Editorials: Asian dog & cat meat trade could be on the way out

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  July-August 2013:

Editorial feature: Asian dog & cat meat trade could be on the way out 

By Kim Bartlett & Merritt Clifton

Recent developments signify that dog and cat meat industries of Southeast Asia,  South Korea,  and China may be approaching the beginning of their end,  if current campaigns sustain present momentum.  The dog and cat meat industries are vulnerable to eradication through a combination of factors,  including rising education and affluence,  the increasing popularity of keeping dogs and cats as household pets,  and democratization of traditionally oligarchic and patriarchal societies,  so that women and younger people––who are more likely to be sympathetic toward animals––have more say in what goes on.  

The most influential factor,  however,  may be that eating dogs and cats was never as deeply and widely accepted in most of the places where dogs and cats are eaten now as industry defenders have argued and western activists have often believed.  

Historically there have been parts of southern Asia where dogs and cats have been eaten for centuries and perhaps millennia,  just as dogs have been eaten at times––and at times still are––on every other inhabited continent.  Dog-eating documentedly occurred in northern coastal China,  near the Korean peninsula,  between about 400 and 189 BCE,  but by the latter part of that time came to be regarded as a practice of criminals.  

The 14th century Italian explorer Marco Polo mentioned specifically that the people of Kinsay,  the city now known as Hangzhou,  “eat every kind of flesh,  even that of dogs and other unclean beasts,  which nothing would induce a Christian to eat.”  As cats were at the time viciously persecuted in Europe,  by Papal decree,  Marco Polo may have been describing cat consumption as well as dog-eating.  Hangzhou is just north of Guangdong, the only place known to sustain high-volume traffic in cats for human consumption,  and the only place where cats are openly part of a celebrated regional cuisine.  

Though Marco Polo wrote extensively of the dietary habits of the other cities he visited in China,  he did not mention that dogs or cats were eaten anywhere else.  Neither did Marco Polo list dogs or cats among the 13 animal species he found offered for sale at the Hangzhou live market,  a hint that while dogs and cats were eaten sometimes,  they were not eaten often enough to be offered in commerce.

Dogs and sometimes cats have also long been eaten in the southern Chinese border provinces,  in the most mountainous parts of Laos and northern Vietnam,  and––in a ritualized form––among the Igorot people of the Philippines.  Chinese sailors and settlers are believed to have introduced dog-eating in ancient times to port communities throughout Southeast Asia.  Outside of those locations though,  there is scant documentation of actual historical trade in dogs and cats for human consumption.  Early 20th century missionary humane workers documented and campaigned against live markets that sold and slaughtered dogs in the Philippines,  but made little mention of encountering either dog-eating or cat-eating while establishing western-style humane societies in Hong Kong,  Shanghai,  and even Guangdong.  Neither were dog-eating or cat-eating mentioned by the founders of early western-style humane societies in Seoul and Chosen,  Korea.

Commerce in dogs and cats to be eaten,  as it exists today,  appears to have grown out of the “famine cuisine” that evolved in parts of Asia,  especially China and Korea during World War II and the Korean War.  Even in those hard times,  three years after the 1936 Japanese invasion of China and ensuing food shortages,  the National Humane Review reported in September 1939 that the Shanghai SPCA had successfully prosecuted two men for fraud after they were caught selling dog and cat meat as “rabbit.”  

Of note is that instead of commanding a higher price than rabbit meat,  as dog and cat meat does today, the dog and cat meat was disguised as one of the cheapest meats available.  Also of note is that rather than representing a wholesale transplant of western values,  the Shanghai SPCA shared influence in Shanghai with the somewhat older Dachang Animal Shelter,  operated on the grounds of a 1,000-year-old temple by the monks of the Buddhist Laymen’s Association.  Visiting in 1937,  Shanghai SPCA senior staff reported that the monks ate no food of animal origin.  The Dachang Animal Shelter housed exclusively vegetarian livestock,  working animals,  and poultry.  It had,  however,  formerly operated a no-kill shelter for about 200 dogs at a separate facility.  The dogs were released when the staff were obliged to flee the advancing Japanese troops.

