Saving dogs from the S Korean dining table

Washington this month received some 23 dogs from South Korea meant for the dining table, and activists are now hoping to save more of them.

The Humane Society International (HSI) has been fighting for years to reduce the dog meat trade in East Asia and recently made a breakthrough when it succeeded in getting a South Korean dog farm to close.

"We had a series of discussions with the farmer... We came at the right time to take custody of the dogs, versus the selling of the dogs to another farm or market," said Ms Kelly O'Meara, director of companion animals and engagement at HSI.

The group raised US$2,500 (S$3,300) to compensate the farmer and convince him to concentrate on his blueberry farm instead.

Over the last two months, HSI staff also coordinated the vaccination, health certification and transport logistics for the removal of the dogs from the farm. They then sent the dogs to the United States where they will be put up for adoption.

The culture of eating dog meat is present in many Asian countries and dates back centuries, according to food and cultural experts.

While Western cultures might find the practice repugnant, in premodern Korea it was simply regarded as a "good source of meat", said Professor Michael Pettid, who teaches premodern Korean Studies at Binghamton University in New York.

Animal activists say rescue operations are never easy and usually take months of work and negotiations. Dog meat farmers and traders are also often hostile towards activists who they feel are targeting their livelihood.

Said Ms Lola Webber, co-founder of Change For Animals Foundation (CFAF), who acted as a consultant for HSI on this project: "I've seen traders get aggressive when people try to take photos of their dogs in the market. They have made a living raising dogs and a lot of them don't see anything wrong with it."

The dogs are kept - much like other livestock - in squalid, cramped conditions and, often, pet dogs are also stolen for their meat. The CFAF said dogs are inherently unsuitable to be farmed for commercial meat production because of their behavioural and physical needs.

Ms Webber, who has been lobbying against the dog meat trade in South Korea for the last four years, said not only is dog meat eaten in soups or stews for sustenance, but South Koreans also believe the meat has medicinal properties.

CFAF estimates that up to two million dogs are consumed annually in South Korea, 20 million in China, five million in Vietnam and more than 500,000 in the Philippines.

In South Korea, the industry is neither legalised nor banned as the government is "caught between the demands for animal protection... and the deeply embedded custom of traditional food defended by mainstream society", said Ms Webber.

A Gallup opinion poll commissioned by Asia Canine Protection Alliance-South Korea last year showed that 53 per cent of the respondents had tried dog meat before, and over 58 per cent felt dog meat should be legalised.

Ms Webber explained that in South Korea there is a stigma attached to "tosa mix" and "yellow dogs" that are considered "meat dogs", which are viewed differently from "pet dogs" such as Labradors, poodles or Huskies.

In the US, however, "rescue dogs are desirable for adoption and we knew we could find good, loving homes if the dogs were flown to the US", said Ms O'Meara.

As for the 23 dogs from South Korea which arrived in Washington DC, they are now being cared for in six local shelters and awaiting adoption.

This article was first published on Jan 18, 2015.
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