When Cindy is first tried the Artemisia Anti-Hemorrhage Formula nutritional supplements she purchased on Amazon, she had no reason to suspect she was eating donkey. A California native and lifelong vegetarian, she suggested the world’s largest online retailer verified the bottle’s claim that it was made with “100 percent pure natural herbs.” But reading the back of the bottle, she noticed an ingredient she hadn’t seen before: “black gelatin.” She googled it and what she found made her stomach turn.
Every year, millions of donkeys are slaughtered and skinned to make the so-called black gelatin found in Cindy’s dietary supplement. The animal product, most commonly called “jejiao” or “donkey skin gelatin,” is made from donkey skin. According to a 2019 report by Donkey Sanctuary, it’s in such high demand for its supposed health benefits that it’s decimating the world’s donkey population and leading to increasing cruelty to the animals. A video obtained by the organization shows workers in Tanzania hammering donkeys to meet their slaughter quotas. “It’s not herbal. It’s literally made of donkeys,” says Cindy, who asked to be identified only by her first name for privacy reasons. “Why would Amazon sell something so violent?”
While some retailers, such as Walmart and eBay, have pledged to remove products containing ejiao, edibles containing the ingredient are widely sold on Amazon, despite numerous petitions asking them to stop selling them. A lawsuit filed in California last week by the nonprofit Center for Advanced Equine Research alleges that Amazon’s continued sales of these donkey-based products is more than distasteful — it could be illegal.
The center alleges that Amazon’s distribution and sale of ejiao violates an obscure California animal welfare law called the No Horse Slaughter and Sale of Horse Meat for Human Consumption Act. The 1998 ballot initiative, known at the time as Proposition 6, criminalized the sale of horsemeat for human consumption on the grounds that horses, like dogs and cats, are not food animals and deserve the same protection. The center claims that under the statute, equine means any part of a horse, including donkeys.
For Frank Rothschild, director of the Center for Advanced Equine Research, the law is clear: Donkeys are horses, and it is illegal to sell ejiao for human consumption in California. “We are a scientific organization, not a national advocacy. We want the defendants to stop selling ejiao because it is illegal,” he says. “That’s the law.”
Bruce Wagman, an attorney unaffiliated with the complaint who has practiced animal rights in California for 18 years, says that while the center presents a reasonable argument, it’s unclear whether a judge will agree because the law’s wording leaves room for interpretation. “The text of the relevant statute does not really define a horse,” he says. “But the spirit of Proposition 6 is to prevent the slaughter of horses, including donkeys, for human consumption. Full stop.”