This month I visited Co-existence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE) in Seoul, South Korea. They are the largest of the few Korean welfare and conservation NGOs working on the challenges that animals in Korea face today. I took a look at their work with companion animals, and one of the most well-known challenges they face: the dog meat trade.
There were a lot of happy faces at one of the two adoption centres that CARE run in and around Seoul (as well as three shelters).
Here at their Dapsimni adoption centre, many of these 30 or so happy faces still have a long wait before they find their homes; like most cities in Asia, adopting a rescue dog is not very popular compared to buying pure-breeds from pet shops. A few lucky cats and dogs every month will find a loving home.
CARE are facing the same uphill struggle as charities all over Asia, pet breeders and shops, stray animals, improving public attitudes to animals and so on. But international attention is so often focused on a less-common problem in Asia: the dog meat trade.
Dog meat is by no means unique to Korea, it's produced and consumed in many countries from Vietnam, Cambodia, Philippines and many others around Asia, but China and Korea are most famous for this as the scale is larger. The practice is common, there are many farms across Korea, and dog meat can be bought at many markets in Seoul, but it is something that is mainly practised by the older generation. Indeed, many believe the industry is dying out slowly anyway within a few decades, but that still means millions of dogs will be bred and slaughtered.
The dog meat trade just one of many problems amongst all the others that animal welfare charities face, but it provides a background to help us understand just how difficult it is to change attitudes. It ties in very closely to other important animal welfare issues, such as vegetarianism/veganism, the livestock industry in general, and puppy mills producing dogs for pet shops: an activity very similar to dog meat farming, but much more accepted by the public.
So why do people focus on dogs, when other farm animals are treated in the same way? Isn't this hypocritical? Just because dogs are cute and cows aren't? CARE promote a vegan lifestyle and actively campaign on the meat and dairy industries, not just dog meat. The way dog meat farms and markets are regulated is also a little different to the rest of the industry, and so can be fought at a legal level in a way that cannot be done with other farming (more on this later). That's one reason to target it.
Another reason: it's no secret that people care more about companion animals than farm animals and that makes sense: we have more empathy for those that we live with. Rightly or wrongly, that is the way humans work. I am not vegan, and I don't defend myself for this, instead I try to keep moving towards it. I hope we can all work towards a world in which animals are no longer harmed. Indeed, before I dedicated my life to helping animals, I had been to many animal activities I am now ashamed of like elephant rides and dolphin shows. I learned, and gradually I changed my behaviour (and still am every day). Many believe that an abolitionist approach is the best way to stop animal cruelty. Others including myself believe that a pragmatic, step-by-step approach is more effective in changing human behaviour.
So if we can make people understand an issue close to their hearts and change their behaviour, it may be easier to help them understand the next issue too.
This is happening right now in Korea.
In May 2016 (just a couple of weeks before this essay was written), popular Korean TV show 'Animal Farm' produced an undercover expose on puppy mills: intensive farming of pure-breed dogs to sell in pet shops.
The public were angry.
The uproar reached TV and newspapers across the country, celebrities weighed in, and people called for it to stop. The public didn't know about the awful conditions that the dogs were kept in, and what happened to them once they were no longer needed for breeding.
Young Koreans don't eat dog meat so this issue doesn't affect their lives, but the dog they saw on TV is the same dog sitting on their sofa next to them.
This issue affects them, this they want to change.
The dog farm is hard to describe.
The conditions were similar to bear bile farms or some of the zoos I have covered. I only really engage emotionally with my 'cruelty' work when I am processing the footage afterwards. The occasional dog that stands out from the others, the looks on their faces, the fear they have for me. Maybe the hypocrisy I mentioned before is more relevant to me now: what really upsets me is thinking of my dog's face behind those bars, or the personalities of these dogs that would start to show if someone could take them to a loving home.
The first thing I noticed was the noise, pumps and machinery, endless barking. Worse than that was the smell. Rotting food, piles of feces, and the thousands of flies swarming around the whole area.
Bear in mind that this farm, the structures you see and the level of care for the dogs is, in theory, regulated and legal.
I have seen a lot of cruelty, and this farm was not the worst thing I've seen. Although I know I have necessarily become desensitised over the years.
There were huge boiling vats of leftover restaurant food for the dogs, who were in better condition than I expected. Perhaps this farmer isn't so different from those I met on school trips to the British countryside. Doing his job, just keeping animals until they are sold.
I'm told that most dog farms are worse than this, and I believe it.
From here, the dogs are transported to the meat markets at around 18 months old. Seoul's famous Moran Market is like any other, full of many types of fruits and vegetables, handbags and clothes, dried foods and snacks. At one end, a lot of cages and tables with puppies from puppy mills, to buy as pets. Along one side of the market are shops filled with many large cages. These cages are filled with goats, chickens, rabbits and dogs.
The shop owners were suspicious and vigilant. As soon as they see the camera they approached, waving and shouting, telling me not to film. I stick out like a sore thumb in this market, I don't look Korean and I'm (relatively!) young, obviously not a dog meat customer. The shop fronts are wide open, but I can't get very far: the staff are very aware of the international opinion of their trade. This aggression is a good sign, it means they know public opinion is changing against them.
The dogs are sitting in cages just like the goats and other animals, there is really no difference in the way they are treated. So again we ask the question, why is this any worse than the rest of the meat trade?
*Please skip the next paragraph if you prefer not to read about cruelty*
What I didn't see and couldn't film, is out back. When you choose a dog, it will be dragged to the back of the shop, hung and beaten with sticks, bricks, whatever is to hand, while they are still alive. It is believed this will improve the quality of the meat. The breeding and selling of food is regulated, but because dogs are not classified as livestock, their slaughter is not covered by regulations. This is what separates the dogs and goats in this market, and this is another reason why stopping the dog meat trade is more urgent in some people's minds. Again, there is no wrong or right opinion on this matter, but just know that there is a difference in the suffering of the animals.
CARE have rescued countless dogs from closing down dog meat farms over the years, and of course like with any country, many pure-breed pets will end up in shelters when they are too old or sick and their owners lose interest. CARE try to change public opinion, promoting adopting rescue dogs instead of buying from pet shops.
Other individuals and charities such as Humane Society International (HSI) have also closed dog meat farms, then shipping the dogs to the US and Canada for adoption. I haven't worked with HSI and don't know the details so I can't comment on this programme. I have heard great things about their work, but what I do know is that there are already countless thousands of dogs across the US and Canada that are desperate for adoption. Putting meat-farm dogs into American homes doesn't change the Korean attitude towards the rest of the thousands (some estimate millions) of dogs in farms across Korea.
Bomi is a little mixed-breed dog adopted from CARE. She is now in a happy home in Seoul, as are hundreds of other abuse cases, abandoned and stray dogs, and former victims of the dog meat trade. There are so many happy endings of these sad stories, and many more waiting for their own happy endings in CARE's shelters, each one of them spreading the word a bit further.
The coming weeks and months are a crucial opportunity: if the public outcry over puppy mills can change attitudes, the dog meat industry will be next. CARE are taking this chance not only to close this (and all) puppy mills and promote adoption, but also to show the public: the dog farms are just the same, let's close those too. After that, they can turn to rest of the farming industry and the similarities there too.
Will this issue stay in the public eye, and can it make a permanent change in attitudes for the dogs of Korea? Will more of these happy faces get adopted from CARE's centres in the coming years?
Time will tell.
Thank you to everyone who supports my work via my Patreon page, it's only through this crowdfunding I am able to help these charities. Thank you from all of us and the animals!
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