It is hard to visit any social media platform these days without hearing about a campaign working to save the lives of dogs and cats across Asia from the meat trade. And that's a good thing because as pet owners across the globe learn more, more strive to do what they can – signing petitions, using their platform to spread the message and encourage change embedded in an outdated culture.
Research tells us younger generations in Korea want to see this awful trade ended, but how do they break free from the older generation's beliefs?
This month we share the story of Kiana Kang, a South Korean living in LA who is the campaign director for In Defense of Animals' Ditch Dog Meat campaign.
When I was 4 years old, my family emigrated from South Korea to Baltimore. I adopted many of the usual Western mores…including my views on dogs. As far as I was concerned, dogs were 'man’s best friend' and eating them was cruel.
As I got older, growing up in white suburbia, I received numerous racial comments by school kids. Sometimes they would say to me, 'You eat dogs and cats.' 'No, that’s the Chinese and Vietnamese. We don’t eat them,' I would reply in disgust. They were right, of course, but I didn’t know it at the time.
It wasn’t until I was a little older and more aware of the history of my own country when a Korean friend put a question to me that changed the way I viewed dog meat.
“Just because it is the meat of a dog, you think it is wrong? Stop thinking like a white person. Indians look at us and say we are wrong to eat cows. It’s no different. Meat is meat.”
Even though the thought of eating dogs broke my heart, on that day, I buried my love for dogs in favour of respecting cultural sensitivity. Fortunately, many years later, everything was set to change again.
By chance, I saw a post on Facebook urgently calling for people to help transport dogs arriving from a slaughterhouse in Korea. I dropped everything and drove to LAX where I met Marc Ching (pictured below) of Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation. Yet again, I was set to have my perspective changed; but this time my whole life would be caught in the shift.
'I didn’t know'
These were the words I uttered in disbelief as Marc described the horrific and barbaric cruelty he had witnessed while undercover as an American meat buyer in Korean dog slaughterhouses.
He re-lived with horror in his eyes how dogs were hung, beaten, butchered alive, skinned alive, nailed alive and electrocuted.
What shook me to the core was not just the killing of dogs for their meat per se, but the intentional torture behind the meat. The more torture, the more adrenaline the dog produces, which is falsely believed to make the meat taste better and its medicinal properties more effective.
Photo Credit: Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation
I was shocked that my people were capable of such cruelty. 'We are an economic powerhouse, not a third world country! It so barbaric.' After uttering those words, I couldn’t fathom turning a blind eye. I resolved on the spot to educate other Koreans about the horror.
'I didn’t know' was a phrase I would hear time and again from the mouths of many Koreans, laden with disbelief and shame.
To understand and make a change to help dogs in Korea, one must understand the cultural background and historical context that has led to dual Korean perspectives on the dog: pet vs livestock.
Tradition: Fact vs Fiction
Korea has a long history of dog meat consumption. Unlike Western civilisations, Koreans never saw dogs as companions or assets for work. Dogs were mainly bred for consumption; however, hunting wild dogs was more commonly preferred than breeding.
That’s an important fact, since modern supporters of Korea’s dog meat industry, which is worth over $200 million a year, argue that eating dogs is Korean tradition.
Although there is archaeological evidence of dog consumption dating back a thousand years, dog meat consumption was not a tradition but merely a means to avoid starvation during periods of famine.
In darker days, it was not uncommon for Koreans to have an unnamed mongrel dog called 'ddong gae', a negative slang term translated to 'dung-dog', living outside their homes. The dogs were called ddong gae because they survived on human faeces. Nowadays, ddong gae is commonly referred to mix-breeds and dogs bred for consumption.
After generations, a landrace spitz-type breed emerged called Nureongi, which translates as 'yellow dog'. Noted for their distinctive coloured fur and masked faces, Nureongi has become today’s most commonly farmed breed. They are considered to have no other purpose other than as a source of dog meat. Along with the Nureongi breed, a less muscular spitz breed, the Jindo (pictured below), is also found on farms. These native dogs, noted for their bravery and loyalty, are recognised as Korea’s national breed. It is a double tragedy to see Korea’s treasured native dog being killed for meat.
Fortunately, times change, and in the 1980s, Koreans started to see dogs as companions or 'pets'. Although the Nureongi's reputation as 'livestock' persisted, purebred dogs began to be welcomed into homes. Given Korea’s short history of pet culture, dual attitudes on dogs exist to this day - edible 'livestock' dogs versus companion dogs. As a result, Korea is the only culture to have dog meat farms.
With two dual attitudes, some adversities arise. Now you can expect to find breeds other than Nureongi and Jindo sold for consumption. Golden Retrievers, Shepherds, and Huskies are killed for meat, while smaller breeds, like Maltese, are generally used for herbal tonics.
Many purebreds who end up in the dog meat trade have either been stolen or sold. Approximately 2.5 million dogs are slaughtered annually for consumption in South Korea, mostly during Bok Nal days.
What is Bok Nal?
Bok Nal or Bok days refer to the three hottest days in the lunar calendar. Why consume dogs during Bok Nal? The reason stems from a metaphysical theory of Yin-Yang and the elements. Yin-Yang is a belief that everything in the universe consists of two forces that are opposite but complementary.
