Lola Webber – Creating Positive Change for Animals In South Korea

Like us humans, dogs can’t choose the circumstances into which they’re born. Where and with whom a dog ends up is basically luck of the draw, whether with a loving, responsible guardian or an “owner” who simply views them as property. In essence, dogs are at the mercy of the species that domesticated them thousands of years ago, and with no control over their own destiny, the best they can hope for is to end up in good hands.

Like many less fortunate dogs throughout the globe, Django came into the world with the odds stacked against him. In fact, from the moment he took his first breath his future already looked bleak. Born into a dog farm outside of Seoul, South Korea, the Tosa mastiff puppy was just another “meat dog” doomed to a wretched existence inside a barren metal cage, where he would remain until he grew large enough to be sold and slaughtered for his meat. Although the pitiful conditions at the farm could rival any of the western world’s worst puppy mills, Django’s time there would actually be the best part of what was to be his short and miserable life.

Each year, approximately 2.5 million dogs are bred and slaughtered for human consumption in South Korea. Unlike in China and other parts of Asia, Korea’s dog meat trade primarily relies on the commercial farming of dogs to supply the country’s demand for dog meat. It is a massive, unregulated industry, with an estimated 10,000-17,000 farms scattered throughout the country varying in size from small backyard operations to large-scale factory farming systems. On these farms, dogs live in abject squalor, their daily lives full of fear, boredom, hunger and disease. Since there are no legal protections for meat dogs, farmers, traders, and butchers are free to inflict cruelty and abuse with impunity.

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A dog farm in Busan, South Korea. In the country there is a widely-held belief that there are two ‘types’ of dogs: “meat dogs” for human consumption, and “pet dogs,” consisting of purebred dogs, for companionship. Dogs categorized as “meat dogs” are widely perceived to be dirty, stupid and soulless, which has resulted in these dogs being treated as animals that don’t deserve consideration, protection or value. This perception is held by many and reflected by the attitudes of the industry, public and government. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

But lucky for Django, he happened to be in the right place at the right time. A small group of rescuers had arrived at the dog farm, among them a dedicated young activist named Lola Webber. After years of researching the Korean dog meat trade with the long-term intention of bringing it to an end, she’d recently co-founded the Change For Animals Foundation, a small international animal welfare organization that works to create positive and lasting change for animals throughout the world through research, advocacy, campaigns, and strategic partnerships with other like-minded NGOs.

With the opportunity to save one dog that day, the group set their sights on Django’s cage, where he and his litter mates stared back at the strange humans with wide, frightened eyes.

At only four months old, the puppies were already terrified of humans, so when one of the rescuers climbed into the cage and crawled toward them, they quickly scampered away. The touch of a human only meant bad things, so when Django felt strange hands encircling his body, he froze. Enfolded by warm, caring arms, he was carried out of the farm, where a whole new world awaited him. Watch his touching rescue video here.

“We named him Django after Quentin Tarantino film, “Django Unchained,” (because) he’s Django uncaged,” Lola explained. “Though he didn’t know it at the time, he was to become CFAF’s ambassador for our anti-dog meat campaigns. He would show the world that all dogs, regardless of breed or place of birth, are equally worthy of compassion and respect. In Korea there’s a belief that ‘meat dogs’ are stupid and soulless, that it’s their ‘destiny’ to be slaughtered for consumption. Through Django, we wanted to disprove the notion that ‘meat dogs’ are different than ‘pet dogs,’ a myth that has been deliberately promulgated by the Korean dog meat industry to appease a population where pet ownership is rising exponentially. It’s no dog’s destiny to suffer.”

After months of intensive veterinary care to heal his sickly little body, Django flew to Singapore to live with Lola and her daughter, Leila. Once his month in quarantine was up, he was brought to his new home, where he would soon learn the joys of being a dog.

“Django took to his life of freedom immediately,” said Lola. “He fit straight in with my other two rescue dogs, (and) everything was so exciting to him. He found absolute joy in what the world had to offer, such as smelling flowers, chasing birds, being hugged, snoozing in the sunshine, and finding the strength to run, with his beautiful chops flailing around and his gangly, uncoordinated legs charging forward! We loved him immediately, more than words could ever do justice.”

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Django enjoying a swim with one of his rescue siblings. (Photo courtesy Lola Webber)

Sadly, Django’s Cinderella story isn’t a common one for dogs trapped in the meat trade. Approximately 10 million are consumed every year throughout Asia, which is why CFAF has made ending this barbaric industry one of its biggest objectives, a lofty goal they’re determined to attain.

