HONGSEONG, South Korea – Jasmine, Hector, Winnie and dozens more like them barked, whined and paced in their cages. Most were undernourished, with patchy and matted fur, and shivered in the biting cold of a February day.
Some cowered in meager scraps of hay as humans approached, while others forced paws and damp snouts between rusty iron bars, eager for any sort of contact.
Scenes like this can still be found at thousands of farms all over South Korea, where dogs are bred in wretched settings as both pets, and as meat, for a controversial industry that consumes up to a million dogs a year, according to Korean Animal Rights Advocates, a Seoul-based nonprofit group.
Another organization, Washington, D.C.-based Humane Society International, or HSI, says up to 2.5 million dogs in South Korea are bred for consumption each year.
But this farm in Hongseong, about 90 miles south of South Korea’s capital, is closing, unable to stay afloat amid a decline in consumer demand for a traditional practice – eating dogs – that is being driven by changing attitudes about dogs, and dog meat, among younger Koreans and strong international condemnation by foreigners who view this East Asian country’s dog-meat trade not as local delicacy, but as taboo.
“Business has been very bad,” said Lee Sang-gu, 60, the farm’s owner.
He has bred dogs here for eight years and has been looking to get out of the business for some time. His opportunity finally came when a team from HSI, which works on animal-protection issues around the world, arrived in mid-February to begin a rescue operation that transported 200 dogs to shelters in the U.S. and Canada for adoption.
Lee is planning to work as a security guard after he takes computer-literacy courses, a career transition that is being partly funded by HSI. In exchange for closing the farm, the organization will financially support Lee as he retrains.
“The younger generation doesn’t eat dog meat at all and restaurants are closing. There are very few chances for me to sell and prices are dropping,” Lee said, adding that his wife and two daughters were ashamed of the farm and never visited.
Lee’s is the 14th dog farm shutdown that HSI has helped bring about in South Korea over the past four years. About 1,600 dogs have been saved in the process. But between 15,000 to 17,000 dog-meat farms still exist in South Korea.
Among the dogs being rescued from Lee’s farm were not only those traditionally used for meat, such as Tosas and Jindos, but small breeds such as Boston terriers, poodles, dachshunds and Maltese dogs meant for sale to pet stores.
HSI rescuers gave a family of Border collie pups the names Colton, Kristen, Morgan, Chad, Jasmine and Scott. There was Hector, a white Pomeranian; Winnie, a Corgi; a poodle called Nora; and Acorn-Eloise, a Chihuahua who was later adopted by an HSI employee based in Frederick, Maryland, named Cary Smith.
“There was just something about her tiny face that captured my heart,” Smith said. “This adorable puppy will help shine light on this horrible practice.”
Restricting the trade
The South Korean government officially classes dog meat as “detestable,” a description that also applies to snake, but the industry remains in a legal limbo area as farms, butchers and restaurants cater to a demand that, while shrinking, still firmly exists. There is no specific ban on the dog-meat industry, but it operates in an unregulated space.
Dog meat is primarily eaten during the hottest days of the summer in a stew called Bosintang, which is believed by some to boost vitality to help cope with the heat. Smaller dogs are sometimes sold to traders to be boiled for Gaesoju, an herbal drink.
It is also found in several countries around Asia such as Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam. HSI estimates up to 30 million dogs are consumed in the region every year, with China and Vietnam the largest consumers. In these countries, however, the dog-meat trade is filled almost entirely through stray and stolen dogs. South Korea is the only country that extensively farms the dogs.
Koreans have been eating dogs for more than a thousand years, since dogs were more available than cattle, which were valued for labor.
Even in the United States, the dog-meat trade until recently occupied a gray area. The “Dog and Cat Meat Prohibition Act” was signed into law by President Donald Trump in December last year, making it a federal offense to slaughter, trade and import/export dogs and cats for human consumption. While the practice was uncommon in the U.S., it was previously legal in 44 states. Native American tribes that slaughter or trade dogs or cats for religious ceremonies are exempted from the law, however.
Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies at New York University, said the close relationship Westerners have with dogs and cats makes the thought of eating them utterly shocking to most.
“If we let dogs sleep in our beds and dress them up in Halloween costumes, it becomes more difficult to imagine them as food to ingest,” she said.
Authorities in South Korea have been taking steps to restrict the trade.
Last April, a court in the city of Bucheon ruled that the killing of dogs for meat is illegal, a decision that could pave the way for a total ban nationally.
And in November, officials dismantled the country’s largest slaughterhouse at the Taepyeong-dong complex in Seongnam, south of Seoul, a gesture many animal-rights activists hailed as a landmark move.
Last month, Park Won-soon, Seoul’s mayor, announced the city would close all of its dog butcheries, vowing to “put pressure” on any remaining dog meat shops in the city. A recent visit by USA TODAY to Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market, one of the country’s largest herbal medicine markets and once the main location of dog meat butchers in the city, found only a few places to purchase dog meat.
“There used to be many places selling dog meat here,” said Kim Dae-won, 72. He was buying vegetables in the market. “They’re almost all gone.”
Meanwhile, there has also been public outcry against the cruel methods traditionally used to slaughter dogs, including electrocution and hanging.
Indeed, a survey conducted last year by Gallup Korea, the consultancy, found that 70 percent of South Koreans said they would not eat dog meat in the future. Among young South Koreans, a rise in pet ownership and changing attitudes about animal welfare have had a major impact on the trade. About one in four Koreans now own a pet, according to a 2018 survey by KB Financial Group, a South Korean bank.
In 2017, South Korean President Moon Jae-in famously adopted Tory, a mixed-breed pup rescued from a dog meat farm.
“Nobody my age says ‘let’s go eat dog meat,'” said Kang Na-kyung, a 21-year-old student in Seoul. “We see cats and dogs as pets.”
Kelly O’Meara, a vice president at HSI, the animal-welfare watchdog, said that “societal opinion is now against the (dog meat) trade. It’s no longer acceptable.”
Yet while the industry is in decline, public opinion in South Korea remains mixed on an outright ban. In fact, a poll conducted by research firm Realmeter in November last year found that 44 percent of respondents supported a ban on dog meat, while just under 44 percent opposed it. Twelve percent were undecided.
Bills that would severely curtail the dog-meat industry have been introduced in South Korea’s National Assembly, its domestic legislature, but they have met strong resistance from the from the dog-meat industry, whose advocates have long argued that dogs are no different from pigs, chickens and other animals raised for food.
Nami Kim, founder of Gimpo, Korea-based rescue group Save Korean Dogs, noted that while smaller dog farms in South Korea may be closing, large factory-style operations are still thriving, a reflection of continuing demand for dog meat from older people.
Back on the farm, Lee said that he wasn’t sure what the future would hold for him, but felt certain about what was in store for the dog-meat industry.
“I think this will all be gone soon,” he said, watching as the rescuers began loading dog carriers with Jasmine, Hector, Winnie and the others onto a truck headed for the airport.