercover video suggests 11 shops that slaughtered and sold animals may have violated the law.

At a San Francisco seafood shop, a worker in a pink hair cap and yellow gloves appears to cut into a turtle while it’s still alive and moving. Later, a dismembered fish continues to flop on a bed of ice, still alive but apparently unnoticed by nearby staff. A worker throws three live frogs onto a table before they’re carried off for slaughter.

These are some of the alleged animal welfare violations captured on video during a recent undercover investigation at 11 live animal markets throughout the city of San Francisco. At these establishments, live animals are selected, killed, and sold for food consumption. The scenes, recorded by the Washington, D.C.-based animal advocacy group Animal Outlook in February and March, were all visible to customers in the stores, says the group, which shared its video and findings exclusively with National Geographic.

In the group’s undercover footage, fish slowly suffocated, were kept in dirty, crowded containers, and experienced other stressors. 

The footage from Animal Outlook primarily captures mistreatment of marine animals including turtles, fish, and crabs, but it also includes chickens that were stuffed into overcrowded cages, which the group alleges is a violation of protections under both San Francisco’s and California’s welfare laws.

California’s animal welfare law does not distinguish between marine and terrestrial species, so the conditions witnessed at the 11 San Francisco locations would be considered illegal acts of cruelty and neglect under state law, says Scott David, the director of investigations at Animal Outlook. The state additionally has specific protections for animals at live markets that prohibit actions including removing feathers or shells while they’re breathing. That 20-year-old law states that an animal at such locations may not be “dismembered, flayed, cut open, or have its skin, scales, feathers, or shell removed while the animal is still alive.”

Lynne Sneddon, a fish pain expert at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, who analyzed the footage for National Geographic, says the scenes reveal “inhumane treatment of sentient animals.”

Fish, frogs, and turtles all have receptors for pain and respond to it like mammals, Sneddon says.

“Fish are held in the air where they are suffocating. This would be similar to holding a terrestrial mammal under water until it drowned,” she says.

Meanwhile, the overcrowded conditions for the fish, and tanks with very shallow waters—as shown in the video—would cause severe stress for the animals, and that stress response, besides being an animal welfare issue, taints the flavor of the fish because the animal’s bodies would be flooded with hormones like cortisol, she notes.

Pain that lasts

The 11 live markets shown in the video primarily sell live fish and marine animals, though one sold poultry. They’re all in bustling communities, “on streets with apartment buildings, and families are walking around, and kids are waiting at bus stops,” David says.

His team chose to focus on these 11 San Francisco live markets to raise awareness that these shops are in U.S. cities and not just in other countries, he says. Moreover, the group wanted to shine a light on the welfare issues occurring among marine animals.

His group previously documented alleged animal abuse at live markets in Los Angeles and in New York City, though the animals sold in those locations were primarily chickens and other livestock, not marine animals, he says.

The most well-known live market in recent years is Wuhan’s Huanan Seafood Wholesale Market in China. Many early COVID-19 cases occurred among people who had connections to that site, where live animals were killed and sold, including snakes, beavers, and porcupines. The market’s conditions and sanitation practices raised questions about zoonotic disease threats as well as animal welfare concerns.

What the law says

Punishment for violations of California’s live animal market protections may include a written warning, possibly followed by fines, says Matthew Liebman, the chair of the Justice for Animals Program at the University of San Francisco School of Law.

Violations of the state’s animal welfare laws vary depending on whether a case is pursued by prosecutors as a misdemeanor or as a felony. The latter could include jail time or substantial fines, he adds.

“There’s been a longstanding controversy in the city of San Francisco over live animal markets,” Liebman says. These sites “seem to pit two progressive values against each other: Respect for cultural difference on one hand and protecting animals from suffering on the other.” 

Animal Outlook alerted San Francisco Animal Care and Control to the issues the group witnessed in a letter in late July. Lieutenant Rebecca Fenson responded to Animal Outlook’s investigation on a phone call and told them that she is looking into the matter, according to the group. Deb Campbell, a spokesperson for the agency, confirmed to National Geographic that this issue is under active investigation. “To look into allegations like this from March is difficult,” she says. “People really need to let us know right away when something is happening" so officers may be able to “cite the owners and seize animals and take action. That’s our job.”

Examining the standard for slaughter

The animal welfare practices revealed in this investigation are egregious, says Sneddon, the fish pain expert. She points, in particular, to the way fish were slaughtered.

Instead of knocking the fish out by hitting them in the correct part of the skull and destroying their brains while the marine animals are stunned—the preferred method, she says—it’s evident that fish in this video are simply decapitated. In such situations, the animals would be able to feel those final blows and that would cause “severe pain and suffering since the brain is still active.”

“Decapitation on its own does not mean brain death in these animals so it’s really not humane,” she says. Fish, frog, and turtle brains can all withstand low oxygen and low blood flow, so decapitation on its own does not result in immediate death, she says. Simply put: “These animals continue to suffer after their heads are removed.”

No study has looked at pain and decapitation in the animals specifically, but there is research showing brain activity and responses to external stimuli for some time after decapitation, Sneddon says. In one 1997 study, eel heads showed signs of life for up to eight hours after decapitation—underscoring why it’s so essential to destroy the brain prior to decapitation, she says.

Scott David says that the goal of Animal Outlook’s investigation is to make sure that existing laws are enforced, but also to raise awareness about the exploitation of animals “no matter if they are fish, frogs, turtles, cows, or pigs.” Ultimately, he says, “we would like to a build a world that is kinder for animals.”

The National Geographic Society supports Wildlife Watch, our investigative reporting project focused on wildlife crime and exploitation. Read more Wildlife Watch stories here, and send tips, feedback, and story ideas to NGP.WildlifeWatch@natgeo.com. Learn about the National Geographic Society’s nonprofit mission at natgeo.com/impact.

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