The once thriving Chinese and Korean humane communities were obliterated later during the war years. Only one Chinese humane worker,  Dorothy Ho Tung of the Hong Kong SPCA,  survived the fighting––but she died soon afterward.

By then the formerly abundant street dogs of the war-torn regions had also nearly disappeared,  either eaten or starved out by lack of edible food waste.  In South Korea the post-war scarcity of dogs opened a market niche for “dog meat farmers.”  But it was a small niche,  because eating dogs was associated with black market racketeering,  prostitution,  illicit alcohol sales,  and petty theft.  People involved in the dog meat trade often got out of the business as soon as they could.  The Hyundai automobile company,  for example,  was begun by a South Korean family who reinvested their profits from selling dogs into manufacturing,  initially on a very small scale. 

Most South Korean dog meat farmers were small-timers,  who like backyard dog breeders here in the U.S., sold the litters from their pet dogs,  or kept “meat dogs” alongside pet dogs.  For most,  selling dogs to the meat trade was a side business.  They raised and sold dogs for slaughter much as they or their neighbors kept chickens, rabbits,  or a couple of pigs on the side,  while working at other jobs.

Chinese-trained military personnel appear to have popularized dog-eating in North Vietnam during the Vietnam War years,  but––while dog-eating was noted in Laos––dog-eating was rarely recorded in the memoirs of U.S. soldiers who fought in South Vietnam and Cambodia.  Dog-eating as it is now practiced in Southeast Asia appears to have spread mostly after the Vietnam War.  

This occurred partly through resettlement of ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam after Vietnam and China fought a border war in the late 1970s,  but primarily through increasing Chinese,  South Korean,  and Vietnamese commerce with nearby nations.  Alleged thefts of pet dogs by dog meat traffickers had by the early 1990s become a frequent flashpoint for conflict between Vietnamese refugees and Thai Buddhists,  to whom dog-eating was abhorrent.  

Dog-eating expanded in the Philippines and parts of Indonesia,  meanwhile,  as an initially clandestine commerce in street dogs and stolen pets,  which became much more lucrative––and overt––as visitor traffic from other nations where dogs are eaten increased.  

But dogs were never eaten by more than a small percentage of the human population in any of the eight nations that are the present hubs of dog consumption,  and in Nagaland and Assam,  the two northeastern Indian states,  just south of China,  where dog-eating is technically illegal but still quite visible.  

Dogs are even less often eaten in adjacent nations where some dog-eating persists,  including Bangladesh, Cambodia,  Malaysia,  and Myanmar.  

Yet even where eating dogs is least acceptable to most people,  for combinations of cultural,  religious, and humane reasons,  the dog meat industry has been hard to effectively target.  Consumers of dog meat during the past two or three decades tend to be relatively affluent and politically influential older men,  including prominent politicians and owners of traditional news media (especially but not exclusively in South Korea),  who have protected their suppliers.

Activist opposition to dog-eating,  and to cat-eating where it persists,  erupted in the 1980s and 1990s,  at about the same time as some Chinese and South Korean dog meat farmers invested in expanding production capacity.  Factory-scale dog farming emerged in Guangdong and several nearby Chinese provinces.  The concentration of production in South Korea was less pronounced,  but clusters of dog-farmers raising 1,000 or more dogs at a time came to dominate some villages,  to the exclusion of anyone who objected to the noise,  the odors, or the cruelty to the dogs.

But demand for dog meat did not increase as the entrepreneurs imagined it would.   Indeed,  the most recent media surveys of the infamous Moran Market near Seoul have found about a third less inventory,  and by implication less sales volume,  than ANIMAL PEOPLE documented in May 2001.  Projections of total Asian dog meat consumption offered by animal advocates,  usually based on short-term surveillance of individual live markets,   have dropped from 10 to 15 million dogs per year then,  to as low as five million per year now,  the figure cited by the Asia Canine Protection Alliance,  which includes the Change for Animals Foundation,  Humane Society International,  Animals Asia Foundation,  and the Soi Dog Foundation.   Since none of the major dog-consuming nations report statistics on dog slaughter,  none of these numbers are verifiable from official records.  But dog meat consumption can be projected to some extent not only from market observation,  but also from animal control data,  where available,  and from animal import and export statistics,  with allowances made for illegal trafficking. 

