One of the lucky ones: This dog, in a farm in central South Korea, has been rescued. Photo: Fabian Kretschmer

A pungent odor and deafening barking reveal from afar how 61-year Lee Sang-gu makes a living: The muddy paths of his farm are lined with dozens of rusty metal cages, each filled with several dogs of various breeds including Chihuahuas, Poodles, Maltese and Boston Terriers.

“Some of them will be sold as pets, others for dog meat consumption,” said Lee. “Depending on who bids the most.”

On a recent bright, crisp February morning in Hongseong County in central South Korea, Lee started what has been his daily routine for the last eight years: He pushes along a wheelbarrow filled with brown grits and feeds each of his 200 dogs. His back is bent from decades of hard physical labor.

Lack of choices is what brought him to the dog meat industry, Lee said. Life has not been easy. He ran a pig farm that went bankrupt. For years, he oscillated between unemployment programs and occasional day laboring. Finally, he followed the advice of an old friend to try his luck as dog meat farmer.

But even that business has slowly been worsening. “Back in the day, young people had already stopped eating dog meat, but nowadays, not even older people consume it anymore”, he says. Decreasing demand has driven down prices. In 2011 Lee sold a dog for around 200 thousand won (180 US-dollars). That is double what he gets now.

Dog farmer Lee Sang-gu makes the rounds of his livestock. Photo: Fabian Kretschmer

Pets, not eats

According to animal rights activist group Humane Society International there are still up to 17,000 small dog meat farms scattered across the Korean countryside. South Korea is the only country in the world that has spawned a commercial dog meat industry; close to two million dogs are estimated to be consumed every year.

But it is mainly older Koreans who cherish the centuries-old tradition. Usually served in a spicy, peppery stew, dog meat is supposed to help diners cope with the humid summers, and is also believed to enhance male virility. Now, demographic change is shifting attitudes towards dog meat consumption.

“Among my friends, ten out of ten would not even consider eating dog meat”, says 21-year old student Kang Na-kyeong: “The only reason I tried it once is because my grandparents made me do so.” In reality TV-shows, she says, it is increasingly common to see celebrities adopting dogs from shelters.

Generally, Kang’s generation perceives dogs as pets rather than dinner.

A representative survey by NGO Last Chance for Animals in April 2018 found that more than 80% of respondents said they have never consumed dog meat; only 1.2% said they would eat it regularly on a monthly basis.

At same time, South Korea’s pet industry is on a steady rise: In 2017 it was worth $3.4 billion, and is expected to grow by a further $2 billion by 2020.

Politicians wade in

South Korean President Moon Jae-in was the only contender during the 2017 presidential election whose pledges included the topic of animal rights. Amongst other things Moon – a cat owner – pledged more feeding facilities for stray cats. Yet, he opposed a complete ban on dog meat consumption, saying that it should be phased out instead. Two months after his inauguration he adopted a four-year old black mongrel with the name of “Tory” that had been rescued from a dog meat farm by animal rights group CARE.

That very same group came under intense public criticism in January after a whistleblower revealed that the director of CARE had ordered 230 dogs in its shelter to be secretly euthanized. The reason for the order was overcrowding and an inability to find homes for the animals. But it proved bitterly ironical, given that the NGO is known for its activism against the domestic dog meat industry and its “no-kill policy.” After the revelation broke, many of CARE’s donors canceled their support.

Still, the trend rolls looks unstoppable.

Last Saturday, Seoul’s high-profile mayor, Park Won-soon – who published a thesis about animal rights while studying in the UK in 1991 – vowed to pressure all dog butchers in the capital out of business.

And prior to Park’s statement, last November the central government shut down the Taepyeong-dong complex outside Seoul, widely considered the biggest dog slaughterhouse in the country.

In the sprawling Gyeongdong-market district in northeastern Seoul, outdoor market stalls under rainbow-colored umbrellas offer everything from chili peppers to medical herbs. This used to be a hotspot for the dog meat trade, but on a recent stroll through this traditional market, only two dog butcher shops remained.

One of the last dog butcheries in Seoul’s Gyeongdong Market. Photo: Thomas Maresca

72-year-old Kim Dae-won, a cheerful man dressed in a black furred leather jacket has been coming here since his early childhood days. He has witnessed the incredible change that Korea – a war-scarred, authoritarian, economic basket case in the 1950s that transitioned to a surging industrial powerhouse and a youthful democracy in the late 1980 – has undergone. Naturally, attitudes have shifted, too.

“In the past the market was full of people selling dogs in cages”, says Kim: “But now eating dogs is mostly seen as a barbaric practice.” The turning point, he remembers, was the Seoul Olympics of 1988. Then, international animal rights activists, including French actress Brigitte Bardot, used media to draw attention to the issue.

Thirty years later, western animal rights activists campaigned ahead of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics for an end of the South Korean dog meat industry. Amid rising public pressure, the host government of Gangwon Province requested 40 dog meat restaurants in the region of the Olympic facilities to stop serving dog meat dishes during the Games.

Rehabilitating farmers, dogs

In Hongseon, Lee has, for months, grappled with the idea of closing his dog meat farm. It no longer provides him a living, and neighbors are complaining about the noise and demanding he move his premises.

To help him transform his business, Lee has reached out to animal rights activist group Humane Society International. They provided financial incentives for dog meat farmers willing to leave the industry. Mr. Lee has signed a contract that is binding for 20 years.

Dressed in green jackets, half a dozen staffers from HSI visited Lee’s farm to close it for good. They broke the cages and placed the dogs in plastic boxes. They are to be driven to Incheon International Airport, where they will board an Air Canada cargo plane, which will carry them to Montreal. From there, they are to be driven to shelters in the greater Chicago area. Most are expected to find new homes within weeks.

Lee’s farm is the 14th in South Korea that the Washington-based animal rights organization is closing down. With a price tag of $100,000 upwards, each of their week-long operations is pricey and logistically complex. In total, they have rescued over 1,300 dogs from South Korea since 2015.

Kelly O’Meara, an official with Humane Society International, holds a dog being rescued from a farm in Hongseong. Photo: Thomas Maresca

“We have been overjoyed with the achievements of the last months,” said Kelly O’Meara from HSI. “We are seeing changes taking place at a much faster pace than we imagined.”

Lee is not sure yet what he will do with his future: “I could imagine myself working as a security guard for an apartment complex,” he mused. “Or I could take a computer course to improve my chances of finding a job.”

He says he is happy to finally be able to close down his farm. Still, observing the animal activists carrying away the dogs from his farm leaves him with an empty feeling. After all, Lee says, those dogs had been his companions for the last eight years.

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