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Moral questions

Nik Martin, Bangkok
August 15, 2013

A conference later this month in Hanoi, Vietnam, aims to urge Asian governments to tackle the illegal trade in dog meat as estimates suggest close to two million dogs are killed each year.

Animal protection activists hold up placards to protest against stopping eating dogs and cats outside a dog meat restaurant in Yulin city, south Chinas Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, 21 June 2013. (Photo: picture alliance/dpa)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

At up to 60 US dollars per animal, dog meat is considered to be an aphrodisiac in Vietnam, where it remains a popular dish. But what the Hanoi middle-classes don't know as they tuck into the delicacy is where the meat has come from.

Over the past few years, an illegal dog meat trade has flourished across Asia worth millions of dollars, which experts say is unnecessarily cruel and carries a rising risk to public health.

It is estimated that hundreds of thousands of pet dogs and strays are being rounded up by criminal syndicates in neighboring Thailand every year. With only a small domestic demand for dog meat, it's much more profitable to send them abroad, say animal rights groups.

"The vast majority of the dogs are stolen pets," said John Dalley, co-founder of the Soi Dog Foundation. "Most Thai people don't keep their dogs inside overnight, so they're very approachable when you try to catch them."

Kept in tight cages and loaded onto trucks, they are then taken through Laos by road and river and into Vietnam, where it's legal to kill dogs and eat their meat. There they are mostly force-fed and often bludgeoned to death.

"We have evidence that many dogs die on route," said Dalley. "Often they bury them for a few days in the hope they will still look ok to sell for human consumption."

There were many incidences where captured dogs were infected with rabies and people working within the trade had even died from the disease, he told DW.

Perhaps surprisingly, food health experts in Asia say there has been little academic work done relating to trade in dog meat, even though it is widely eaten in South Korea, China and Vietnam. But still they are worried.

Chinese animal protection activist nicknamed Pian Shan Kong kneels down in front of dogs killed and to be eaten to show apology during a campaign to advocate stopping eating dog meat at a free market in Yulin city, south Chinas Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, 21 June 2012.
While eating dog meat is traditional in some parts of China, others, like this man kneeling, are against itImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"The welfare and sanitary aspects are of very major concern," said Joachim Otte, Senior Animal Production and Health Officer for the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

He called for the health hazards to be addressed "related to dealing with the dogs, the preparation of the meat and to those consuming dog meat."

In May, a thousand dog skulls were found at a garbage dump in central Thailand. Local media said the dogs had likely been made into meatballs.

Food health officials played down fears of a repeat of the recent horse meat scandal in Europe, saying there was no economic incentive in using expensive dog meat to "stretch" other meat products.

"But they certainly weren't killed at an official abattoir," said Dalley from Soi Dog, who points to documented outbreaks of Cholera and Trichinosis in Vietnam he believes are linked to the illegal dog meat trade.

Animal rights campaigners say the Thai government could do more to catch those gangs behind the racket. Currently animal cruelty laws in Thailand are lacking, they say.

Raids are made under rules that prevent the illegal trade and transportation of animals. Despite several arrests this year, business is still thought to be booming, with an estimated one million dogs eaten in Vietnam alone.

Although Thailand earmarked cash for new facilities to house captured and stray dogs, the funding has already dried up. Others think corruption has kept the illegal trade buoyant, with police and border guards paid off to keep quiet.

To counter that, the Soi Dog Foundation started using volunteer agents in both Thailand and Laos to give advance information about the movement of dogs.

Authorities receive regular tip offs, which has even seen consignments of dogs intercepted by Thai navy patrols on the Mekong River.

"The people who run it are well known but they have never been prosecuted," said Dalley, whose NGO has been running for a decade.

"One group boasted that the trade is worth 1 billion baht [32 million US dollars] to them a year and of course being illegal, it's all tax free."

Tradition also helps keep the trade alive. In Vietnam, it is believed that dog meat is warming, which is why demand increases in the winter. Conversely in South Korea, dog meat is thought to cool the human body.

Reports suggest the dogs are placed in stress cages before they are slaughtered. Other dogs watch them being killed, causing the release of stress hormones. Legend has it the hormones make the meat taste better.

Two stray dogs on the streets of Istanbul, Turkey (Photo: DW / Jodi Hilton)
Stray dogs are rounded up for illegal trade, along with people's petsImage: Jodi Hilton

"That goes against everything we know about how to treat other animals for human consumption, where great efforts are being put into higher welfare standards these days," said the FAO's Otte.

He said in Europe, tests conducted on pigs showed the opposite, that stress negatively impacts the quality of the meat.

Soi Dog has teamed up with other animal rights groups to form the Asian Canine Protection Alliance. With support from the ministries of health in Thailand and Vietnam, the alliance is hosting a conference on August 22 and 23 in Hanoi.

But dog meat consumption and the welfare of animals remain sensitive subjects in Asia. So campaigners hope to persuade regional governments that by allowing the trade to continue, they are in effect, compromising international pledges made to eliminate rabies.

Dalley says it's important that cultural differences around dog meat don't get in the way.

He has no ethical concerns about eating regulated dog meat in principle.

"Yes you can argue that dogs were never bred for meat. But if an animal is raised for meat and killed humanely, nobody can really have an issue with that."

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