The economic model for the dog meat trade today––and the cat meat trade––is neither local production for local consumption,  nor a parallel to agribusiness involving pigs,  cattle,  and poultry.  Rather,  raising dogs and cats to be eaten has come to be much less lucrative,  even close to the points of consumption,  than importing dogs from the streets of Thailand and the parts of China where dogs are abundant yet seldom eaten. 

At issue in both Thailand and much of China is that more people are keeping and feeding dogs and cats than ever before,  but sterilization and keeping pets safely at home have not yet become part of the social ethic of pet-keeping.  Along with the relatively furtive scavenging street and temple dogs and feral cats that Thailand has always had are now countless quasi-pets,  widely seen as a nuisance and easily captured by traders.  The situation in most of China is similar,  except that since China has not had abundant street dogs in more than 70 years,  much of the non-dog-keeping public sees free-roaming dogs as not only a nuisance but a threat to personal safety.  

Parallel to pound seizure

Rescues of thousands of dogs and cats from trucks hauling them to slaughter have attracted enormous spontaneous public support in China during the past five years.  Similar rescues of dogs from the illicit dog meat export trade enjoy public sympathy in Thailand. But other people in both Thailand and China,  including some of those who are responsible for balancing the public budget,  view exporting strays to slaughter as an economical way to solve a vexing problem.

This conflict of perspectives parallels the long-running conflict in the U.S. between the humane community and proponents of the use of impounded dogs and cats for biomedical research,  testing,  and teaching––a conflict which was instrumental in shaping the U.S. humane movement as it exists today.  

The founders of the National Institutes of Health (1944) and National Association for Biomedical Research (1946) saw pound animals as a societal waste product who could be put to use before being killed,  and won legislation in at least nine states that required public shelters to make animals available to laboratories.  The American Humane Association and American SPCA initially resisted pound seizure  laws,  arguing that they would dissuade people from bringing animals to shelters.  By 1951,  however,  the AHA and ASPCA reversed positions. Already the numbers of homeless animals killed in U.S. shelters had exploded  from circa two million a year in the 1930s to upward of 13 million.   

Disillusioned,  former ASPCA volunteer Christine Stevens in 1952 formed the Animal Welfare Institute to continue the fight against pound seizure.  Former AHA publicist Fred Meyer and former ASPCA secretary Helen Jones founded the Humane Society of the U.S. in 1954,  also initially to fight against pound seizure.  Jones went on to form the National Catholic Animal Welfare Society in 1959,  renaming it the International Society for Animal Rights in 1977.  

Opposing pound seizure was among the early successes of the nascent animal rights movement: 13 states passed legislation between 1976 and 1986 which prohibited either pound seizure or the voluntary transfer of pound animals to labs.  In February 2012,  with the political battle mostly history,  the NIH announced that it would stop allowing laboratories to purchase random-source cats,  effective on October 1,  2012,  and would prohibit purchase of random-source dogs effective in 2015.

Though the fight against pound seizure was waged mostly in the court of public opinion,  it was actually won by the acceptance of pet sterilization as a basic social responsibility.  In 1960,  approaching the peak of transfers of pound animals to labs,  barely 1% of pet dogs and even fewer pet cats were sterilized.  Thirty years later, more than 70% of pet dogs and cats were sterilized,  and animal shelter intakes and killing had plummeted so precipitously that talk had begun about introducing no-kill animal control.  

With more cats and dogs in Americans’ homes than ever before,  and fewer roaming at large,  shelter animals were no longer widely perceived as disposable waste.   

