The Forgotten Dogs of Spain

It can happen in an instant, that moment when an animal lover becomes an animal activist. Whether through witnessing an act of cruelty or becoming aware of a grievous animal welfare issue, that person knows they can no longer turn away or hide their head in the sand – they must get involved. Such was the case for Rain Jordan before she became founder and president of Hound Sanctuary. As a longtime lover of sighthounds, she knew she had to do something after learning about the terrible plight of hunting dogs in Spain.

“After volunteering for a local greyhound rescue and while looking for a rescued Ibizan hound to adopt, I came across the podencos and galgos in Spain,” Rain explained. “I learned about how mistreated, even tortured they are in their native land. The horror of their situation compelled me to act.”

The Galgo Español, or Spanish Greyhound, and the Podenco, believed to be a variation of the Ibizan Hound, are the most commonly used sighthounds for hunting rabbit and other small game on the Spanish plains. Extremely docile and eager-to-please, galgos are fast, intelligent and agile dogs commonly used by “galgueros,” or galgo handlers, in a local version of coursing, in which two hounds chase a hare and the dog who gets closest to it wins. Similar in personality, physicality and temperament to the galgo, podencos are not only keen sighthounds but also skilled trackers used to hunt small game and wild boar.

galgos coursing

Galgos in action at a hare coursing competition. Smaller than English greyhounds, they are similar in nature but tend to be playful and have more energy than their racing counterparts.

Yet instead of being viewed as valuable companions by the hunters who own and breed them, these gentle canines are seen as disposable tools that can be easily discarded once they’ve outlived their usefulness. According to Barcelona-based SOS Galgos, which rescues approximately 250 galgos per year, as many as 50,000 Spanish hunting dogs are abandoned or killed every year at the end of hunting season, typically in late February.

“Once they’re done with these dogs, many of their hunter-owners will dispose of them in horrendous ways,” Rain explained. “These include hanging them; throwing them into wells; putting them into garbage cans, alive; burning or drowning them; dumping them on roadsides after breaking one or more of their legs so they can’t get back home or gouging out their eyes so that they can’t find their way back home, or fixing their mouths open to keep them from being able to eat and thus, survive.”

Dogs deemed low-performing or “dirty” hunters are punished with slower, more painful deaths (as payback for “embarrassing” their owners), while those seen as good hunters are “rewarded” with quick deaths or are surrendered to “perreras,” municipal shelters nicknamed “killing stations” for a very good reason. Since most Spaniards view these hounds as second-class animals and undesirable pets, they have little to no chance of being adopted, so euthanasia at these facilities is practically guaranteed.

Podenco

A podenco in her element – hunting game. Fast and smooth, they have a light, muscular build, very good hearing and keen sense of smell. Like galgos, podencos are smart, eager-to-please, loyal and gentle but are sometimes prone to stubbornness.

While some high-performing dogs may be allowed to live for two or three hunting seasons, life for a Spanish hound is anything but happy and fulfilling. Between seasons they are kept in deplorable conditions, often in cramped, dark spaces or on short chains. Carelessly over-bred, they are deprived of proper nutrition, exercise and attention. Due to the belief that a starving hound makes a better hunter, they live their entire lives on the brink of starvation, with just enough water and poor-quality food to keep them alive. Many do not survive their neglectful conditions, slowly starving or dehydrating to death or succumbing to untreated diseases, injuries or severe tick infestations.

A dog that manages to reach two or three years of age is usually weakened by malnutrition and lack of care, so it’s simply cheaper for a hunter to kill the animal rather than continue feeding it until the next season. Why keep a worn-out hound when you can pick up a new one for ten euros from one of the many breeding facilities supplying hunters in your region?

Although Spain’s existing animal welfare law forbids the physical abuse, maiming, keeping on short chains and abandonment of dogs, it excludes “working dogs” from its protections, thus allowing hunters to continue their longstanding “cultural tradition” of such sadistic behavior with impunity.

Rain & Dahlia-blog crop

Rain Jordan and Dahlia, her beloved wire-haired podenca she rescued from a perrera in Valencia, Spain in 2014. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

This tragic reality is what compelled Rain to start Hound Sanctuary in her California home in 2013. Dedicated to rescuing podencos, galgos, salukis, borzoi, wolfhounds and deerhounds from Spain and throughout the U.S., the non-profit has so far rescued, rehabilitated, and placed 28 needy hounds in loving forever homes throughout the west coast region of the U.S. and Canada. Although its small army of about a dozen volunteers are all U.S.-based, Hound Sanctuary works with an extensive network of rescue partners in Spain.

Of all the hounds Rain has helped rescue, one of the most memorable was Hero, a red and white Podenco from Spain who had been found with a broken leg.

“His rescuers had repeatedly insisted that he was not friendly, was afraid of everyone and would not let anyone near him – they didn’t seem to have much hope for his adoptability,” remembered Rain. “In fact, when we sent our volunteers to pick him and the other dogs up, one of their volunteers suggested we take another dog instead! It seemed no one gave Hero any respect or any chance at all, as apparently a scared, shy dog equals a hopeless dog in many people’s eyes.”

She continued, “We brought Hero home with the other dogs as planned. Yes, he was shy and scared, but he turned out to be one of the sweetest, calmest, easiest dogs we’ve had through Hound Sanctuary. Whenever someone tells me, ‘oh, no, this dog is very scared,’ I say, that’s my favorite kind of dog, send him over!”

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Hero, renamed Linus, was adopted just a few weeks after his rescue and is now enjoying life as a pampered pet. His new mom calls him her “little cinnamon bun.” Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hero and the other lucky dogs Hound Sanctuary has rescued have all found their happily ever after, there are thousands more who may never be that fortunate due to the fact there are only so many rescues with so much money, help and space to spare. Although there are some very dedicated, wonderful organizations within Spain working tirelessly to help its native hounds, the majority of assistance currently comes from outside the country, namely the U.S., U.K., Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany and The Netherlands.

With the need so overwhelming, Rain and her team have decided to take Hound Sanctuary to the next level in the form of a larger property. Located in Warrenton, Oregon and near completion, the new sanctuary will have enough capacity to house more rescue dogs without the organization having to rely so heavily on foster homes.

“The sanctuary is not a traditional shelter or kennel,” explained Rain. “The dogs have always lived inside the house with us and that will continue to be our policy. We will maintain the non-profit ‘home’ in California and retain volunteers/staff and fosters there, but the full-fledged facility is now in northern Oregon.”

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This is Spencer, a brindle galgo rescued from the Toledo area of Spain. Here he is with his doting adoptive moms, Cynthia Evans and Michelle Sanchez, and his Chihuahua siblings. Photo credit: Hound Sanctuary

While Hound Sanctuary is to be applauded for its heroic efforts to save these very deserving dogs, they and the other handful of organizations like them will continue to have their work cut out for them as long as the Spanish government refuses to get to the root of its country’s very serious animal welfare problem. Because in the end, improving the situation for these dogs (as well as bulls and other tortured animals in Spain) will ultimately require dramatic shifts in archaic attitudes and stopping barbaric practices that have been historically rationalized as “cultural heritage.”

While Spain’s leaders have allegedly given lip service to the idea of changing existing legislation to protect hunting dogs, so far it has taken no action, despite increasing pressure from concerned citizens and animal activists throughout the country. Ironically, many individuals in local government positions also happen to be hunters themselves. For these political reasons and more, individuals in the Spanish rescue community believe it could be many years before anything is done to protect these animals, said Rain.

“There is definitely growing awareness and uproar over the plight of Spanish hounds,” she said. “The challenge in legal protection for them seems to be not just with more and stronger laws, but with enforcement. Tradition is harder to fight than City Hall, but I believe it can be fought – with determination and reason combined with political savvy, good communication skills and plenty of funding.”

3 galgo español

The sleek and very sweet Galgo Español. Why would anyone want to hurt these gentle creatures? The Spanish government should be ashamed for turning a blind eye to their terrible plight.

But until then, Hound Sanctuary and its small army of volunteers will simply focus on the task at hand – rescuing homeless sighthounds in the U.S. and saving the desperate hunting dogs of Spain, who would have no recourse were it not for the kindhearted individuals fighting to give them a second chance at life.

“Our goal is to help many more dogs and to bring awareness about their plight in hopes that more awareness will eventually lead to abatement of the cruelties they currently endure,” Rain said. “These dogs are sweet to the core no matter how broken. They are highly sensitive creatures who deserve respect.”

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Rain and her handsome rescued Ibizan hound, Boy Boy, the inspiration for Hound Sanctuary. Photo courtesy of Kevin Johnson, Santa Cruz Sentinel

It can cost $2,700 or more to rescue and rehabilitate a dog from Spain, depending on its individual needs. As a result, Hound Sanctuary is in desperate need of financial support to save more dogs and complete its new sanctuary. To help this incredible organization continue its lifesaving work, please visit their website and check out their Facebook page.

To learn more about Spanish hunting dogs, please visit the European Society of Dog and Animal Welfare (ESDAW) website.

Want to help the forgotten hounds of Spain? Please sign this petition, which asks the Spanish government to prosecute hunters for murdering or abandoning their dogs and to amend the country’s animal welfare law to protect these gentle canines.

“The assumption that animals are without rights and the illusion that our treatment of them has no moral significance is a positively outrageous example of Western crudity and barbarity. Universal compassion is the only guarantee of morality.” – Schopenhauer

In the Company of Creatures Great and Small

I couldn’t have imagined a better way to spend my birthday. I’d been wanting to volunteer at a farm animal sanctuary for quite some time, especially since I’d started following Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission on social media (in case you haven’t heard of these wonderful organizations, they are two incredible non-profit farm animal sanctuaries located in the U.S. and Australia, respectively). As a devoted dog mom who hasn’t lived without a canine in over 28 years, and as a volunteer with a local pet rescue, I am constantly around companion animals but have rarely had the chance to interact with pigs, sheep, chickens or cows – those creatures our society views as food, not friends. So when I stumbled upon Sweet Olive Farm Animal Rescue, a sanctuary located in Athens, GA, right outside of my hometown of Atlanta, I promptly reached out and made plans to spend the day lending a hand and hanging out with the animals. I was so excited!

