Trade of shame
PHUKET: Would the trade in dogs be less shameful if it were legalised? Jody Houton investigates.
Friday 6 July 2012, 09:00AM
People’s opinions on the stray dog situation in Phuket usually fall into two camps.
Either they are amazed and charmed at how friendly, cute and amiable they are, or they are repulsed and scared by their sheer numbers, unruliness and a sense that they are filthy and disease-ridden.
Few from either camp, however, would probably advocate the ‘dognapping’, smuggling and slaughtering that is currently happening around Thailand.
In a bid to raise awareness of the rising popularity of the dogmeat trade and the illegal transportation of Thai dogs to Vietnam, the Soi Dog Foundation – a not-for-profit island-based animal charity – launched its Trade of Shame campaign in June.
Co-founder John Dalley said that although the frequency of such events has recently increased, the dog trade in Thailand has existed for a long time.
“Historically, gangs would collect dogs by buying from local villagers in Isarn in exchange for plastic buckets.”
However, Mr Dalley said that with rising demand and dogs in short supply, especially around the period of Vietnamese Tet and Chinese New Year, dog snatchers are now travelling throughout much of Thailand and entering temples at night to grab temple dogs, even stealing pets.
Amandine Lecesne is the co-founder for Care for Dogs, a Chiang Mai-based organisation set up to care for injured and homeless dogs, and which also regularly takes in dogs that are in danger of being sent to the dog-meat market in the area.
“It is too devastating for words to explain our horror at going into a temple or on a parking lot where we’ve cared for the resident dogs and finding the place empty, with only kids around to tell us of the men who came in the night and made all the dogs scream.”
In Phuket Mr Dalley said that although there was no evidence of rustlers operating on the island, there was still cause for concern.
“Many local people believe that the disappearance of the large number of dogs from Patong Beach in May 2011 may have [been a case of dognapping].”
He also said the SDF did have evidence that local dogs – particularly black ones, owing to the belief that black dogmeat is a sought-after aphrodisiac – were regularly snatched by migrant workers for consumption in labour camps on the island.
The Thai Veterinary Medical Association estimates that as many as 500,000 Thai dogs a year make the one-way trip from Thailand to Vietnam or Southern China. Most dogs go to large holding facilities in the northern town of Tha Rae in Sakon Nakon province.
Tha Rae is widely regarded as the centre of the dogmeat trade and is home to at least 17 known slaughterhouses.
In this small northeastern Thai village, butchers and traders examine the animals in order to select the strong and healthy dogs before loading them onto trucks and driving them to crossing points over the Mekong River.
According to reports, police posts along the way and at the Mekong border are usually bribed to look away, as are local politicians, many of whom are allegedly in or benefit directly from the trade.
Animals whose meat is considered to be of lower quality are butchered there and then, and sold on the Thai market.
The more valuable dogs are then smuggled across the Mekong on large long-tail boats, before being loaded onto trucks to continue their onward journey through Laos to Vietnam, where buyers await.
Many dogs die from suffocation or disease long before they reach their final destination.
These are the lucky ones.
According to quarantine regulations, each dog coming in to Vietnam must have a veterinarian’s certificate, proof of rabies vaccination, and an import permit from the Department of Animal Health.
Although it is technically illegal to smuggle animals in from Thailand, there doesn’t seem to be a problem with Vietnam receiving a product from a country prohibited from trading in it.
Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director of animal rights organisation Animals Asia recalls one night in April at a border crossing between Vietnam and Laos in Central Vietnam.
“I saw a truck coming through, apparently from Thailand. It contained hundreds of dogs, and according to border guards they only need to have the import permit so that customs can tax them. There was no veterinary inspection even though there was a quarantine station there.”
He added that, judging from the state of the dogs, he was quite confident that they would not have satisfied quarantine regulations. Despite this, the truck was waved through.
SUPPLY AND DEMAND
Vietnam is certainly not the only Asian country that eats dogs, but along with China, it is certainly one that has one of the highest demand for the ‘delicacy’.
Mr Bendixsen said, “People eat dogmeat because they believe it’s a delicacy that contains lots of protein.”
He added, “Dog-eating is especially prevalent amongst men, as they believe it gives them vitality and increases their masculinity. It’s more popular with those over the age of 30, and definitely more with men than women.”
However, Mr Bendixsen believes there are numerous reasons that the dogmeat trade in Vietnam flourishes, not least of which is that work as a dognapper can prove incredibly lucrative.
A 20-kilogram dog can sell for more than B3,000, roughly the monthly salary of an average Vietnamese worker.
While it’s certainly illegal to eat, kill or indeed smuggle dogs in Thailand, in Vietnam the laws are rather more murky, but Mr Bendixsen attempts to clarify: “It’s not illegal to consume or sell dogmeat although the dogmeat seller must comply with health regulations in terms of how the meat is processed.
“There are, however, no regulations or laws regulating the farming of dogs.”
From a Western perspective the practice of eating man’s best friend is abhorrent, but is it any less so to a Hindu that westerners eat cows?
Though a practice on the wane, Japanese still eat whale, and French eat horse, yet the international community rarely share the same level of disgust as they do when it comes to eating Fido.
Is it therefore just a simple case of anthropomorphism that most humans are guilty of?