“Change For Animals Foundation was founded in 2012 by myself and three friends – Harry Eckman, Suzanne Rogers and Carla Brown – with the shared vision of creating an organization that would never lose sight of what it believed in, that all animals matter,” Lola explained. “We’re a small organization with minimal funding, so we work hard to ensure that other organizations that have additional resources and expertise can take on pieces of work that we can’t. There are no egos at CFAF, just a burning desire for the suffering of the millions of dogs caught up in the meat trade to end, so we support all efforts by other groups and individuals who share our dream.”

While some anti-dog meat activists make a practice of criticizing cultures and governments in a losing effort to shame them into banning the trade, CFAF takes a more proactive, sustainable approach – working with the industry they’re trying to change. This tactic has included meeting and establishing relationships with a growing network of dog farmers that want to leave the industry but simply don’t have the resources to do so.

“When we sat down and talked with the farmers we realized we actually want the same thing – they want out of the dog meat trade and we want the dog meat trade to end,” Lola explained. “I feel so much anger about what the trade encourages, that it relies on the suffering of dogs, but the more time you spend with the dog farmers, the more you realize that they aren’t monsters, they’re just people who in their minds are making a living. So instead of trying to shut down farms with no consideration for the people whose livelihoods rely on them, we’ve worked on building relationships based on trust and respect so we can actually facilitate change. And that’s where we need the bigger organizations that have the resources and expertise to come in and make change happen.”

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There are many dog meat markets throughout Korea, including Moran Market, the largest and most infamous, located southeast of Seoul, and Gupo Market in Busan, the country’s second largest city. Alongside the significant animal welfare concerns associated with the dog meat industry,a mounting body of evidence suggests that the production and consumption of dog meat poses a substantial risk to human health, including the spread of the rabies virus. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

Humane Society International certainly has the funding, expertise, marketing reach, and manpower to get the job done. With the support of CFAF, HSI launched a dog farm conversion campaign in late 2014 that not only helps farmers transition into more humane forms of agriculture, but also rescues and rehomes the dogs with loving families in the U.S. and Canada. So far, CFAF has assisted HSI with five dog farm closures, a campaign that has been incredibly well-received across Korea and around the globe.

Meanwhile, other anti-dog meat groups including Free Korean Dogs, Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, and Korean activist Nami Kim have followed suit by closing several dog farms throughout the country. And while the Korean government has yet to step up to the plate and ban the trade, these inspiring campaigns are a positive sign that a death knell could soon be tolling for the country’s dog meat trade.

“As pet ownership continues to rise exponentially in Korea and throughout the region, people’s perceptions of dogs and other animals are changing,” Lola said. “We are also seeing a change of heart in those involved in the industry – dog meat traders, farmers, and restaurant owners. Of all the farmers and traders I have met, not one of them has shown pride in their job, whilst every single one of them has expressed remorse for the dogs who’ve suffered at their hands, resolutely declaring that they are ready to leave the industry but need help to do so. People throughout Asia care deeply and passionately about this issue, and as international organizations, our role is to support change from within these countries as well as those on the frontline.”

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Lola cuddles one of the lucky pups rescued from a dog farm by Humane Society International, which CFAF has assisted in executing its incredibly successful dog farm conversion campaign. (Photo courtesy HSI)

Thanks to local groups, individuals, and international support, animal rights is the fastest growing civic movement in Korea. Although the country is still home to thousands of dog meat restaurants, only two years ago one of its longest-running dog meat establishment closed after 33 years.

Yet despite the many green shoots of change, an unfortunate summer tradition continues in Korea – boknal or “bok” days (or “dog days” of summer), in which Koreans consume dog meat soup, “boshintang,” on the three hottest days of the lunar calendar (this year’s bok days fell on July 17 and 27, and today, August 16). The (unfounded) belief is that dog meat cools the blood and helps the body fight off the debilitating effects of heat and humidity. But according to recent media reports, the demand for boshintang is on the wane, the direct result of growing anti-cruelty sentiments and activism within the country, a movement that picked up speed this year.

“The boknal days have come and gone over the years, and in the past the protest numbers were always very small and the coverage was minimal,” Lola said. “Whereas this year, all of a sudden you have protests through central Seoul with over 100 people marching and passionately voicing their opinions, large demonstrations that are making the 9 o’clock news on the main national news channels. The traders are reporting very bad business over the boknal days, so they’re feeling the pressure. We just need the government to feel the pressure, too.”