The place was beyond amazing. Nestled on 18 acres of rolling hills and green pastures, the charming little farm is home to over 100 rescued animals, from pigs, sheep, donkeys and alpacas to horses, turkeys, chickens and goats. Complete with a beautiful, turn-of-the-century farmhouse and rustic, 100-year-old barn, it’s a storybook kind of place, the type of boutique farm I’d always dreamed of living on when I was a child. Besides several rescue dogs and two very affectionate Great Pyrenees (whose job it is to guard the sanctuary’s more vulnerable residents against predators), the menagerie also includes three grumpy geese, a friendly llama, two giant hogs and four adorable mini horses with shaggy manes. The only animals missing were cows (I admit I have a “thing” for cows). Still, I was in heaven!

 

Barn

The heartbeat of the sanctuary, the beautifully restored antique barn, all sealed up for the winter. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Within minutes of our arrival, I was making fast friends with the toothy alpacas and Culprit, an incredibly friendly donkey made even more sociable thanks to my large bag of carrots. Meanwhile, my husband Chris went about unpacking his camera equipment, happily anticipating his myriad photo opportunities. Several volunteers bustled about, cheerfully cleaning paddocks, adjusting fences and moving a feeding trough under the watchful guidance of Hope Wehunt, the sanctuary’s full-time farmhand, who greeted Chris and me with a bright, welcoming smile.

Soon we were joined by the brainchildren of the place, partners Kat Howkins and Susan Pritchett, two successful Atlanta businesswomen who originally started Sweet Olive Farm five years ago to accommodate their sizable pack of rescue dogs. Longtime vegans, the Georgia natives have been together for 11 years and share a tremendous passion for animals large and small.

Always in motion, whether attending to the animals, talking to workers or assisting the volunteers with different projects, Susan and Kat appeared to be women on a non-stop mission, so I felt quite privileged to have the chance to sit down with them and hear their story. Because really, how does one start such an ambitious operation?

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Kat and Susan, living it up in their peaceable kingdom. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“We were living in Ansley Park in Atlanta and our neighbors weren’t too crazy about all of our dogs, so they called animal control on us,” explained Kat in her soft southern drawl, squinting at me from under the brim of her straw cowboy hat. “Around that time we’d been looking for a place because we knew our dogs were driving our neighbors crazy and that we had to find somewhere to take them, at least on weekends. So we rented this property and then a Fulton County Animal Control officer asked us, ‘hey, y’all want a pig?’ He was scheduled for euthanasia and I was rushing around, trying to build some fences so we could get him here. And that’s sort of how it all started.”

Before long, the couple not only had the aforementioned Mr. Thelma, the first of what would eventually become their robust army of 10 rescued pot-bellied pigs, but also a rooster, a neglected llama, an elderly peacock and a grumpy chestnut mare who’d been rejected by a local petting zoo for biting children. More creatures would quickly follow, animals either rescued from dire circumstances, found as strays or simply unwanted by their owners. Some would have died or been eaten if Kat and Susan hadn’t swept in and delivered them to safety.

“We just started getting animals and it organically turned into what it is now,” Susan told me in her soft, tinkling voice. “We didn’t realize that once we got animals here we’d have to be here all the time – they have to be looked after morning, noon and night. It’s all been an education for us because we didn’t really know anything about animal husbandry, so we’d go online and learn all about goats or all about sheep, etc. So we kind of evolved into it.”

Orwell&PrinceCharming

I have to admit I am completely besotted with pigs. Here I am with Orwell and Prince Charming, the happy recipients of my multiple carrot offerings. Photo credit: Chris Savas

Inspired by Edgar’s Mission in Australia, which the couple visited several years ago to serve as a model for Sweet Olive Farm, the sanctuary is indeed run like a well-oiled machine, with the animals at the very center of its universe. Looking around at all of these beautiful, funny and incredibly sentient creatures as they went about napping, eating, and interacting with humans and each other, I couldn’t help but notice how everyone seemed to get along so well (other than the occasional skirmishes between the turkeys and a couple of trouble-making roosters). How was that possible?

Kat explained that she and Susan make a practice of separating the animals into different interspecies groups according to who gets along best. For example, Culprit is scared of pigs and doesn’t like the male mini horses but he’s just fine living with the alpacas, while the pot-bellied pigs, goats, turkeys, chickens and sheep seem to enjoy coexisting in their own paddock. But regardless of their housing arrangements, everyone appeared healthy, well cared for and incredibly content. All their needs are met and they are safe and loved. Somehow, I think they understand how good they have it.

Geese

Sweet Olive Farm’s small but mighty flock of geese. The one on the far right was quite a force to be reckoned with! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Like Farm Sanctuary and Edgar’s Mission, Sweet Olive Farm appears to be part of a growing trend in farm sanctuaries popping up throughout the Western world, safe havens where barnyard species can live out their lives in peace and comfort without being exploited for their meat, eggs, milk or wool. Instead of living short, miserable existences on factory farms and facing the inevitable terror of slaughter, these creatures can actually enjoy their day-to-day lives, be with their own kind, engage in natural behaviors, experience human love and compassion and grow old. In essence, they are allowed to be who they are.

As humans continue to recognize the sentience of farm animals and begin to make more humane food and lifestyle choices, I hope we will see more and more places like Sweet Olive Farm. Still, a more compassionate world can’t happen without public awareness, and that’s why Sweet Olive Farm is also evolving into a place of learning where groups of local schoolchildren can come to the farm, meet the animals and learn about animal husbandry and farm animal welfare. Susan and Kat hope that as more young children are exposed to farm animals, the more understanding and compassion they will develop and carry with them into their adult lives.

Volunteers&Chloe

Volunteering at the sanctuary wouldn’t be complete without stopping to give Chloe, the matriarch of the farm’s pot-bellied pigs, a belly rub. Photo credit: Chris Savas

“The kids are our main mission, teaching social responsibility and compassion education,” Kat said. “We tell them we don’t eat meat…(but) I don’t try to tell kids to be vegetarian. I’m just trying to show them that these are animals, and I’ll say thing like, ‘do you really want to eat that turkey after you’ve been here and been around him several times?’ So our goal is really to lead by example rather than being political.”

Running a sanctuary with over 100 animals is not just a full-time, life-consuming venture, it’s also an incredibly expensive one, as Kat and Susan can attest to. With their 501c3 non-profit status soon to be finalized, the couple is looking forward to taking Sweet Olive Farm to the next level through active fundraising efforts that will allow them to increase their volunteer network; build more fences and barns; create an onsite volunteer center; host special events and become a major part of the farm animal rescue community. With two such ambitious, can-do women at the helm of this sanctuary, I have no doubt they will make all of those dreams a reality, and soon.

Turkeys

Like chickens, turkeys possess strong personalities, form friendships and have a range of interests. I found these guys absolutely fascinating! Photo credit: Chris Savas

Volunteering at a farm sanctuary is a great way to give back while spending time with animals you don’t normally get to interact with on a day-to-day basis. For me, it only reaffirmed my decision to live a meat-free life and to continue moving in a cruelty-free direction. Here are some other great reasons to visit one:

It’s good for the soul: Whether you just want to take a tour or volunteer, visiting a farm animal sanctuary is such an amazing experience. You can see how farm animals live with each other and relate to humans, learn their stories and be amazed by their different personalities. Who knows, maybe you’ll even end up sponsoring an animal? Plus, you’ll come away with unforgettable stories to tell!

You can give back: The staff who run these sanctuaries work tirelessly in all kinds of weather and will be extremely grateful for an extra pair of hands. By volunteering, you can help them with a variety of tasks including cleaning, painting and general farm maintenance, or even grant research, event planning and fundraising. Then there’s the extra perk of being able to socialize with the animals!

You might learn some vegan culinary skills: More and more farm animal sanctuaries are offering cooking classes that can introduce you to as well as help you maintain a healthful, plant-based diet. Check the website of the farm sanctuary you’re planning to visit to see if they offer cooking classes and make sure to sign up well in advance.

It’s inspiring and motivating: Being surrounded by so many wonderful farm animals might just inspire you to take action. Volunteering at a particular sanctuary can become a regular hobby or you can reach out to your local and federal legislators on behalf of the millions of animals who aren’t as lucky as the ones you’ve met at a sanctuary. There are so many great ways to help, and there’s no better place to learn how you can be a voice for change.

Tumbleweed

This is Tumbleweed, one of the sanctuary’s three resident goats. Here he is taking a break from chasing Chloe the pig, who didn’t seem to appreciate his very frequent, amorous advances. Poor, confused guy! Photo credit: Chris Savas

When it comes to different animals species, human beings are guilty of playing favorites, designating some animals friends while others food. Due to our societal conditioning, we have maintained a serious disconnect between the way we view the animals we eat and the animals we welcome into our homes and families. Most of us see our dogs and cats as family members, as complex, self-aware individuals who have emotions, are capable of suffering and feel pain. But barnyard animals are no different. So why can’t we view them the same way we view dogs and cats?

I believe that if more people knew, understood and empathized with farm animals the way they do with dogs and cats, most of them would give up animal products for good. I want to believe that if they learned (or wanted to learn) the truth about factory farming and the inherent cruelty of industries that exploit animals, they might make more compassionate lifestyle choices. Contrary to what the meat and dairy industries have brainwashed you to believe, it is possible to live a very healthy life without consuming animal products. And while it’s easy to not let yourself think about where that hunk of meat on your plate came from, in reality, it was a living, breathing being who was intelligent, self-aware and didn’t want to die.