The critical question before the U.S. humane community throughout the pound seizure debate was––and remains––what else could be done with dogs and cats when there was an apparent intractable surplus.  There was (and is) no possibility of sheltering or rehoming them all until the birth rate falls to somewhere near the numbers needed to meet the demand for pets.  

Even now,  with shelter intake and pet acquisition almost in balance,  U.S. shelters kill about three million dogs and cats per year who are either unadoptable for reasons of health or dangerous behavior,  or are just not lucky enough to be adopted (see page 12).  There are still insufficient resources to provide care-for-life to all of these animals;  failed no-kill shelters are in recent years the source of more neglected animals rescued by other shelters than either puppy mills or deranged individual hoarders.  But laboratory use of surplus dogs and cats is no longer a culturally acceptable option.  As a society,  we have come to believe that killing surplus dogs and cats is not what we want to do.  Even if every impounded animal cannot yet be saved,  trying to save them all has become a cultural goal.

Similar transitions in attitudes toward animals are occurring in Asia,  at greater velocity.  Dog-eating and cat-eating persist today through the combination of lingering demand with abundant supply.  In theory,  if dog and cat sterilization eliminated the supply of surplus animals,  demand from dog and cat eaters might drive prices up enough to stimulate the regrowth of dog and cat farming for consumption.  However,  dog and cat-eaters tend on average to be older than pet-keepers,  especially in South Korea and China.  As the generations who eat dogs and cats pass on,  the market niche for dog and cat meat is likely to diminish faster than surplus dog and cat births.

Rescue & the obligation of care

Meanwhile,  Thai and Chinese animal advocates are confronting dog-eating and cat-eating much more directly than the U.S. humane community confronted pound seizure.  Instead of just taking the issue to the public with picket signs and letters of protest,  Thai and Chinese activists are taking in the animals at risk, assuming thereby the obligation of care.

The resulting resource crunch recently surfaced in a Beijing courtroom,   where the Chinese Internet firm Tencent and the China Small Animal Protection Association were defendants in a lawsuit filed by 10 veterinary hospitals that treated more than 500 dogs who in April 2011 were rescued from a truck on the Beijing-Harbin expressway.  

“After alerts were posted on Tencent’s micro-blogging service,  the truck was forced to stop when more than 10 volunteers rushed to the Tongzhou section of the highway and blocked the vehicle from moving for more than 15 hours,”  reported Yang Tao of China Daily.  “The dogs were headed for slaughterhouses in Changchun, Jilin province.  After negotiations with the driver,  pet service provider Leepet Holding Corporation and the Shangshan Foundation purchased the animals for $18,790.”  Tencent vice president Sun Zhonghuai pledged that Tencent would cover the dogs’ care thereafter.  The court case ended with a renewed pledge that Tencent would pay the dogs’ expenses.

“Is it possible to find homes for all the dogs?” asks Soi Dog Foundation chief executive John Dalley,  who leads the increasingly active drive against exports of dogs from Thailand to Vietnam and Laos.  “With nearly 5,000 dogs held at shelters this is a difficult matter.  More dogs will be adopted,  but this will take time and our focus must be on the care of the majority of the dogs held at shelters.  To this end,”  Dalley explains,  “we are currently building new shelters.  Each shelter costs around $40,000 and will provide accommodation for up to 500 dogs.”

Dalley hopes to build 10 such shelters––but even that many could hold only about half the total number of dogs intercepted from the dog meat traffic during the past year.

“The expenses are well outside the scope of Soi Dog’s normal budget,  which is focused on humanely reducing the huge stray dog problem in Thailand through large scale sterilization,”  Dalley admits.  Dalley recognizes that sterilizing enough dogs to eliminate the surplus available to the dog meat traffickers is essential. The Soi Dog Foundation is soon to “start a project in northeast Thailand,  in conjunction with the government,” Dalley explains,  “to sterilize owned dogs whose unwanted puppies help to fuel the trade.” Dalley is pursuing other strategies as well,  in partnership with the Asia Canine Protection Alliance.  “We will co-host a conference in Hanoi aimed at stopping the trade to Vietnam,  this based on all countries in the region having pledged to eliminate rabies by 2020,”   Dalley says.  As the dog meat traffic is a known vector for spreading rabies,  “The signs are that the Vietnamese government will cooperate in stopping  dogs from entering their country,  as well as in more actively enforcing existing laws prohibiting the trade,”  Dalley hopes.