Check out this beautiful video of Lola and a few CFAF volunteers rescuing six dogs from a dog meat farm in May 2016 (video courtesy Martyn Stewart):

With the next Winter Olympics slated for Pyeongchang in 2018, the global spotlight will be focused on South Korea. This will afford CFAF and other groups a golden opportunity to shine a light on the dog meat trade, raise international and national awareness, and support local and international groups and activists in leveraging the event to continue lobbying for legislative change.

“I think (activists in Korea) are really finding their voice and confidence,” Lola said. “I don’t know if part of that has come from the Yulin dog meat festival, where it’s become such a global thing with celebrities around the world speaking up about it. Yulin is one tiny place representing a relatively small number of dogs when you look at the whole scale of things, but it’s become a symbol and representation of what the dog meat industry is – cruel, dirty, and not in line with any of these cultures whatsoever. This is not an issue of ‘cultural’ or ‘personal’ preference, this is an issue of inherent and inexcusable cruelty.”

She continued, “By activists throughout the region seeing what’s gone on in Yulin, I believe it’s empowered others to speak out against something that is defended by many as ‘tradition’ or ‘culture,’ because to stand up against that takes a brave person. These people have always been there, but they’re finding their strength and courage, and they will be the ones who will ultimately end dog meat in South Korea and throughout the region.”

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Lola at one of the dog farms HSI shut down. Although the majority of dogs sold and slaughtered for meat in Korea come from farms, the industry is heavily supplemented with ‘excess dogs’ produced for the pet dog trade. Many dogs that are no longer wanted as pets are sold or given to traders and farmers, and it is common to see many different breeds of dogs at farms and markets, some still wearing collars. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

Three years after his rescue from the dog farm, Django has grown into a big, happy dog enjoying life with his doting family in Bali, Indonesia. As evidenced from his constantly wagging tail, he seems to have forgiven the world for the terrible cruelty he endured in his early puppyhood.

“Watching him swim in the sea and play with my other dogs, his giant gangly legs charging along with that huge Tosa grin on his face, brings me more joy than words could ever do justice,” Lola said glowingly. “He finds joy and happiness in everything, and is the goofiest, most playful soul I’ve ever met. There’s nothing better than coming home to him after being in Korea, but it also just makes it so much harder for me at the same time because (this campaign has become) so personal to me.”

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Lola Webber and her beloved Django. A lifelong animal lover and advocate, Lola has dedicated her entire life to helping animals. Born in Brussels to British parents, she grew up with dogs and was already an animal activist by the time she was six years old. (Photo courtesy Change For Animals Foundation)

Although Lola remains haunted by the faces of the dogs she couldn’t save from the countless farms and markets she’s visited over the years in Korea, she’s learned to channel her remorse into a raw determination to keep fighting until the trade is no more. Whether she’s able to help save one dog or hundreds of dogs, change one mind or thousands of minds, it’s those little victories that keep her going. Meanwhile, Django is there to remind her of why she returns to the battlefield again and again, in the hope that someday, all people will recognize animal cruelty as having no place in our 21st century global society.

“Django is the love of my life, and I can’t remember life without him,” she said. “After witnessing too many horrors and being so helpless to stop the brutal treatment of dogs, I needed to love one dog enough for all those I’d left behind. His ability to love so generously and unconditionally, despite everything he went through, never ceases to bring me to tears – he breaks and heals my heart in equal measures. Knowing dogs just like him continue to suffer on dog meat farms and in slaughterhouses and markets hurts so deeply, but it also keeps that fire of determination burning fiercely inside of me. I always think, if everyone could meet a Django and see him the way I do, the industry would end tomorrow.”

For more information about Change For Animals Foundation, please visit their website or Facebook page.

Want to read about another beautiful dog farm dog who got a second chance at life? Check out Pocket’s story here.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Kahlil Gibran

The Yulin Hangover – Will This Cruelty Ever End?

Once again, another Yulin dog meat “festival” has come and gone. For the sixth year in a row, pet meat enthusiasts converged upon the small southern Chinese city to “celebrate” the summer solstice by gorging on heaping plates of cooked dog flesh and lychee fruit. Right alongside them, and more than happy to put a damper on the festivities were the local and international animal activists who’ve made it their mission over the past several years to protest the festival, record the carnage, and save dogs from the butcher’s block. Meanwhile, animal lovers throughout the globe signed petitions, donated to anti-dog meat campaigns, and watched with outrage as the notorious event unfolded yet again.