The information is out there, and it’s up to all of us to educate ourselves and make choices in alignment with our own morals and principles. To do otherwise is dishonest and unethical. Because in the end, it is hypocritical to claim you love animals and yet continue to eat them. And as I can attest from my experience at Sweet Olive Farm, farm animals are no different from those we call our “pets.” They are amazing, funny, complex individuals who deserve to live out their lives free from harm. We are their caretakers, so it is up to us to create a more merciful world for them. In doing so, we create a kinder world for ourselves.

With the ponies

Surrounded by friendly equines. This, my friends, is what heaven looks like for a lifelong horse-crazy girl! Photo credit: Chris Savas

If you live in the Atlanta area and would like to help the wonderful animals (and humans) at Sweet Olive Farm, please visit their website.

If you live elsewhere, never fear, here are some great websites to help you locate a farm sanctuary near you:

http://www.onegreenplanet.org/animalsandnature/farm-sanctuaries-in-the-u-s-that-are-great-for-volunteering/

http://www.sanctuaries.org

http://www.compassionatefarming.org/sanctuaries.html

“Animals are my friends, and I don’t eat my friends.” – George Bernard Shaw

From Farm to Family – How a Dog Destined for the Dinner Table Got a Second Chance at Life

Martyn Stewart had no intention of adopting a dog that day. Tasked with filming the horrific conditions at a South Korean dog farm alongside Humane Society International and Change for Animals Foundation, his mind was simply focused on the difficult assignment at hand. As a sound recordist who has worked in the TV and film industry for many years and documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, Martyn has experienced his fair share of upsetting sights and sounds. But this was his first trip to a dog farm, where dogs were raised for the dog meat trade. Although he knew he would try to do as he’s always done on these assignments – harden his heart, do the job and deal with his emotions later – he still wasn’t sure he was prepared for what he was about to witness.

“I was there filming for the BBC,” Martyn explained. “I do natural soundscapes that layer into documentaries and films and occasionally I shoot video. I’ve been covering the effects of the Asian culture on planet Earth, recording rhinos, elephants, sharks, bear bile bears, etc., and I was in South Korea to tie up domestically what they do there, including to the animals we consider man’s best friends. I believe Asia is credited with 70-80 percent of most animal abuse in the world, which is an enormous percentage, as there’s a vast amount of people living on that continent, so it’s a huge problem.”

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

The dog farm before HSI and CFAF closed it down. It will soon be converted into a rice farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As the third and largest dog farm HSI was closing down as part of its strong campaign to help Korean dog farmers exit the trade and transition to more humane forms of farming, this particular operation was home to 103 canines. Most of the dogs were Tosas, a Japanese mastiff breed favored by the South Korean meat trade due to the animal’s large, muscular build.

It is estimated that more than 2 million dogs are consumed in South Korea each year, supplied by hundreds, even thousands of farms (an official census of how many actually operate in the country has never been performed). Unlike countries including China, Vietnam, Laos and Indonesia that rely on strays and stolen pets to supply their gruesome pet meat industries, Korea is the only Asian country that commercially farms dogs for consumption.

Life for dogs on a dog meat farm is a short, miserable existence characterized by deprivation and abuse. Similar to puppy mill dogs, these animals live in small, filthy cages with little or no protection from extreme weather, are fed poor diets, denied exercise, companionship and veterinary care, and never get the chance to feel the ground beneath their feet. But unlike mill dogs, these animals have no chance of ending up in loving homes, only in live meat markets where they are tortured and brutally slaughtered.

SK dog meat farm

The depressing sight of a typical South Korean dog meat farm, this one in Yongdang-dong, Yangsan. Photo credit: Nami Kim of SaveKoreanDogs.

As he followed the team of rescuers through the farm, Martyn was incredibly moved by the conditions of the dogs. Tears trickled down his face as he filmed the tragic scene before him – cages and cages of dogs and puppies barking, whining, jumping at the bars of their cages, some cowering in fear, a few wagging their tails. The smell of decaying food and excrement was overwhelming. It seemed unimaginable that any “human” could justify keeping animals this way. And then he saw him – the dog who would end up changing his life.

“I left the puppy enclosure and turned into a dark under-cover row of double-raised cages,” Martyn wrote. “Here I found a dog completely huddled over, its spirit broken. He would not look up at me and I spoke quietly, telling him he would soon be safe and out of here…he trembled in the darkness. He had a small piece of hardboard that probably measured 18 inches in diameter. This was his only salvation from the hard wire-like base of the cage that had deformed his feet.”

He continued, “I completely broke down and asked about the chances of taking him home with me. Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation…was there with me at this time and she told me my chances were probably 100 percent. I made up my mind right there that I would take this mentally and physically abused dog home with me…I decided to name him Pocket in honor of a friend’s son I’d met in Nepal; my friend’s tireless work helped close down the abusive Gadhimai festival.”

Pocket when Martyn first saw him - traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket when Martyn first saw him – traumatized, defeated and broken. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

I could describe more of Martyn’s heart-wrenching experience at the dog farm in greater detail, but I’d just be repeating everything he’s already illustrated in his very touching, first-person account published last month in The Dodo. Instead, I’d rather focus on the more heartwarming chapter of this inspiring story – Pocket after he was rescued.

Fast-forward almost two weeks later to the end of September. By then, all 103 dogs had been removed from the farm, checked over medically and flown to San Francisco. There they were housed at a temporary shelter and assessed before being distributed among HSI emergency shelter partners throughout California and into Washington state, where they would be rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes. As it turned out, the shelter where Pocket and five other dogs would be sent was PAWS in Lynnwood, WA, not far from Martyn’s home in Greater Seattle. So to help with the transport effort, Martyn and his wife Noeleen drove down to Tacoma, met the HSI team, picked up Pocket and his canine comrades and delivered them to PAWS.

Since dogs raised on dog meat farms are not well cared for and fed extremely low-quality diets typically comprised of swill and offal, it was no surprise that Pocket was infected with parasites, was terribly underweight and developed kennel cough not long after arriving in Washington. But once he was treated, vaccinated and neutered, Pocket was ready to go home with the Stewarts, who were looking forward to nurturing him and getting him acquainted with his new life.

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket snuggles in his new doggie bed. Could he be dreaming or had he found heaven? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“One of the most amazing sights was Pocket’s first walk on grass,” Martyn said. “He had never seen or smelled it, had never seen a bird or a squirrel, had never chewed a stick or interacted with another playful dog. Giving him his first squeaky toy was a joy to watch.”

As the proud parents of Bucket, a boisterous 8-month-old golden Labrador retriever, the Stewarts were well aware that adding another young dog to the household would be twice the work. But then, Pocket wasn’t any ordinary 7-9-month-old pup – he was a traumatized dog who had known nothing but deprivation and abuse. Helping him heal physically and emotionally was going to take lots of time, love and patience. But Martyn wasn’t daunted; he was prepared to do everything in his power to help Pocket feel safe and loved. And initially, that meant giving up sleep.

“That first week I didn’t even know what a bed was and was walking around like a zombie because Pocket was having nightmares and would bark in his sleep,” he said. “Who knows what a meat dog dreams about? So I was lying down on the floor with him and I’d wake up feeling like someone had crushed me with a steamroller. When you get a dog you have a commitment for life and that’s what you have to keep telling yourself, but that first week definitely made me feel my age.”

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he'd never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket enjoying all the trappings of his new life, including a leisurely sunbath, something he’d never had the chance to experience at the horrible dog farm. Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Besides night terrors, Pocket had other obstacles to overcome. One issue was his deformed feet and weak lower front legs, caused by having to walk and stand on wire flooring for his entire life. Since he’d never received any exercise and his muscles were terribly weak, the dog had adapted by walking on his wrists.

“It’s kind of how his feet evolved to try to live in the conditions he was in,” Martyn explained. “His front legs became lower, like he had on snowshoes or big flippers. But now that he’s walking and putting on muscle he’s starting to elevate his legs and using the pads on his feet, so they’re straightening up quite well.”

He continued, “He’s got lopsided ears because he’d been attacked by other dogs and the farmer had stitched him up with heavy string like you’d see in a potato sack – it was just so crude and horrible. The farmer would have done it without anesthetic and Pocket would have been screaming in agony. So he’s got scarring all over his neck and one ear is about two inches down from the other, giving him this floppy approach on his face. His hearing is okay, he’s just going to have these deformities, these battle wounds that are a memento of his early life.”

Pocket's adorable, floppy face. Don't you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket’s adorable, floppy face. Don’t you just want to kiss it? Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

As those first days and weeks went by, Pocket’s new world began to slowly unfold before him, with so many new “firsts” to experience. Life is good when you’re a cherished family dog! Here he was, eating yummy, nutritious food, going for walks in the woods, playing with toys, meeting other friendly dogs, riding in the car, sleeping in a warm, comfy bed and best of all, receiving tons of love. Whenever something new, such as strange sounds, became overwhelming or frightening for him, Pocket quickly learned to look to his pack for safety and reassurance.

“Bucket is roughly the same age as Pocket, so I often look at the parallels between the two of them,” Martyn said. “We’ve had Bucket since he was 12 weeks old and he’s had the chance to be a puppy, but Pocket had his puppyhood cruelly taken from him, so he’s having to catch up with everything. Bucket is like his therapy dog, but he can also be overwhelming because he just wants to play and wrestle him to the ground every five seconds. But Pocket really looks to him for how to be a dog and help get him out of his (anxious) state of mind.”

Picturing Pocket loping after Bucket as they bound along a wooded trail, stopping to watch birds, chase squirrels, taking in all the enchanting sights, fascinating sounds and interesting smells, I am incredibly heartened to think of how far this amazingly resilient dog has come. Seven weeks ago Pocket was just another nameless dog on a South Korean dog farm, simply waiting for death. Now he is a pampered pet enjoying a wonderful life with a loving family committed to helping him heal from his traumatic beginnings. To be safe, loved and valued – that’s what all dogs, including meat dogs, deserve.