According to the 400-year-old Korean encyclopaedia, Jibongyuseol, Bok denotes the period where the feminine force Yin is strong and tries to rise but is forced to remain crouched by the masculine Yang.
During Bok days when the Yin is strong, an opposite force, Yang, must complement it.
Bok ‘s element is metal, and its opposite element is fire - dogs’ element.
Dog meat traders have capitalised on this and popularised a national festival of horror. During Bok days, Koreans are encouraged to eat dog meat stew, known as bosintang, to recharge the Yang and counter the Yin, and cool the body during the hot summer days. Another belief is that heat depletes men’s sexual potency, so bosintang is eaten to help with men’s sexual virility. No scientific evidence has been found to substantiate either of these beliefs.
Legal or illegal?
That is the problem. Without going into complicated details, it is legal to have dogs as 'livestock' but illegal to slaughter dogs for meat; however, dog meat traders operate within a legal grey area since dogs are governed by several different Korean government agencies. Without a strong law, dogs continue to suffer.
Without a strong law, dogs continue to suffer.
How widespread is the dog meat trade in Korea?
Perhaps the most important point to take home is that not all Koreans eat dogs; in reality, only a small percentage do.
Within a single generation, South Korea has experienced immense economic growth and development, and an elevated standard of living and adaptation of western culture. Along with these changes came new attitudes towards animals.
Approximately 1 in 5 Koreans now have animal companions. This has sparked a rising awareness of animals, and a fall towards tolerance of animal cruelty.
Polls reveal changing attitudes within Korea
Attitudes are changing for the better. According to a 2016 poll of 1,000 Koreans conducted by In Defense of Animals and Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth, 6 out of 10 Koreans have never eaten dog meat. A huge 57 percent are against the cruel trade, and almost half (46 percent) believe dog meat should be banned altogether.
Kiana Kang with dog meat survivor Pumpkin / Photo Credit: Fern Peskin-White
Only a tiny number of South Koreans now eat dog meat regularly, with fewer than 5 percent of people reporting they eat it twice a month or more.
The poll reveals that the dog meat debate in Korea has become as much of a cultural issue as a generational one since it is mainly older Koreans who now consume dogs.
The younger generations are actively opposed to the trend heralding the potential end of the dog meat trade within our lifetimes. In Defense of Animals has revealed that there are now more Koreans against the dog meat trade than who participate.
In Defense of Animals is one of the first American organisations to fight the cruel dog meat trade. Over 15 years ago, they received a cry for help from a Korean woman witnessing the torture and sprang into action to launch one of the most passionately fought and popularly supported animal protection campaigns in history. It is fitting that 15 years later, having rescued many dogs from the jaws of death, and notching up numerous victories, In Defense of Animals’ Ditch Dog Meat campaign is now spearheaded by a Korean woman who refused to ignore this horror.
Kiana Kang and Sheena Gao picking up two dog meat survivors / Photo Credit: Kiana Kang
Korea’s dog meat industry is now in focus again with the nation hosting the upcoming Winter Olympics next year. Considering the substantial social pressure surrounding the infamous Yulin Dog Meat Festival in China, a 10-day dog eating festival where 10,000 dogs are slaughtered and consumed, we may hope to see this issue brought into serious focus again on the international stage.
There's much work to still be done but if recent events are anything to go by, the future looks brighter for dogs.
A major victory has been won in the fight to end the Korean dog meat trade. On December 13, 2016, the city of Seongnam, a satellite city of Seoul and the second largest city in the Gyeonggi province, took a step forward by banning its on-site slaughter and display of dogs.
Seongnam‘s Moran Market was the oldest and most famous Dog Meat Market in Korea. The closure of its on-site slaughter and phasing it out by May 2017 is symbolic of the future of Korea’s image and dog meat industry. As Seongnam’s mayor expressed, it was the constant communication of animal activists expressing their concerns that helped relieve '50 years of burden'.
A new generation is emerging to complement positive attitudes toward dogs and changing lifestyles. The hard fight is to change the mindset of the older traditionalists, but it is not impossible, for many older Koreans are coming to embrace their four-legged companions as family.
If my parents are any example, then I have great hope. My parents, pictured above and below, who never really cared for dogs and believed they should live outdoors, spoil mine rotten and see themselves as grandma and grandpa.
Times are a-changing, and with mounting pressures from within and abroad, I am hopeful that more and more dog meat merchants are starting to see their industry as an unprofitable endeavour and opting to change not only for themselves but for their children.
We hope that, as in Seongnam, the government will help by providing financial assistance for re-training and beginning new business ventures that are in line with modern Korean sensibilities and help Korea grow in a more compassionate and humane direction.
Grandparents with dog meat survivor Kayla and Ginger / Photo Credit: Kiana Kang
When announcing the change to Moran Market, the Mayor of Seongnam spoke some of my favourite words of Mahatma Gandhi, which I hope the entire country will come to value; 'The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated'.
Helping to bring about change
When championing dog meat, it is important to always bear in mind that Korea is a very proud and nationalistic country. For non-Koreans to label and shame all Koreans and their country for dog meat would not only be insulting, it actually damages the cause.
Photo Credit: In Defense of Animals
In Defense of Animals understands this cultural sensitivity and works to end the cruel dog meat industry with a sympathetic but determined stance. Sign up now to In Defense of Animals eNews to take action for dogs and other animals every week: www.idausa.org/signup