A dog waits to be rescued from a cage during a dog farm closure in Asan, South Korea, this week. Photo by Thomas Maresca/UPI
ASAN, South Korea, March 10 (UPI) -- Nearly 200 dogs and puppies destined for slaughter in the dog meat trade at a South Korean farm instead found themselves freed by a team of rescue workers from the global charity organization Humane Society International this week.
The dogs -- mostly Korean Jindos and Tosas -- have lived their entire lives in squalid conditions, crammed together in filthy wire cages with no protection from the elements and surviving on restaurant scraps, in this farm located in a rural area about 60 miles south of Seoul.
The dogs are on their way to the United States and Canada, where they will begin a search for adoptive families. The farm is the latest to close as the practice of eating dog meat continues a precipitous decline in social acceptance in South Korea.
This farm's owner, a 73-year-old man who only agreed to provide his surname, Yang, said the time was long overdue to end the operation he had run for almost 30 years.
"There is no future for the dog meat industry," Yang said Wednesday, amid a backdrop of barks and squeals as dogs were loaded into crates for transport to the airport.
"There has been a lot of pressure from animal groups and the government and it's becoming a social norm that the dog meat industry is a dying industry," he said.
According to a survey conducted by Nielsen Korea in October, 87.5% of South Koreans said they would never eat dog meat, a seasonal tradition that lingers primarily among older generations.
The changing attitude comes as pet ownership has grown dramatically over the past several years. More than 6 million households, or roughly 30% of the country, had a companion animal in 2020, according to a research report by KB Financial Group. Of the pet-owning households, some 80% had dogs.
Public support for a ban has also continued to climb, with 56% favoring making the practice illegal, according to the Nielsen survey -- a figure that has spiked from less than 35% in 2017.
Political figures have also increasingly raised the possibility of a ban, but the government has been slow to take concrete action.
South Korea's Agriculture Minister Chung Hwang-keun vowed during his nomination process in May that he would work to end dog meat consumption, but said that a "social consensus" would be necessary to finally prohibit the centuries-old tradition.
"As the number of families with pets has increased and public interest in animal welfare has grown, banning dog meat is the direction in which our society should move forward," Chung said.
"I will make efforts to achieve a grand compromise to end dog meat consumption by fully listening to and coordinating opinions of the industry and animal rights groups," he added.
Former President Moon Jae-in ordered a review of a dog meat ban in 2021 and a task force, including representatives of dog meat farmers, was convened in December of that year to study the issue.
However, the group has yet to come forward with any recommendations amid increasing calls from animal rights organizations.
The task force "hasn't ended but it's not moving anywhere," Borami Seo, HSI Korea director of government affairs, said during the farm closure on Wednesday.
"It's been very difficult to continue the discussion and reach an agreement over compensation [for the farmers] and a phase-out period," she said. "We are hoping the government will take more of a lead in this discussion because at the moment we are not seeing strong government leadership in this process."
Other high-profile political figures have recently spoken out against dog meat, including South Korean first lady Kim Keon-hee, who called for President Yoon Suk-yeol to institute a ban in a local newspaper interview in June.
"I hope the Yoon government will produce concrete results in animal abuse, neglect of abandoned dogs and dog meat issues," Kim said. "Ultimately, not eating dog meat is a form of respect for man's closest friend and respect for life."
The first couple are well-known pet lovers who own three cats and four dogs, including a Jindo, which is one of the most common dogs raised for meat.
Nam In-soon, a member of South Korean parliament with the opposition Democratic Party, visited the farm closure on Monday and said she was shocked by the "vile and miserable environment."
"It breaks my heart to think of the dogs that would have been cruelly slaughtered if they hadn't been rescued, but it's very fortunate that they will be able to live in a better environment," she wrote on Instagram. "We will strive for a change in dog-eating culture and create a world where humans and animals coexist."
Dog meat is most commonly seen in a stew called bosintang, which is eaten on the hottest days of the summer and is believed by some to boost vitality.
In another sign of the changing times, however, the price of goat meat used in a stew similar to bosintang has soared by 73% in less than a year as demand plummets for the dog meat dish, according to media reports.
The practice has also long been a national embarrassment for many in South Korea, coming under the spotlight during major international events such as the Olympics.
Last month, an exchange program that would have brought high school students from the city of Incheon to New Jersey was canceled due to concerns raised by U.S. animal rights groups over Korea's dog meat tradition.
Falling demand, negative public opinion and activist pressure have led to the closure of many of the country's largest slaughterhouses and markets in recent years. Still, HSI estimates that roughly 1 million dogs are being bred across South Korea to be killed for human consumption, with many farms operating illegally.
Yang's farm was legally registered, but he said is looking forward to a fresh start growing cabbages with help from a grant from HSI. Under its Models for Change program, the charity has closed 18 farms in South Korea since 2015, finding homes for more than 2,700 dogs in the United States, Canada, Britain and the Netherlands.
The farmer also said he grew to see dogs differently throughout the months-long process of shutting down his farm, which involved the HSI team providing veterinary treatment and proper nutrition and giving the dogs names such as Maple, Poppy and Mia.
"I feel good knowing that the dogs from my farm are going to the United States, where they will have a good environment, where they meet new families and be loved," Yang said.
"I used to believe dogs were just another species of animal consumed by people," he said. "But seeing the way [the rescue workers] treated them so carefully, I started to realize that dogs can be a part of human society and families."