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he's not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Enjoying a lovely neck massage from his new mommy while brother Bucket wonders why he’s not getting one, too! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“His personality is just adorable,” Martyn gushed. “He’s not a guy who shows you a ton of emotion – I haven’t had a lick out of him yet – and he just looks at you with these big, sorry eyes. He has a bed at the side of our bed with a gate around it so he feels secure, and now he sleeps all night. Then when you see him in the morning you get the wag of the tail – his tail never wagged before.”

He continued, “He’s nervous and aware of everything going on around him but watching him trying to compute it all into his little mind, I think he’s doing amazing. He doesn’t have the total confidence you’d expect from a dog but I’d expect him to behave like he is after everything he’s been through.”

It takes a very special person to rehabilitate an animal from the meat trade. These creatures have been through a tremendous amount of stress and trauma and have likely never known love or affection. And while the concept of adopting a dog or a cat from these circumstances may appeal to some well-meaning, kindhearted individuals, prospective adopters must be prepared for the kinds of challenges these animals can present, including behavior, training and health care needs that may exceed what most people are willing or able to handle. But with a great amount of time, patience and training, dog meat dogs can indeed become wonderful lifetime companions.

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking,

Hiking through the nature preserve near his new home, Pocket must be thinking, “who knew being a dog could be so much fun?” Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“People need to understand that a rescued meat dog is far different than a dog you’d normally go pick up,” Martyn asserted. “These dogs have come through a hell of a lot of trauma in their lives and all they’ve ever seen is abuse. I get so many messages from people saying, ‘I want one of those dogs because I think it would be cool to have something with history,’ like it’s a status symbol for them. You can’t just go and grab something and think you’re adopting a dog like you would anywhere else. You have to take this dog for what it is and be able to put into it what any abused animal would require.”

Meanwhile, Pocket has become a bit of a celebrity. Besides serving as one of the poster dogs for HSI’s anti-dog meat campaign, he has his very own Facebook page, Pocket for Change, in which he “journals” about his new life alongside beautiful photos and heartwarming videos, compliments of his talented dad. You can also check out his growing video library on YouTube.

But while most people who learn about Pocket are warmed and inspired by his story, there will always be naysayers, in this case, those who question the validity of rescuing dogs from other parts of the globe.

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch - no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

From abused meat dog to pampered pooch – no more bad dreams for this guy! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

“I’ve had a lot of feedback from people saying, ‘why can’t we save our own dogs instead of going over there?’ but I don’t see it that way, I see things universally and think every animal matters,” Martyn said. “I encourage everybody to adopt any dog, be it from Korea or any other part of the world, including the U.S. Animals all over the planet are in need of our help. By reaching out to these dogs in South Korea, it makes us aware of problems not just on our own doorstep but on others’ too. Animals’ lives don’t just end at home, animal abuse is a global issue.”

While it’s hard for Westerners to understand why anyone would want to torture, kill and eat a companion animal, in the end, it’s hypocritical for us to condemn other cultures for their dietary choices when we have much to answer for in the way our culture treats animals considered food rather than friends.

“Throw a stone at Asia for the dog meat trade and you break your own window if you also eat meat – think about it,” Martyn stressed.

By sharing his story and demonstrating to the world that meat dogs are just as loving and deserving of compassion as any pet dog, Martyn hopes that Pocket will not only help change the hearts and minds of people within dog-eating nations but also inspire others to join the movement to stop this inhumane trade.

“I hope that Pocket will shine a light on every dog in South Korea and the rest of the world (and) show that there is always hope,” he said. “Like the starfishes washed up on the beach, if we can save one, we can save them all.”

Pocket with his devoted dad. He's even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Pocket with his devoted dad. He’s even learning the art of the selfie! Photo credit: Martyn Stewart

Thanks to their incredible partnership and campaign launched at the beginning of this year, HSI and CFAF have so far shut down three South Korean dog farms, resulting in the rescue and re-homing of 186 dogs in the U.S. If you’d like to support this progressive effort to end South Korea’s dog meat trade and raise awareness among Koreans about the plight of “meat dogs,” please go here.

For a glimpse into the Korean dog meat trade as imagined from a dog’s perspective, check out this animated video, Draw My Life.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in South Korea and how you can help, please visit koreandogs.org.

“The world is a dangerous place, not because of those who do evil, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” ~Albert Einstein

They Called Her Sunshine – How a Rescued Street Dog Became an Ambassador for Abandoned Canines Everywhere

She had all but given up hope. Severely emaciated, infected with mange and covered in sores, the dying street dog began staggering down the side of the road, one slow, agonizing step at a time. Perhaps in one final attempt to find food, she had rallied every last bit of energy to crawl out of hiding and into the sunlight. Because like many street dogs on the brink of succumbing to injury, starvation or disease, her choice was clear – fight to survive or surrender to death. But call it chance, luck or destiny, everything changed for the ailing dog at that very moment. She had been seen.

“My girlfriend Julie and I were leaving my house to go shopping and were driving down our block when we both saw the dog at the same time,” said Caron Comas, longtime animal lover and devoted dog mom. “She was barely moving, sort of walking up the street. We hit the brakes, looked at each other and said, ‘is that a dog?’ The sight of her was just enough to make you fall apart.”

But when the women got out of the car and tried to get the dog to come to them, the frightened canine simply turned and ran the other way, quickly escaping under an abandoned house across the street from Caron’s home.

Shopping plans quickly forgotten, Caron ran back to her house to get something for the dog to drink and eat while Julie stood guard by the opening in the house where the fleeing canine had disappeared. After some coaxing, the dog’s intense hunger and thirst eventually won out over her fear and she began accepting a little food and water from the women, who couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The creature was a pink, almost hairless bag of bones, with irritated, crusty skin and deep, open sores around her hips and back legs, most likely caused from lying in one place for a very long time. The largest wound, located on her left hip, was so deep Caron could see exposed muscle tissue and joint material.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Sunshine when she was first discovered, in terrible condition and close to death. Photo credit: Caron Comas.

Knowing she had to act quickly to save this dog from certain death, Caron jumped on Facebook and began searching for help. That’s when she discovered Pause for Paws, a non-profit rescue organization dedicated to rescuing, rehabilitating and finding loving homes for San Antonio’s abandoned street dogs. She sent them an urgent message along with a snapshot she’d taken of the dog cowering under the house, a disturbing image that quickly caught the attention of Pause for Paws Director Sharal Mackenzie, who immediately got on the phone with Caron to determine the desperate pup’s location.

As someone who’s seen her fair share of street dogs on their last legs, Sharal knew this one was in big trouble. Without hesitation she reached out to Save Our Street Dogs San Antonio Texas (SOS-SATX), an all-volunteer group of dedicated street dog rescuers, to see if they had any members in the area who could pick up the dog.

“When I saw how bad the dog was I knew we weren’t going to have much time to get her, or she was going to disappear somewhere and never be seen again,” Sharal said.

Which was exactly what everyone feared had happened, because by the time SOS volunteers arrived at the abandoned house the dog had flown the scene. When they returned the next day, again, no sight of her. That’s because The City of San Antonio Animal Care Services (ACS) had gotten to her first.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine upon arrival at Castle-West Animal Hospital, where she was immediately attended to by the amazing Dr. McGehee and his wonderful staff. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

“Thank goodness they picked her up because if someone hadn’t gotten her she would have been one of numerous dogs who die under houses or in bushes and nobody even realizes they’re gone,” said Sharal.

As a city shelter with a good working relationship with many of the rescue groups in the San Antonio area, ACS willingly released the dog to Pause for Paws, who then rushed her to Castle-West Animal Hospital and Dr. Bill McGehee, the rescue’s longtime, beloved veterinarian.

After someone was overheard saying, “That dog looks like she could use a little sunshine in her life,” the canine was promptly christened Miss Caron Sunshine, in honor of her rescuer.

The newly named Sunshine had quite an extensive laundry list of medical issues. Besides being anemic and severely emaciated, she was plagued with demodectic mange, hookworms, dry, fragile skin and ugly, gaping pressure sores on both sides of her hips. The ugliest one on her left side was so deep it went straight to the bone.

“When Pause for Paws brought Sunshine in she could barely stand or walk,” said Veterinary Technician Jennifer Rodriguez, who is also a foster volunteer with Pause for Paws. “She was very pale and by her skin color and her eyes, you could see she was at the last bit of her life. As soon as she came in we started doing blood work, taking pictures and figuring out what was going on with her so we could come up with a treatment plan.”

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine enjoying the comforts of a doggie bed at the clinic. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

A blood transfusion produced miraculous results, and by the next day, Sunshine was active, aware and alert. But while it seemed the lucky canine had been delivered from death’s door, it was clear she had quite a road of recovery ahead of her, with myriad physical issues needing to be addressed. Along with antibiotics, iron supplements and several de-wormings, Sunshine’s intensive treatment regimen included daily mange baths and hydrotherapy to wash away dead skin, dirt and debris and infuse her wounds with oxygen to promote healing. In addition, x-rays revealed dysplasia in one of her hips.

“This showed us evidence of her age, which we think is about six years, as well as the wear and tear of being out in that kind of environment,” said Jennifer, who developed an immediate bond with Sunshine and ended up managing the majority of her care. “Although we’ll never know for sure, I can definitely tell you she was on the street for a long period, for her hair to die off, her skin to be so frail and for her weight loss to be so severe.”

With the cost of Sunshine’s care estimated at $5,000 or more, Pause for Paws quickly took to social media, where they shared her story and rallied supporters. Soon the lucky pup had her own Facebook page, hundreds of “fans” rooting for her recovery and a generous community of donors who not only contributed funds but also medical and pet supplies. One supporter even sent Sunshine special doggie pajamas to protect her sun-sensitive skin.

