Dog Meat Trade and Transport in Asia: Illegal and Inhumane
This article is an excerpt from a longer work that further examines the history and role of the consumption of dog meat in Asia, as well as contemporary social issues that arise from this practice and its association with the illegal dog meat trade. All photos were obtained through a personal communication with John Dalley, courtesy of Soi Dog Foundation, and are the least graphic of my archive.
The Dog Meat Trade
While the Thai government actively works with animal rights groups and non-profit organizations like the Soi Dog Foundation to advocate the humane treatment of animals in Thailand, still smugglers transport thousands of dogs each day from Thailand to its neighbors—specifically Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—where the dogs are slaughtered and their meat sold as a delicacy. This practice is barbaric, its methods cruel: Soi Dog recently saved one dog while she was being skinned alive. This is by no means an isolated incident or an anomaly of the dog meat trade. In fact, Soi Dog reports that “many [dogs] are tortured often for hours before … their fur is removed” by smugglers and dog meat farmers.
One might ask, “What’s the difference between eating a cow and a dog?” It’s a matter of culture, really; in the U.S. we eat cows, while in other countries people eat dogs. Adrian Hillman notes that “[m]any cultures of the world have at some point or another turned to dogs as a source of food” (2010, 45). In fact, “archaeological evidence” suggests that dogs have been part of the human diet “for thousands of years” (Herzog 185). Many cultures have historically treated dogs as “walking larders,” feeding them excessively during times of plenty and “harvesting them” when food supplies ran low (185). Dog meat was a staple in the diets of both South and North American native cultures and continues to be so in the Philippines, Africa, and Asia today. In fact, each year Asian countries alone consume “approximately 16 million dogs and 2 million cats” (186). While the Chinese consume the most dog meat, “South Koreans [also] have a long tradition of eating dog” (186). Many Asian countries including South Korea breed and harvest meat-dogs on meat-dog farms expressly for consumption.
Why It's Illegal
The consumption of dog meat is not, however, all cruelty. Dog meat has been and is a staple of the diets in some cultures where enough meat and protein for a huge population is hard to come by. Plus, many cultures believe that dog products have medicinal properties (think of the old European folk remedy, the hair of the dog that bit you): along with “dog hair and excrement,” the meat has been used for centuries throughout the world to treat a variety of illnesses (McHugh 33).
The turn to dogs for consumption, then, is not dissimilar to a turn to cows as a food source. Often people who abhor the notion of eating dog meat ignore the “complex cultural motivations” that may accompany the practice (McHugh 34)—and, I would argue, the simple instinctual ones: people need food to survive.
But in cultures where people have closer emotional bonds with their pets than they may have with their neighbors, the consumption of dog meat encourages public outcry and protest, probably because of its association with the illegal dog meat trade. The backlash against the dog meat trade does have a point, though: to call the contemporary practice and methods of dog smuggling “disturbing” or “barbaric” would be an understatement. Humanity plays no part in this practice, which is prevalent in Asian countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and surrounding areas. Fortunately, this trade is illegal in Thailand—but not because of any animal welfare laws in place in that country. Rather, as John Dalley of SDF told me in an e-mail communication, it is illegal to transport “dogs overseas from Thailand that are not fully vaccinated, have had health check [sic] and received export license” (personal communication).
In Thailand, dog smugglers, who often target and steal well-fed pet dogs, pile the stolen animals in dirty little cages and then transport them across the Laos River into Vietnam where they sell the dog meat for consumption. This method of transport results in many excruciating deaths: as the Soi Dog Foundation’s website suggests, many dogs suffocate before they reach Vietnam, while the survivors are tortured and killed in appalling fashion.
Why It's Inhuman
And it’s not as if the smuggled canines are relieving the hunger of a country’s poor, starving population. Rather, “the dinner tables of the nouveau riche in Hanoi” benefit from the inhumane transport and slaughter of these poor creatures (Shadbolt, 2012).
It’s not difficult for smugglers in Thailand to find dogs—whether pet or stray—to steal for the trade, either. Thailand is known for its abundance of stray dogs; in fact the Thai term soi , from which the Soi Dog Foundation takes its name, means “alley” or “backstreet” and designates the types of dogs that live and die on the streets. One of the reasons for the multitude of strays could lie in the country’s religious and political systems. Thailand is a largely Buddhist nation whose spirituality intertwines with its political policy, despite the separation of church and state there. As such, the Thai government does not support euthanasia for either its people or its animals. Thus, unwanted dogs and cats are often poisoned, drowned, or “put in boxes and bags and placed on busy main roads.” According to Soi Dog Foundation, people see such practices as logical because “the animal chooses to eat the poison, the puppy or kitten is killed by a car, and drowning in the sea is a natural form of death.”
A "Natural" Death
Yet many of the animals left to choose their deaths or die “naturally” cannot make that choice or have that death. Instead, many of them suffer further: a car runs over a dog and breaks its leg but instead of a quick death the dog experiences the slow torture of starvation on the side of the road. So the logical result of these practices is not that unwanted animals die naturally, but rather that stray animals crowd the streets of Thailand and suffer horrible, lingering deaths.
Thailand is also known for its weather. Floods result in the displacement of dogs, both stray and domestic. Many dogs end up injured, lost, and disoriented, making them easy prey for smugglers looking to collect their meat.
So where is our compassion, our charity, our humanism? Why is everyone so content to hide his head in the sand when it comes to issues of animal welfare and rights? The photos and stories are disturbing, unsettling, but they are testament to the fact that these animals need human help. How can we expect to treat each other correctly when we can't even treat animals with a little dignity?
When will we use our religion, our politics, our educations, to enact policies that mandate humanism for humans—and animals? This is a big step and a grand vision, but all great creations start off small, with an idea, a person, and a place. What better place than Thailand, where the intermingling of belief and policy furthers and perhaps justifies cruelty towards homeless cats and dogs?
I’m not saying that one king’s use of religion to legitimize his rule over a thousand years ago has caused the neglect, abuse, torture, and suffering of thousands upon thousands of innocent animals today—
Wait: yes I am.
Herzog, Hal. Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals. Harper Perennial, 2011. Reprint.
Hillman, Adrian. A Stray View—a new look at dogs in Bangkok and beyond. booksmango, 2012.
McHugh, Susan. Dog. Reaktion Books, 2004.
Shadbolt, Peter. "Business booming for the dog smugglers of the Mekong." CNN. 24 Jan 2012.
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A nonprofit international charitable organization that helps the homeless, neglected, and abused dogs and cats of Thailand.