Dog meat is a luxury in Korea

Dogs in South Korea: From the plate to freedom

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When Gong In-yeong started breeding dogs in the 1980s, he seemed way ahead of his time: at that time, only a few South Koreans were interested in keeping their puppies as pets. The now 54-year-old was soon threatened with bankruptcy. A new plan was needed, recalls Gong, with a cigarette in the corner of his mouth, stained jeans, the skin tanned by the wind and sun: "However, this is nothing to be proud of."

The Korean points to his inner courtyard, where cages the size of moving boxes are stacked in endless rows of two under wide plastic sheeting. Gong keeps more than 270 dogs there in individual enclosures, including golden retrievers, rottweilers, huskies and St. Bernard dogs. Most of them were born here, while others were given as pets. "At least I can make ends meet with the business," says the farmer, who earns around 180 euros per dog sold.

Dispensable post-war years

Dogs have been consumed on the Korean peninsula for more than two thousand years. In East Asian folklore, meat is said to have an aphrodisiac effect, which is said to increase male potency. In addition, many compatriots arm themselves in August with a cold dog meat soup against the oppressive, humid summer heat. Last but not least, the four-legged friends remind the elderly of the expendable years after the Korean War, in which meat has become an unaffordable luxury. Stray street dogs were often the only source of protein available at the time.

"Cultural reasons should never be used as an excuse for injustice," says Andrew Plumbly of the Humane Society. The Canadian is sitting in a beige mini-bus, the glass office towers of Seoul pass by the window, gradually being replaced by wooded hills that cover two-thirds of the provinces. Pumbly and his activists are on their way to Gong In-yeong's dog breed, the fifth and largest to date, that they want to "free". "The dog meat industry in Korea is in a legal gray area - there are virtually no regulations or controls. The breeders don't even need a license," says Pumbly. A lack of ethical standards would have led to particularly brutal housing conditions.

In the past, the animals were often hung alive on sticks and beaten to death with sticks. The adrenaline rush of the dogs should make the meat taste tender, is a common belief. The primary method of killing is now a more efficient one, albeit by no means painless: the dogs are sprinkled with water before an electric cattle stick is stuck into their throats. It usually takes several attempts before they die from the electric shock.

Boy against tradition

According to NGO estimates, up to two and a half million dogs are slaughtered for human consumption each year in South Korea. There are said to be over 70,000 kennels in South Korea, from hidden backyards to industrialized operations. "However, young people in particular are increasingly keeping pets," says Borami Seo, who heads Humane Society's Korea office. Only a fifth of all 20 to 30-year-old Koreans eat dog meat, compared to more than half of the elderly.

The animal rights activists hope to throw a media spotlight on the topic in the run-up to the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang. When they turn into breeder Gong In-young's farm that morning, they immediately get to work: They load the dogs into plastic boxes and heave them onto a truck that will take them to the airport. In America and Canada they should find families and live in freedom. "Here the dogs would have a bad chance, because Koreans want almost only pure-bred dogs," says activist Seo.

With financial incentives and discussions, they try to persuade the dog breeders to switch to growing vegetables. The farmers receive five-digit funds for the transition. "Our rescue operations are expensive, but we believe that they are worth every penny," says animal rights activist Plumbly: "Not least because the dogs become ambassadors: each of them carries their story out into the world." (Fabian Kretschmer from Wonju, April 29, 2016)