Meanwhile,  the momentum of seizures from trucks and boats exporting dogs has carried over to cracking down on clandestine dog slaughter within Thailand.  For example,  the Bangkok Post on May 27,  2013 reported that “Sakon Nakhon province Livestock Development Department officials and non-governmental organization workers raided an illegal abattoir in Muang district early yesterday and seized about 150 carcasses of butchered dogs.”  

Three days later firefighters found the remains of more than 1,000 dogs who had apparently been processed into meatballs in Wang Noi,  Ayutthaya province.  The dumping site was believed to have been set ablaze to try to destroy the evidence.

While the Soi Dog Foundation confronts the supply side of the dog meat trade,  the Animals Asia Foundation challenged the demand side by leafleting at the June 21,  2013 summer solstice dog eating festival in Yulin,  a city bordering Guangdong.

“We have written to the local authorities to lodge our complaints and to outline the cruelty involved and the dangers of eating dog meat.  Stolen pets will be among those dogs consumed,”  charged Animals Asia cat and dog welfare Manager Suki Deng.   “In addition,  people taking part will be endangering themselves,  as disease can easily spread through dogs trafficked in this way.  There are other elements to the festival and to remove the dog eating need not spell the end of the festival itself.”

Added Animals Asia founder Jill Robinson,  “We have heard the argument that dog eating represents culture and tradition.  We have long answered that culture and tradition are no excuse for cruelty and brutality. We would also like to point out that China has an increasing culture of animal welfare and heightened concern over practices such as these.  Traditions should not be above criticism.  Neither should they be exempt from change.” 

Consistent messaging

Pound seizure,  in hindsight,  may have been perpetuated and the humane cause retarded by the long-ago contention of many mainstream humane societies that dogs and cats should not have been “used as guinea pigs.” The public had difficulty understanding why guinea pigs,  also popular pets,  should be used in laboratories while humane societies from the 1950s through the 1980s killed far more dogs and cats each year than labs did. 

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals founder Ingrid Newkirk was widely denounced by both the biomedical research industry and mainstream humane societies for remarking to a Washingtonian magazine interviewer in 1986 that in their capacity to suffer,  “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.  They’re all animals.”  

Yet this much more consistent perspective seems,  in hindsight,  to have been far better understood and accepted than the former mainstream view.  Though Newkirk’s phrase remains often ridiculed,  the previously ignored suffering of pigs is now a national issue,  evidenced by the agreement of more than 60 major food companies to phase out the use of pork from pigs raised in gestation stalls by 2017.  Though U.S. per capita pork consumption has dropped only slightly since 1989,  consumers are now looking for labels on pork and other meat products that tell how the animals were raised.

Anti-dog meat campaigners have in the past made the mistake of appearing to care only what happens to dogs with programs and literature emphasizing the role of dogs as friends and companions of humans.  This morally inconsistent position has easily been ridiculed as a western conceit,  and has resonated poorly with Asian philosophical teachings about the interconnectedness of all life.

The Asia Canine Protection Alliance appears to be avoiding that mistake,  instead positioning opposition to dog-eating––opposition shared by most of the Asian public––as opposition to cruelty,  plain and simple.  The campaign is thereby not just a campaign on behalf of dogs,  but the leading edge of awakened humane concern for all sentient species.


Kim Bartlett & Merritt Clifton are president/publisher and editor in chief of ANIMAL PEOPLE, respectively. Both are lifetime animal activists. Besides their duties at AP, Bartlett has been instrumental in seeding international animal defense organizations around the world, while Clifton is a leading ecoanimal journalist.

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