The only difference seems to be in the particular animals that humans choose to identify or empathise with. Is eating dogs therefore really any more “unacceptable” than eating cows?
The fact will remain, regardless of how much it may offend Western sensibilities, that eating dog is extremely popular, profitable and part of cultural practices, tradition and identity in many Asian countries.
The irony lies in the reality that when any practice is forbidden or declared unlawful, it is no longer bound by regulations or legal stipulations. Attempting to outlaw a behaviour or practice can actually worsen the problem.
There is an argument that because the animals have to be smuggled across the border, the conditions that they have to endure are far worse to those that would apply if it were a legal industry, with transparent actions and practices.
Some argue that the countries that participate in the trade, whether legally or illegally, should be made to follow a wider regulatory body.
But for others, including Mrs Lecesne, there is no room for discussion when it comes to the regulation of the dogmeat trade, “How do you regulate animal cruelty? The dogmeat trade needs to be abolished in Thailand, period.”
However, if it were to be regulated, surely the export of dogs from Thailand, a country where there is a huge stray dog population, would be preferable to using farmed dogs?
Although perhaps the lesser of two evils and not particularly humane, it most certainly would be one solution Phuket’s stray dog population and many of the problems associated with it.
On The Phuket News forum for a recent story on the island’s stray dog problem, readers shared a variety of opinions and anecdotes.
One reader wrote: “We recently spent two weeks on vacation in Phuket and enjoyed ourselves tremendously – the only thing that distracted [us] from the vacation was the stray dogs on the beach.”
The reader recounted how she had seen a local cat torn almost to shreds by a pack of stray dogs on Nai Yang Beach.
Another suggested that the use of Phuket’s stray dogs for dogmeat could be a positive as it would make the beaches cleaner, more hygienic and thus safer. Now whether he was being serious or not is, in a way, not as important as the point that he raises.
Both the SDF and Care for Dogs disagree and believe that sterilisation is the only humane and effective method of solving Thailand’s stray dog problem.
So although most Thai people and visitors to Thailand strongly disapprove of the consumption of dogmeat, and laws exist to prevent the illegal practice of dognapping and trafficking, a lack of enforcement has allowed the industry to continue and, ironically, perhaps even flourish.
Mrs Lecesne said, “We are appalled and outraged at this level of cruelty and lack of intervention by the authorities. Care for Dogs has increasingly been advocating for changes in laws and policies in Thailand that will benefit dogs and animals in Thailand.
“Specifically, we are recommending stricter enforcement by Thai officials against illegal trafficking of dogs, more patrolling of borders to catch trucks [carrying] dogs, and longer sentences for those caught.”
Although the dog trade is illegal, punishments are currently light, with offenders receiving a maximum of two years in prison or a fine of up to B40,000.
A January 2012 crackdown on dog traders in Tha Rae netted a man named as Boonthai Wannaphrom, who confessed to holding 5,000 dogs to be sold to buyers in Vietnam.
He was initially sentenced to eight months in jail and B75,000 in fines, but the court later halved his sentence.
Organisations such as SDF and Care for Dogs regularly take in dogs that are in danger of being caught and sent to the dog-meat market. But that is the situation in Thailand.
Across the border in Vietnam, where there are no laws governing the consumption or selling of dogmeat, resolving the trade would be much more difficult and a task that Mr Bendixsen admits his organisation does not have the time or resources to tackle.
“We are monitoring the situation with a view to ensuring trade doesn’t become legal.
“About two years ago, some provincial governments proposed to the central Government that a regulation should be enacted that would allow the processing of dogmeat for human consumption.
“We managed to rally welfare organisations overseas and put together a petition condemning the proposal.
“On that occasion, the government backed down. At the moment there is no law or regulation controlling the dogmeat trade and so if the government passed regulation legalising the trade it could take years to overturn that decision.
“Ideally, we want the government to ban the dog trade, but to carry out the lobbying and advocacy work required would need much resource and dedication.”
THE HARD FACTS
The unfortunate reality is that, regardless of laws and regulations, the dog-meat trade and the consumption of dogmeat is likely to continue unabated unless a major change in attitude happens, but Mr Bendixsen is optimistic.
“It’s a hard issue to tackle in Vietnam, probably similar to China and Korea. There needs to be an education programme to educate, and change people’s attitude towards dog-eating.”
He added, “There are groups, run by young animal lovers, who are trying to publicise the issue. These groups are using the internet and are reaching their peers, who are of similar age and values.
However, the older men that are the main consumers of dogmeat, are not receiving these messages.”
It is hoped that through the Trade of Shame campaign and others like it, these people will be reached, or at least that awareness of the practice will be raised, resulting in better understanding among the opposing groups.
What is certain is that the current situation of dogs being beaten in order to tenderise the meat, crammed into cages and being subjected to horrendous living conditions until they are slaughtered is unacceptable for any living thing.
“There is no place in our world for animal brutality,” Mrs Lecesne said. “No dog should be strung up and beaten violently. No dog should watch other dogs scream out as they are being cut. No dog should be submitted to live boiling. No dog should see us as monsters in its last breath.”
Regardless of their opinion on the stray dog population in Phuket, few would argue with that.