“(Sunshine’s medical care) would not have been possible without the support of so many kind-hearted donors who contributed to her GoFundMe campaign and directly to Castle-West,” said Sharal. “And of course, we let everyone know that anything not used for Sunshine would be used for the other animals that come in to our rescue.”

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

One of the most compelling things about Sunshine is her soulful eyes – they just draw you in. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Feeling better by the day and clearly on the road to recovery, Sunshine quickly settled into life at the clinic, becoming a fast favorite of the Castle-West staff and clientele, as well as a local celebrity. As her body healed her personality blossomed. True to her name, Sunshine’s demeanor proved to be sweet and sunny, her personality loving and affectionate. Soon she had joined the ranks of the privileged staff dogs, earning free roam of the clinic and soaking up as much attention as she could get from visitors and employees alike.

“She picked up very quickly where she can go, where she can’t and where she can lie down, and she was very well-mannered as far as socializing with the other dogs and animals,” Jennifer said. “She started learning where the biscuits were and started trying to open that container, and figuring out where the dry food is and poking at that with her nose. And of course, we had to watch every trashcan and countertop, because human food is her number one focus.”

After almost two months of top-notch rehabilitation and care, Sunshine was a transformed dog. While all of her fur had yet to grow back, her skin was improving and most of her wounds had healed up well. But after such a long stay at the vet clinic, it was time for Sunshine to take her next step – she was ready to graduate to a foster home.

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she's been through, it's amazing how much she loves people - of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

Sunshine getting attention from a young client at Castle-West. After everything she’s been through, it’s amazing how much she loves people – of all shapes and sizes! Photo credit: Pause for Paws

“I already knew Sunshine was a great dog, she just needed to be shown where to be,” explained Jennifer, who is also an experienced dog trainer. “I knew that her hips were going to take a while to heal and while everyone wanted to foster her, I knew she couldn’t go into a home until they healed up. I thought if she does okay at my house and learns things like how to use a doggie door, not to dig in the trash and be gentle and nice with the other animals at the house, it would be fine with me if I took her and still did the treatments she needed while giving her a different environment.”

Just as she’d done at the clinic, Sunshine immediately adapted to her new environment, this time in Jennifer’s home, where she quickly learned household routines and good manners by following the lead of her five canine and two feline foster brothers and sisters. Her life now a far cry from her lonely existence on the streets, Sunshine was getting a taste of what she’d always deserved – to be a cared for, beloved pet. Watching her lounging on the couch, learning to play with toys, napping in comfy doggie beds or running around with Jennifer’s dogs in their huge backyard, it seemed as if Sunshine the once-invisible street dog had all but forgotten her unfortunate past.

“She learned right away not to pee in her cage and not to go in the clinic and she’s never soiled in my house, so that makes me think she may have had some experience in a house environment, that and in the way she connects with people,” said Jennifer. “She didn’t mind people being all over her, touching her head. She was so interested in them – she just gravitated toward that love.”

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine getting some love from her admirers at a Pause for Paws adoption event. She loves having her head petted! Photo credit: Corazon Photography

But when it comes to the fate of most street dogs, Sunshine’s happy story is definitely the exception rather than the rule. While the number of stray dogs in the U.S. is unknown, according to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 600 million dogs living on the streets throughout the world. In San Antonio alone there are approximately 150,000 stray dogs, a serious problem that several rescue groups, including Pause for Pause, are trying to address.

According to Sharal, one reason street dogs are able to proliferate in San Antonio is due to the region’s milder climate, which makes it easier for stray and abandoned dogs to scrounge, reproduce and survive for longer periods of time until they eventually succumb to injury, starvation or illness. Most of the city’s street dogs are actually lost or abandoned pets, she explained.

“It’s primarily the lost dogs who are going to get picked up and rescued off the street, and most of those are very grateful dogs once we pick them up,” Sharal said. “We find a high percentage are housetrained and never wanted to be on the street in the first place. Then there are the dumped dogs – they’re the ones sitting by the side of the road, watching every car, because no matter how bad their owner was, that loyalty is still there. You can see them sitting in the median, just watching cars go by, and that’s usually when they get hit.”

She continued, “Then there are the community dogs that people don’t want to admit are theirs when they’re picked up or when something happens to them. These dogs have never had shots, never been fixed or probably ever had any care but they’re not totally unloved dogs, there’s just a different attitude (about pets) here. But in general, most of the stray dogs we pick up are pretty nice dogs once we get them out of the street environment. They may look feral but once you get them back in a home and they know they’re in a safe place they’ll switch right over.”

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Sunshine and her devoted caretaker and foster mom, Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Meanwhile, Sunshine has continued to flourish under Jennifer’s loving care and weekly follow-up visits at Castle-West, where she enjoys socializing with her adoring fans, hanging out with the staff and “helping” with patients. She has also become a regular fixture at Pause for Paws adoption events, where people often stop by just to get a picture taken with her.

“I do sometimes take her out to different things and she’s great on the leash,” Jennifer said. “She loves to go on car rides – she waits every day to see if I’m going to open that door so she can jump in the car. She does have a little bit of separation anxiety, I think because we’ve spoiled her so much at the clinic, and she definitely wants to be out there and doing everything. For a street dog, her personality is absolutely amazing – she’s every rescue dream you’d want.”

Three months after her rescue from the streets of San Antonio, Sunshine’s happy ending appears to be within reach. The lucky pup has already landed a wonderful family that has been following her story since the beginning and has waited patiently for the chance to adopt her. Once they’ve been approved by Pause for Paws, Sunshine will be ready to embark upon her next chapter – life in a loving, forever home. But none of that would have been possible without the village of amazing people who worked together to save one incredible dog.

“This was a case of the whole community coming together to save one dog,” Sharal said. “It was the good Samaritan, it was SOS-SATX getting someone out there in a hurry, it was having ACS being willing to work with us, it was our vet, Dr. McGehee, who is fantastic and can do miracles, and it was Jennifer for taking such great care of her. And last but not least, it was the community, the people who were touched by Sunshine’s story and did something to save a dog’s life. They saved many dogs’ lives when they got involved, started caring and started believing that they could actually do something to help.”

Sunshine's incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Sunshine’s incredible village of rescuers. From left to right, back row: Caron Comas, Sharal Mackenzie, Elsa Benavidas and Deanna Lee from SOS-SATX; front row: Dr. Bill McGehee, Miss Caron Sunshine and Jennifer Rodriguez. Photo credit: Pause for Paws.

Our global street dog problem is a human-created problem. Be part of the solution by spaying and neutering your pets, providing them with care and not letting them roam free. If you see a stray dog, especially one in bad shape or in distress, here’s what you can do:

  • Don’t just walk away, do something. If you don’t feel comfortable handling the dog yourself, contact animal control or a street dog rescue group. Don’t just leave the animal where it is and think someone else will take care of it. That attitude of, “it’s not my problem” is why so many dogs end up dying on the streets.
  • Get a photo of the dog, as the shelter or agency will most likely ask for one.
  • Once you’ve reported the dog, don’t think it’s no longer your responsibility – that will rarely get the dog off the street. Be willing to follow-up and follow through to make sure the dog receives the attention and care it needs.
  • If you are able to retrieve the dog (please use caution when handling a stray dog, especially if it’s injured), don’t just keep it! That cute little dog you just picked up off the street may have an owner. Think in terms of what would you want somebody to do if it was your dog. Take it to a shelter or a vet who can scan it for a microchip, then do what you can to get the dog home, including posting signs in the area where it was found and/or circulating photos on social media.
  • If you see a mother dog and her puppies on the street, don’t just pick up the puppies and leave the momma behind. Leaving an unsterilized, lactating female dog on the street is not only cruel but also perpetuates the problem, as she will simply reproduce again.
  • Consider fostering the dog. This not only saves a life, it also allows shelters and rescues groups with space issues to help more dogs. Like Pause for Paws, many shelters and rescue organizations will provide medical care and supplies – all you have to do is supply a home, some food and love!
  • If you can’t foster, donate. For most shelters, especially smaller ones, money is always an issue, so anything you can donate to help the animals will be incredibly appreciated. Having that extra funding may mean the difference between that shelter being able to help another animal or having to turn it away.
  • Get out and promote spay and neuter. Talk to people, especially your neighbor with the unsterilized dog that keeps having puppies. Be diplomatic and take every opportunity to educate people in a kind, non-judgmental way. Talk to them about why their dog acts crazy or aggressive because he’s living in the backyard alone on a chain. Educate wherever and whenever you can – spreading awareness does make a difference!

Sometimes it takes a whole community to make a difference for dogs in need – Sunshine’s story is living proof of that fact. Because in the end, every dog deserves a home and all dogs are equally deserving of living safe, happy lives as beloved companions. Our planet’s street dog problem is not a canine problem, it is a mess we humans have created through reckless overbreeding and irresponsible pet ownership. We domesticated dogs to live side by side with us and they have remained loyal to us for thousands of years. We owe it to them to fix this crisis once and for all.

“Stop pretending that if your dog gets lost or you dump a dog that someone else is going to take care of it,” Sharal asserted. “Stop pretending that euthanasia is the worst thing that can happen to a dog…there are many worse things than that. There’s no happy ending for these dogs unless they get rescued.”

Miss Sunshine, who - as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in - appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

Miss Sunshine, who – as evidenced from the white fur with black speckles growing in – appears to be a Dalmatian mix. Photo credit: Corazon Photography

“Roving dogs do not indicate compassion and civilization in society; they betray instead the ignorance and lethargy of its members…that means we should keep them and treat them with respect as we do our companions and not allow them to roam about.” – Mahatma Ghandi

Bearing Witness at Yulin – A Rescuer’s Mission

Picture this: you’re an international animal rescuer and welfare advocate, tasked with documenting one of the most egregious forms of animal cruelty on the planet – the dog and cat meat trade. You’ve arrived in Yulin, China, a sub-tropical city located in the Guangxi province, a notorious hotbed for pet meat consumption. It’s your very first trip to this magnificent country, but you won’t be doing any sightseeing. Instead, you’ll be attending the city’s 5th annual summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival,” a barbaric event held every June that attracts thousands of people seeking to celebrate the season by feasting on heaping plates of dog meat and lychee fruit.

