New attitudes toward dogs and meat drive animal activism in South Korea

By Elizabeth Shim Contact the Author   |   Sept. 8, 2015 at 8:56 AM
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SEOUL, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Even as South Koreans are embracing small dogs as pets at home, the summer dog meat industry is responsible for as many as 2.5 million dogs raised for slaughter -- some in filthy conditions.

The polarizing attitudes about the treatment of animals, canine slaughter and consumption have given rise to animal rights activism -- but also inflammatory remarks about the country's culture. Among the most notable was British comedian Ricky Gervais' comments in July, incorrectly describing South Korea's seasonal consumption habits on Twitter as a "dog torture festival" that invited comparisons to an annual event held in Yulin, China.

Humane Society International campaign manager Lola Webber, a veteran animal-rights activist, works with South Korean dog farmers to end what many have called a cruel practice in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

She recalls a case in January in Hongseong, where dogs were huddled on a farm in grimy cages in the bitter cold.

"The conditions were – they're just very, very sad," Webber told UPI in a Skype interview as she described the dog farm her organization helped to shut down in March. "The dogs spend their entire lives in small, filthy, barren cages. They're born into them. And they don't leave them again until they're taken for slaughter."

Webber said as many as 2.5 million dogs are being raised annually on farms that supply the meat industry.

Most of South Korea's dog meat consumption takes place in the summer because of the perception that the stewed meat comes with certain benefits, said Joe McPherson, an American food writer and tour operator living in South Korea.

"Dog meat is believed to have special properties, medicinal properties," McPherson said in a recent interview. "It's a soup form of Gatorade. It's supposed to restore all the energy you've lost from sweating during the summer heat."

He added, "I think there's also an erectile association with it, but so many foods in Asia do. I would say it's very much a marketing technique."

McPherson, an adventurous eater who has consulted television hosts Andrew Zimmern and Anthony Bourdain for shows in South Korea, said dog meat isn't always pleasing to the palate. He recounted one episode in which the dish "did taste like wet dog." He vowed never to try it again.

"It's not good enough to not care," McPherson said of where the meat comes from. "There's a lot of cruelty involved."

The poor treatment of the animals that begins on farms where they are "fed essentially human food waste" and "other animals that have died from different diseases," Webber said, ends in a brutal slaughter that has invited unanimous outrage.

"The dog is literally beaten to death," McPherson told UPI, referring to a method of killing the animal that is believed to increase its adrenaline and improve the taste of its meat. "Sometimes they start with a blowtorch while it's still alive to burn off the fur. It's very anti-halal."

The practice has invited angry responses on social media, which often devolve into condemnations of South Korea. But only a small portion of the population consumes dog meat on a regular basis.

Vilifying all of South Korea based on a practice that is increasingly denounced within the country can be counterproductive, Webber said.

"It can make people feel more defensive over an industry," she said. "Huge, misinformed international condemnation has almost served to strengthen the defense of the dog meat industry as being one of Korean pride and tradition, probably more so than it was perceived before. So in that sense, I think it can be a dangerous tool."

By contrast, domestic grass-roots campaigns in South Korea discouraging dog meat consumption in the summer months have been effective, said Jo Hee-kyung, head of the nonprofit Korean Animal Welfare Association. Jo told UPI the South Korean public has reacted positively to the group's educational campaigns.

"After we hold our awareness events, I've read in press reports of people's reactions. They've said they realize that they're not alone in their opposition to cruelty toward animals," Jo said. "Our campaigns give an opportunity to affirm their thoughts about dog meat consumption."

Jo said in her 16 years as an animal rights activist, South Koreans have reacted more positively to domestic awareness campaigns rather than to foreign pressure – that can sometimes subject the entire country to international ridicule, even as segments of society are adopting dogs as pets in increasing numbers.

Hal Herzog, a psychology professor at Western Carolina University and author of Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat: Why It's So Hard to Think Straight About Animals, told UPI in a phone interview that treating dogs as pets is a cultural anomaly outside the West. But in countries like South Korea, people are now being asked to balance antithetical priorities.

"In countries like South Korea or Thailand, you've got two things going on. You've got these cultural traditions where dogs have been eaten, but what's happened is that in these societies they've come to adopt Western ways," Herzog said.

"So that's really this cultural anomaly, which is spreading, sort of like Coca-Cola has spread around the world."

Herzog said in South Korea's case the view of dogs has become complex, adding that a classification system was being used to cope with the new and polarizing demands.

"So you get a situation ... where in the same market they'll be selling pet dogs, and they'll be selling meat dogs," he said.

"And so what they do is they compartmentalize that. They'll sell them in different parts of the market – they keep the meat dogs in a different type of cage. They use a different word for them than they use for the pet dogs."

But Herzog said the moral inconsistency involved in treating animals differently according to a socially assigned value is not unique to South Korea, or other parts of Asia where dog meat is consumed.

Roughly 97 percent of Americans eat meat, he said, and some engage in the slaughter of farm animals despite their claims of acting otherwise: According to one survey, between 60 to 70 percent of people who identify themselves as vegetarians had eaten meat in the previous 24 hours.

"Animal rights activists have their own inconsistencies," Herzog said.

"Many of them are cat lovers. And guess what? Cats aren't vegans. So by bringing cats into the house they're participating in the cruelty of modern agriculture just as much as I am."

"One of the horrors we have about eating dog meat is that if you ask Americans, 'Is your pet a member of your family?' – over 90 percent say their pet is a family member," the author said. "And that's how we now think in many cases of dogs. Dogs are people. You're not supposed to eat them."

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