This week a warehouse space in Hialeah (a city within the greater Miami area) was ravaged in an electrical wiring-sparked blaze. There were no fire alarms and the owner kept no insurance. Over fifty souls perished. It was a tragedy all around. It made news in Miami but quickly fizzled, along with the memories of those overcome by the smoke and chemical fumes. Only five, locked in a sealed office space further from the source, survived.

Now you’re wondering how it was you missed such a newsworthy item. And I have a ready answer: because they were mostly birds. Only a couple of puppies (two Shih-tzus) lost their lives. And the five that survived? Pups, all, they came out of the blaze tails-a-wagging.  

A lot of chickens were among the asphyxiated, prompting some of us to recognize this location as one of the many outlets serving the largest Santería community in the US. So you know, this religious group has been granted (by Federal law) the right to preserve their practice of animal sacrifices in the city of Hialeah, in spite of prevailing zoning restrictions.

This has been an angst-ridden issue within the local populace. Although this two hundred year old Afro-Cuban tradition is alive and well in Miami, it is practiced quietly—in spite of the sacrifices. Though the animals are reportedly slaughtered humanely (one slice to the vessels in the neck), there is no government oversight of the practice (as there is with Kosher methods, for example). In case you’re wondering, the animals are later eaten, which seems to invite government intervention. And yet the Supreme Court has upheld their religious rights, nonetheless.

The problem with this practice, as I see it, is not the unregulated slaughter, necessarily, but the confinement and treatment of the ill-fated animals before the practice is carried out—and the animal trade that invariably exists to serve this relatively unique but locally widespread religion. This warehouse fire case seems exemplary of such conditions—not exactly pristine, as I’m given to understand.

As with all pet shops in industrial Hialeah (quite a few, for sure), these places are filthy and just barely adequate for housing animals. They go largely unregulated. They sell not just the chickens and the goats most typically sacrificed, but puppies, parrots and pocket pets, too. It’s an equal-opportunity animal welfare nightmare.

The tragedy here is not so much the fire and the preventable loss of animal life, but the many thousands of lives which are sacrificed annually not just to the tradition of the knife, but to the real crime: the barbarity of the trade it spawns.