As a 20-year cruelty investigator and front-line rescuer in the U.S., you’ve seen your fair share of brutality against animals, yet you know that what you’re about to witness is the stuff of nightmares, visions that will probably haunt you for the rest of your life. But you must put your emotions aside. Your mission is to document what you see and bring it to the world while supporting Chinese activists fighting to end the festival and the trade.

You’re Adam Parascandola, director of animal protection and crisis response for Humane Society International, and this is the story of your experience at the Yulin dog meat festival – the good, the bad and the very, very ugly.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Caged dogs sit on the side of Renminzhong Rd., waiting to be transferred to a slaughterhouse in a narrow alley. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

It was 3:30 in the morning on June 22, the opening day of the festival. Tipped off by activists that a large truck has arrived at Dongkou Market and was unloading dogs at one of the slaughterhouses, Adam and his cohorts – a Chinese activist, an AP photographer and a New York Times reporter – raced to the scene (read the compelling NYT article here). In an attempt to throw off animal activists who have been protesting the festival with increasing fervor each year, the Yulin government had instructed butchers to go from slaughtering dogs out in the open during the daytime to concealing their gruesome activities under the cover of darkness or behind closed doors, Adam explained.

“By the time we got there the truck was mostly unloaded and the slaughterhouse had moved all the dogs into a large pen, where they were standing three or four deep on top of each other,” he said. “The area where they were actually doing the killing was hidden behind a wall, so we didn’t see that part but what I did see and document on video was this man who goes into the pen with a big stick and just starts beating the dogs. They believe frightening the animals improves the meat in some way. The dogs were screaming, trying to get away and get out of the cage – it was a really heartbreaking scene.”

He continued, “It took (the butchers) 20 minutes to realize they could just shut the door in our faces, which they did, but we could still hear the dogs. The local government had been claiming that these slaughters weren’t occurring at the festival, so we felt it was very important to document that they were actually killing dogs onsite.”

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

A cat climbs up the cage at the slaughterhouse, trying to escape. This cat was later rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

At this point in our interview, I just had to ask – how does he do it? How does someone who loves animals and has dedicated his life to helping them emotionally handle such horrendous cruelty and suffering?

“It’s definitely different because although I’ve been in this field for about 20 years, most of my work has been in the U.S. where (animal cruelty) is illegal already,” he said. “Although it was kind of like going to a factory farm or a slaughterhouse, which is really tough, for me it was especially hard because there’s nothing you can do to help those animals at that moment. So in cases like that, I just try to focus on the long-term, that this is going to help make things better for animals in the future, and that because the animals can’t speak for themselves we have a responsibility to be there and witness it. I also tell myself that it’s going on whether I’m there to see it or not. The slaughterhouse was very tough and it was definitely emotional in the moment but because I’ve done this for so long I sort of just push through and focus on the work. Not that the emotions don’t come up later.”

As the day progressed, Adam and his team – now joined by local and international media and activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group – continued documenting the festival while making sure to move together as a group for safety reasons. While some butchers expressed their displeasure at being filmed by throwing boiling water at the activists, Adam said he never felt that his life was in danger. As a foreigner in a city not accustomed to international travelers, if anything he felt like more of a curiosity than an object of anyone’s vitriol.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin's dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Diners waiting for a seat at one of Yulin’s dog meat restaurants. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“It could be intimidating because these folks surround you and they’re taking pictures but I could sense that it wasn’t really hostile against us,” Adam said. “(The butchers and locals) definitely harassed the Chinese activists and the ones who come to buy dogs – there were scuffles that broke out with them. But nobody interfered with my documenting or with any of the other photographers at the live market.”

And for an animal lover, that market was pure hell on earth: thousands of ill-fated dogs and cats of all sizes, ages and breeds languishing in tiny, filthy cages, simply waiting to die. Whether by truck, bicycle or moped, most had been transported over long distances under horrific conditions and deprived of food and water, so they appeared stressed, traumatized, even sickly. Worst of all, many seemed to be former pets.

“That was important to see because dogs being stolen for the meat trade is a real problem in China,” Adam said. “You can definitely recognize it – I saw a Dalmatian and a Chow at one point and many dogs wearing collars.”

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Small dogs await their doom at a slaughterhouse. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Although much of the country’s populace has turned away from the gruesome culinary “tradition,” it’s estimated that as many as 10 million dogs and four million cats are eaten annually in China. But as the divide grows between older generation dog meat traders and younger generation Chinese animal activists who want the trade to stop, clashes between activists and dog meat traders are becoming more and more commonplace, making events like Yulin a veritable battleground in China’s burgeoning animal rights movement.

“This isn’t a traditional festival that’s gone on for hundreds of years,” Adam explained. “Five or six years ago the dog meat traders felt that their market was declining, so they came up with the idea of an annual festival to drum up business. The local government initially thought by sponsoring it they could help bring tourism to Yulin, which completely backfired, so they quickly backed away and said they weren’t going to be involved. There was a lot of confusion this year because the government said there was no festival, which basically meant that they had pulled their sponsorship, but it’s not like they were taking action to make sure it wasn’t occurring.”

The good news is that this festival of torture may be on its last legs. For the past four years, domestic and international activists as well as animal lovers throughout the world have become increasingly vocal in their outrage and opposition to the gory event, calling upon the local government and the Chinese public to end dog and cat-eating in China and the cruel practices inherent in the unregulated trade. All that unwelcome global attention and criticism appears to have had an impact, reducing a once bustling event known to take the lives of 10,000 dogs and cats to a smaller, more subdued gathering with fewer traders, stalls and animals.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Chinese activists from Vshine Animal Protection Group in-action at Yulin. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

“At last year’s festival you could see rows and rows of booths selling dog carcasses but this year there were maybe two or three vendors,” Adam said. “(The local government) also banned the outdoor tables, which meant people had to wait longer to get into the restaurants, and it rained. But I believe all the massive attention and condemnation is the reason the festival was so drastically reduced this year.”

Thanks to the magic of social media, much of that massive attention and condemnation was fueled by hundreds of thousands of animal lovers, including celebrities such as Ricky Gervais, flooding domestic and international social media sites with online petitions, awareness campaigns and messages condemning both the festival and the trade.

“The response from people and the media was greater than we ever could have hoped for,” Adam said. “Although we have yet to see how effective (social media activism) will be with the Chinese government, I feel like we’re seeing new people coming to the movement in China. Many of them didn’t know about Yulin before this, so I think (social media has) been really helpful in bolstering those individuals who oppose the trade and letting them know that they’re not fighting this battle alone, that there are many people around the world who support their efforts.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Vshine activists with animals rescued by Peter Li, HSI China policy specialist. Vshine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Although Adam said he will never forget what he witnessed at Yulin, he has since been busy laying the groundwork for a more humane China. Just last month, he returned to the country to help HSI launch China Animal Protection Power (CAPP), a command center in Dalian, China that provides financial support and training for Vshine and other animal activists dedicated to intercepting, rescuing, sheltering and adopting out companion animals seized from meat trucks. Since Yulin the task force has rescued more than 1,400 dogs, Adam boasted.

Caption: VShine means “a small light of kindness that brings great change.”

Heartened by so many young and passionate Chinese citizens who have taken it upon themselves to challenge their country’s antiquated attitudes toward animals and improve China’s reputation as a developing and progressive nation, Adam said he does see a light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the end of the pet meat trade.

“It’ll be telling to see what happens between this year and next year, and whether the festival goes on in terms of the Yulin government’s reaction to this kind of intense scrutiny and pressure,” Adam said. “China is very different from South Korea in that there is a huge movement within the country to end the consumption of dog and cat meat. Even though the rise in pet ownership is relatively new, I think it’s more established in China than in Korea and the activists are extremely dedicated. I strongly believe that we will see the end of the dog and cat meat trade in Asia in the next decade…and I suspect that China will lead the way.”

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

Adam with Ricky, a very lucky dog rescued by Peter Li from a Yulin slaughterhouse a few weeks prior to the festival. Ricky (named after HSI supporter Ricky Gervais) was later brought to the U.S. and Washington Animal Rescue League, where he was rehabilitated and adopted into a loving home. Photo credit: Washington Animal Rescue League.

I certainly hope so. Human beings are slow to change, and those who make their living off the backs of animal exploitation aren’t likely to surrender their livelihoods willingly. So while I agree we may indeed see an end to the dog and cat meat trade in the near future, it won’t come without a long, ugly fight. Which led me to my next question – how does Adam stop himself from hating those people – not to mention entire cultures – who support and condone such heinous cruelty?

“It’s hard not to feel anger when you see someone beating dogs the way that I witnessed at Yulin,” Adam admitted. “But undercover investigations at U.S. factory farms have shown us an equal amount of callous disregard for the suffering of animals, so I don’t think cruelty is cultural in that sense. I think that anyone employed in an industry that depends on cruelty has to dehumanize the animals on some level or they wouldn’t be able to continue doing their job. This dehumanization unfortunately often leads to even greater cruelty and an antagonistic attitude towards the animal in question – it’s a product of industries that thrive on exploitation. As for the population who consumes dog meat, much like the rest of the world, most choose to shield themselves from the horror and cruelty that has brought the meat to them and remain ignorant of the true suffering caused by the trade. Cultures, much like individuals, evolve over time and heinous acts that long ago didn’t cause people to bat an eye would be greeted with revulsion if witnessed today.”

He went on, “Though I am appalled by cruelty and hate the actions of these individuals, that doesn’t lead me to hate the individual or the culture. Anyone who lives a life that involves engaging in cruelty on a daily basis is an individual who is deprived of the joy and contentment of celebrating the beauty of the creatures we share the earth with. On some level they are hurting themselves and navigating the world in an unskilled manner that causes suffering (except for the few true psychopaths who aren’t affected by the suffering of others) and they deserve our compassion, as well. Were they to open their hearts to this compassion they would surely abandon these practices. We have seen people make this transformation in their lives and turn away from cruelty, whether toward animals or humans, and to compassion. We all have that capacity.”

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

Dog carcasses hung up for sale in Dongkou market, as a dog looks on. Photo credit: Humane Society International.

I don’t know about you, but I’m truly grateful that we have incredible individuals like Adam Parascandola fighting the good fight in the effort to create a kinder, more compassionate world for animals everywhere. He is a true voice for the voiceless. Thank you, Adam.

To learn more about the dog meat trade in China, check out this excellent CNN article.

Want to see this cruel trade come to an end? Please support HSI and their incredible anti-dog and cat meat campaigns by visiting their donation page.

“A small body of determined spirits fired by an unquenchable faith in their mission can alter the course of history.” – Mahatma Gandhi

The Homeless Pit Bull Conundrum

Hey you, pit bull breeder. Yeah, you, the jerk who thinks it’s cool to make money off the backs of poor, innocent dogs. You’re the kind of person who thinks nothing of letting your dogs produce litter after litter so you can sell their pups on Craig’s List or to anyone with cash-in-hand. You don’t care if your “breeding stock” has temperament issues, genetic defects or health problems. You don’t know anything about their bloodlines and you’ve probably never even taken them to the vet. Maybe they’re just existing out in your backyard, probably on chains, where they’re just lucky enough to get a bowl of cheap food, a little water and a pat on the head once in a while. Or maybe you’re just an irresponsible idiot who didn’t fix your dog and now she’s pregnant – again. And the puppies? You don’t care where they go, who they go to or what happens to them – their wellbeing is not your problem. If you can’t sell them then you’ll just dump them at your local shelter. Sure, let those nice people deal with your mess – that’s their job, right? So what if these unfortunate facilities are already packed to the gills with hoards of homeless pit bulls just like yours? But that thought never occurs to you and even if it does, you don’t give a damn. Meanwhile, legions of animals suffer and die because of you, another ignorant, selfish jerk who shouldn’t be allowed to even own a dog.

If I sound angry it’s because I just came away from a very upsetting visit to one of our local shelters here in Atlanta. Mind you, Fulton County Animal Services is an amazing facility, managed by the incredible LifeLine Animal Project and thus, run by a great group of kind, knowledgeable and dedicated, animal-loving individuals trying their very best to manage the burden our irresponsible pet-owning public has thrown at them. It was just a few days after the 4th of the July weekend, so understandably the shelter was extremely crowded. In fact, it was jam-packed, with triple the number of dogs the facility was designed to house. So while I knew I had arrived at a pretty a-typical, stressful time, it was an important scene for me to witness. Sometimes you have to experience something for yourself before you can truly grasp the reality of a situation.

I have long been aware of our nation’s homeless pit bull crisis. I know that pits and pit mixes are the most euthanized dogs in the U.S., with shelters destroying approximately 1 million of them every year (that’s almost 2,800 per day!). Still, I wasn’t prepared for what I witnessed firsthand at the shelter. We’re talking cages and dog runs practically overflowing with canines of all shapes and sizes, more than half of them pits or pit bull-types. It wasn’t unusual to have three, four or even five of them in one run. But here is where I have to give the Fulton County staff so much credit – for the amount of dogs and cats they were housing that day (465, to be exact), the place was incredibly clean and the animals were well cared for. Yet that didn’t take away from the upsetting scene before me.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

A sweet young pit bull vying for my attention at Fulton County Animal Services.

I walked over to the first dog run and slowly crouched down. Four young pitties swarmed toward me, eagerly jumping up, whining, pawing and licking at my hand, which I had pressed against the chain link so they could smell me. Unlike some people, I’m not intimidated by bully breeds and am pretty adept at reading canine body language, so I didn’t hesitate to get down to their level while making sure to avoid initial eye contact. But this little group of friendly, tail wagging butt-wigglers was far from threatening – they were practically climbing all over each other to get as close to me as possible. As I took in all of their sweet, innocent, wide-jawed faces, feeling their warm breath and plaintive little licks wetting the back of my hand, I felt myself become overwhelmed with emotion.

I got up and walked away, trying to control myself. These unfortunate dogs didn’t need my sad energy – they were upset enough. One of my fellow volunteers from Angels Among Us Pet Rescue caught my gaze and my eyes welled up with tears. She understood. As someone who pulls dogs from Atlanta Metro area shelters on a regular basis, she’s been through this hundreds of times. I pulled myself together, taking deep breaths and steeling my heart before moving on to the next group of dogs, then the next, giving attention to anyone who wanted it along the way. I can’t recall passing a dog run without at least one or several pit bull-types in it.

I don’t think many people, especially those who breed them intentionally or unintentionally, fully grasp just how desperate the situation is for pit bulls in America. Feared and misunderstood by the general public (thanks in part to their vilification by the media), they have become the unfortunate victims of a particular subculture that not only views them as a status symbol but also enjoys using them for financial gain via breeding and dog fighting. As a result, this “breed” (the “pit bull” is actually a bully breed-type classification, not an actual breed) often ends up in the hands of abusive and irresponsible individuals. Add in targeted kill policies at shelters, breed specific legislation and breed bans, and you have a dog with more riding against it than any other type of canine. To put it simply, they are the most abused, misused and euthanized type of dog in our nation today.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Five little bullies looking for love.

Unlike Fulton County, many animal shelters have a no-adopt policy for pit bulls, so they’re either saved by rescue groups or killed, just for being pit bulls. Even sweet, tiny puppies don’t escape the euthanasia needle. So in the face of such a bleak reality, how can anyone justify breeding pit bulls right now? Not until the amount of good homes catch up with the amount of homeless dogs! Yes, there is definitely a place for ethical, responsible hobby breeders – I am not so militant about adoption and rescue that I’m against all breeders – but there is no place for backyard breeders, especially those churning out pits. Anyone who cares about dogs should be saving their lives, not adding more of them to our already saturated society.

Frustrated and needing expert advice, I consulted Lara Hudson, director of Fulton County Animal Services. As someone on the front lines of this challenging situation, I figured she would have a better understanding of what needs to be done to fix the homeless pit bull problem.

“Pit bull terriers are very popular, so this ‘breed’ is at the top of the list for many statistics because of their popularity,” she explained. “Combine this with the fact that any mixed breed, pit-looking dog is called a ‘pit bull terrier’ and then consider that if you breed mixed breed dogs and breed them again, they start to look like a generic pit mix, and thus, it looks like we have a pit bull problem. I disagree. Honda Accords are the most popular car in America. They are also the most stolen and they probably get the most tickets. Same with pit bull terriers. They are the majority ‘breed’ in our shelter and they are the majority ‘breed’ in households in this area. They are the breed most often filed on bite reports, etc. So I think the better question would be what are we going to do to alleviate the homeless pet problem in our city? For example, LifeLine just launched the ‘I’m In’ campaign on July 1 in an effort to make Atlanta Metro ‘No-Kill’ by the end of 2016.”

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

You could tell this girl had been through the ringer. Note the battle scars on her head.

While all this made sense, it definitely wasn’t the answer I was expecting. But I could definitely appreciate Lara’s broader perspective on the issue. After all, she has a pretty clear understanding of the community she serves and the issues it faces.

“To put it simply, it’s a problem with education,” she explained. “When you drive through some of the areas in our community and you see where a lot of these stray dogs come from, you realize that these people’s kids aren’t even being taken care of. A lot of people really do love their dogs but their parents, grandparents, and their grandparents’ parents all tethered their dogs outside. It’s going to take generational change and improving the conditions where these animals are coming from so it trickles down.”

She continued, “We need more resources, ways to help people who don’t have enough money to take their animals to the vet, because what happens when people can’t do that? Their animals get sick, they turn them into the shelter or they let them go. So I think casting a bigger net by providing better resources for people who want the help is going to save more animals than aggressively going after the minority of people not doing the right thing, regardless of their resources.”

I understand that change takes time and that there’s no magic bullet to solve this problem. Still, it’s terribly frustrating and upsetting, thinking about all those homeless dogs – pit bulls or otherwise – dying in our nation’s shelters every day. But I guess when it comes to changing irresponsible human behavior there are no quick solutions. Mandatory spay and neuter legislation has been proven to be ineffective and enforcing breeder licensing fees is extremely difficult. Continuing to educate the public about responsible dog ownership, including the benefits of spaying and neutering their pets, and offering those services for free or at very low-cost is one tried-and-true solution, but it’s a process and a gradual one at that. Educating the public about bully breeds to help clear up fears or misconceptions about them is another way to increase their adoption numbers. But no matter how hard we try, we’re simply not going to rescue our way out of this problem. It’s a very frustrating conundrum with no simple or expedient solutions.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Two sorrowful kennel mates. I wished I could save them all.

Meanwhile, people who want to their breed dogs, especially pit bulls, should have to spend time volunteering at their local animal shelters so they can witness the tragedy of pet homelessness firsthand. They should have to spend time in the kennels, see the faces and watch as one wonderful dog after one wonderful dog disappears into the euthanasia room (or better yet, watch them take their last breaths). Maybe that will help change their tune. Maybe then they’ll fully grasp that the most responsible, compassionate choice is to not contribute to the problem by spaying and neutering their pets.

Pit bulls and pit bull-type dogs are some of the most wonderful, loving and loyal companions anyone could wish for, but they’re definitely not the right fit for everyone. It takes a special kind of person to become a successful pittie parent, so please do your research before bringing one into your life.

For more information about pit bulls, their history and their plight, check out this article published in Pacific Standard magazine as well as this wonderful piece featured in Esquire, both published last year. And while you’re at it, visit Pit Bull Rescue Central for tons of great educational and adoption information resources!

“He who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men. We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” – Immanuel Kant

That face...

That face…

The Plight of Cats In South Korea

It’s extremely hard for me to understand why any society would tolerate or condone systematic animal cruelty, but unfortunately, there are still many cultures throughout the globe that do. That’s because many of them still view animals, including dogs and cats, as objects rather than sentient creatures deserving of compassion, protection and respect. South Korea remains such a country. And while it’s not a good place to be born a dog, it’s an even worse place to be born a cat.

First off, South Korea has a huge homeless cat problem. Feral and abandoned felines are extremely common, especially in and around large cities such as Seoul, which is estimated to have approximately 200,000 feral cats living within its borders. With no system in place to humanely reduce their populations and few animal welfare organizations or shelters able to help and protect them, stray cats are basically on their own to either survive or die, whether from starvation, extreme temperatures, disease or abuse at that hands of humans. Maybe that’s why most street cats rarely live beyond five years of age. They are simply seen as vermin – vermin to be destroyed.

“Unlike Japan, Koreans are notorious for holding negative sentiments towards cats,” explained Soyoun Park, founder and executive director of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE). “They think of them as wicked and evil creatures. Perhaps their negative image comes from old Korean folktales where felines often portray the treacherous antagonists, thus leading to the mass population fearing cats. People would believe that cats would bring bad luck to their owners and so would rarely acknowledge them.”

She continued, “However, as the number of citizens owning cats has increased, the number of people who have begun to care for stray cats has increased, as well. This boost in interest has inspired many to help the street cats by giving them food, giving these people the titles of ‘cat moms.’ Nevertheless, the spike in people willing to help the abandoned cats has triggered an opposite spike in people who oppose this behavior, so it is still a highly controversial topic.”

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

Photo credit: koreajoongangdaily.com

In Seoul, dirty, starving and sickly felines are common sights in alleys, on rooftops and in parks. They live on the streets, scratching through trash bins in search of food, catching rodents that roam around the many restaurants and seeking shelter under parked cars or behind buildings. They are shunned, have objects thrown at them and are always at risk of being abused, often in very cruel and sadistic ways. As a result, most stray cats are terrified of humans.

“It has been a common practice to use rat poison or other toxic chemicals in order to kill stray cats on the street,” Soyoun said. “However, in recent days there have been much more violent cases of animal abuse recorded. For example, some people would hang treats on a fishing rod and proceed to beat the cats to death once they grasped the hook. Furthermore, there have been several cases of people dropping kitties from the tops of buildings or cutting off parts of their bodies. In our experience at CARE we have also encountered several cases where cats have been set on fire or been poisoned by toxins mixed into food given by the aforementioned ‘cat moms.’ In recent news, there was an incident in which 600 street cats were captured alive and boiled in hot water, then sold to ‘health care centers’ illegally. The methods of animal abuse are extensive and vulgar.”

To make matters worse, South Korea is home to a thriving, albeit illegal, dog and cat meat trade, a gruesome industry that consumes approximately 2.5 million dogs and 100,000 cats each year. Unlike in China and Vietnam, where cat meat is considered a delicacy, South Koreans tend to prefer dog over cat meat and primarily consume cat in the form of soups, stews or “health tonics” called goyangi soju (liquid cat). Falsely believed to have medicinal properties that can cure arthritis, rheumatism and other ailments, this thick, disgusting broth is created by bludgeoning and then boiling cats alive in large pressure cookers, often while they’re still conscious. What a sad, grisly end to an already miserable life.

Kittens await their fate in a meat cage. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Kittens await their fate in a meat cage. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Unlike dogs used in the South Korean meat trade, cats are not farmed for their meat but are stolen, surrendered or most commonly, picked up as strays. And with such an abundance of homeless and starving cats within easy access, it’s fairly simple for butchers, meat traders or individuals to trap these vulnerable animals with food-baited traps. Clearly, the public’s negative perception of cats only enables the cruel practice of cat slaughter to continue.

However, protests by animal rights groups have led some districts in Seoul to realize that killing or relocating cats are not practical, humane or sustainable solutions to their stray population problems. So increasingly, trap-neuter-return programs (TNR) have become the new method of choice, with 25 districts carrying out stray cat neutering programs with city government support. But not surprisingly, due to poor regulation and oversight, the programs have been riddled with problems.

“We do not believe that TNR is the greatest policy, as Korean TNR especially is still very dangerous,” said Sojoun. “The cats lack recovery time after the surgery and are often released before being properly cared for. It is difficult to return the cats to where they were found and even though they are sent to the right place, cats that received TNR are forced out of their area and cannot return to their original lives. The best solution is to help the cats exist naturally and peacefully. This is accomplished by changing the negative image of cats in Korea and educating people that cats are also a part of the urban ecosystem.”

While cats definitely have a bad rap in South Korea, there are small signs that attitudes are warming toward them. While it is believed that only one in 5,000 Koreans own a pet cat, felines are starting to gain favor as domestic companions, especially among the country’s younger generations.

While tattooing is illegal and seen as taboo in South Korea, some young Koreans are choosing cat tattoos as a fun way to rebel (and honor their feline companions at the same time). Photo credit: boredpanda.com

While tattooing is illegal and seen as taboo in South Korea, some young Koreans are choosing cat tattoos as a fun way to rebel (and honor their feline companions at the same time). Photo credit: boredpanda.com

“There has definitely been an increase in people who like cats,” agreed Sojoun. “As more people begin to own foreign purebred cats, they also show more affection for the native Korean cats. Young people who have specialized jobs and artists seem to prefer having cats (and) there is an increase in people owning multiple cats. But as of now, the majority of Korean citizens prefer to own dogs.”

One recent trend seen popping up across South Korea, especially in Seoul, Daegu and Busan, may signify that things are indeed changing for the better for felines. Enter the Cat Café, a popular Korean pastime originally developed in Japan and Taiwan. Like Japan, Korea’s cities are densely populated, with the majority of people living in small, close-knit apartments that have strict “no pets” policies. Hence, cat cafés are able to fill a need by providing safe, clean and relaxing social environments where animal lovers can interact with friendly (often purebred) felines and enjoy caffeinated beverages. What a great way to change the hearts and minds of former cat-haters! What could possibly go wrong?

“It is rare to find a cat cafe that is being managed properly,” said Sojoun, dashing my optimism. “Cats are different from dogs in that they are very vulnerable to disease and have high chances of contagion when put in groups. In addition, their mental stress rates increase dramatically as they find it hard to have quiet moments to themselves. Cat cafés are intended for business purposes and despite the fact that people can adopt the cats from the cafés, the public consensus leans toward purebred rather than mixed felines.”

She added, “CARE would much rather prefer the minimal owning of house pets by responsible people than a mass trend leading to more breeding businesses. If one feels compelled to own a pet then we strongly encourage them to adopt rather than to buy purebreds. Of course, cafés intended solely for adoption purposes sound like great ideas if they are maintained well hygienically. Regular cat cafés confine the animals for their entire lives while adoption cafés are there to temporarily house cats without homes, so we wholly support the latter.”

A typical South Korean cat cafe. Photo credit: korcan50years.com

A typical South Korean cat cafe. Photo credit: korcan50years.com

Michele Brown, co-founder and director of SayNoToDogMeat.Net, a non-profit organization focused on ending the dog and cat meat trade in Asia and Africa, asserted that while businesses such as cat cafés may have favorable influence on changing the perception of cats in South Korea, the country has a very long way to go in becoming a more humane nation.

“I think anything that shows cats and dogs as ‘nice’ and as ‘companions’ that have ‘feelings’ is a good thing, even in cat cafés in South Korea,” said Michele. “However, I’m suspicious about cats in cafés who lose their cuteness or scratch someone – what happens to them? It worries me that they will be sold to cat butchers or just tossed. As for the younger generation, only a small percentage is warming to cats or even dogs. I have been to Moran Market and I have seen the dog and cat meat trade in action with my own eyes. I have seen the cages of cats and the way they are treated. Cats are in very serious trouble in South Korea and will be for a long time to come, in my opinion.”

Hopefully, as more worldly, conscious and caring generations of South Koreans begin to replace the ignorant, callous and cruel, we will see a much-needed sea change in how the country views, treats and protects its animals, especially those dependent on humans for their care and survival. As one of the most technologically advanced, mature democracies in the world with an impressive record of innovation, economic reform and sound leadership, South Korea has much to be proud of. But when it comes to animal welfare practices and policies (or lack thereof), it should be deeply ashamed. I look forward to seeing this mighty powerhouse of a country mature into a more compassionate, animal-friendly society where tougher laws will actually be enforced; where well-run shelters will be designed to help, not harm, abused and abandoned animals; where the greedy pet industry will be regulated and controlled; where prejudice and superstition against certain animals will be eradicated, and where “cuteness” will cease to be the superficial standard by which an animal’s life is valued.

Meanwhile, I will not be spending my tourist dollars in South Korea or in any country that condones and supports systemic animal cruelty, whether in the name of “cultural tradition” or otherwise. There is no excuse for barbarity and no country has the right to call itself “civilized” while carrying out such depraved behavior. South Korea has a lot to lose from its poor reputation in the global animal welfare community. And the eyes of the world are watching.

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Want to do something to help the cats (and dogs) of South Korea? Consider supporting CARE and SayNoToDogMeat.Net, as well as these amazing organizations:

“We must fight against the spirit of unconscious cruelty with which we treat the animals. Animals suffer as much as we do. True humanity does not allow us to impose such sufferings on them. It is our duty to make the whole world recognize it. Until we extend our circle of compassion to all living things, humanity will not find peace.” – Albert Schweitzer