Although Humane Society International claims that the festival has grown smaller and more subdued over the past few years, down from killing an estimated 10,000 dogs at its height in 2012 to approximately 1,500 dogs, some activists have expressed concerns that butchers have merely taken their brutal activities underground, making it difficult to know just how many dogs – most of them lost or stolen pets – are actually being slaughtered.

But just a month later, it’s back to business as usual for the dog meat trade in Yulin. The dust has settled as media have moved on, international activists have turned their attention to other heated issues, and global interest has waned. The festival has done nothing but put a black mark on China’s reputation, sparking intense domestic and international condemnation, yet while the local government has distanced itself from the festival, it has so far made no attempts to ban it.

Dogs on trucks-HSI

Dogs languish in a meat truck as they wait to be unloaded into the festival. The majority of dogs used in the Chinese meat trade are lost and stolen pets that are often transported for long distances to rural areas where dog meat is in demand. These shepherds could have been trucked for several days across the country to Yulin, without food, water, or rest. (Photo courtesy HSI)

As someone who has been researching and spreading awareness about the dog meat trade for over three years now, I have to wonder if things are getting any better for animals in China. Are we any closer to seeing an end to this festival of death and abuse, and a criminal industry estimated to murder 10 million dogs a year, in a nation that sorely lags behind other developed nations in animal welfare?

For answers to that loaded question, I consulted three experts who have made it their mission to document, expose, and fight animal cruelty throughout Asia – a front-line rescuer, a photojournalist and videographer, and an official from a leading international animal welfare organization. All three attended Yulin this year and were kind enough to share their experiences, thoughts, and ideas with me, including where they believe the dog meat trade is headed in China.

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Chinese activists speak to the media at the Yulin festival. According to Humane Society International, the movement against the dog meat trade in China began as a grassroots movement from within the country. (Photo courtesy HSI)

Marc Ching arrived in Yulin with a very lofty goal – to document the atrocities, raise global awareness, and decrease the supply of dogs to the festival. As the founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation, a small Los Angeles-based rescue group that saves dogs from abuse and torture situations, Ching has made it his mission over the past year to rescue dogs from the meat trade throughout Asia and expose the industry for what it is – barbaric, cruel and criminal.

Six weeks prior to the festival, Ching journeyed to Yulin with the intention of doing something no other anti-dog meat activist has attempted thus far – to convince slaughterhouses to suspend their operations during the festival. After much financial bargaining, six of the 11 operators he met with agreed. However, when Ching returned to Yulin two days before the event to shut them down as planned, he realized his rescue mission was going to be a much bigger undertaking than originally anticipated, as those six operations had 1,000 dogs between them – dogs with nowhere to go.

What followed was a whirlwind rescue operation, culminating in just under 300 dogs being taken to three temporary shelters Ching had set up in Nanning and Guangzhou, 120 to an HSI shelter in northern China, and the rest to the Tree of Life in Guangzhou and Gaoyao.

For more details about this massive rescue, please go here. You can also check out more images and video on the Animal Hope & Wellness Facebook page.

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Stressed and exhausted dogs await their fate in a meat cage. (Photo courtesy Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation)

But while Ching received overwhelming encouragement from his supporters, he found himself the target of strong criticism from domestic and international rescue groups strongly opposed to activists purchasing large numbers of dogs from meat traders. To drive this point home, Animals Asia, an international animal welfare organization that works to end the dog meat trade in Vietnam and China, released an open letter in conjunction with 35 China-based rescues, urging animal rescuers to abstain from buying dogs from the event, and citing the practice as counterproductive and damaging to the growing anti-dog meat movement within the country (Founder Jill Robinson also released a very insightful article several days later that explains her organization’s stance on how to most effectively end the festival and the trade).

Although Ching wholeheartedly agrees that paying off dog meat traders and butchers is not the solution to stopping the trade, he passionately defends his actions at Yulin.

“I don’t support the buying of dogs, and I didn’t go there to (do that), it was a consequence of temporarily shutting down those slaughterhouses,” he explained. “I couldn’t leave those dogs behind. If I had, the whole world would have slandered me and they would have had just cause to do so. When you’re a spectator it’s easy to (criticize what I did), but until you’re in that moment, with dogs screaming and dying, you really can’t say anything.”

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A typical dog meat vendor on the streets of the Yulin festival. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

As someone who wasn’t well-versed with the inside politics of large animal welfare groups, Ching said he found his interactions with them before and during the festival incredibly eye-opening and disillusioning, in that many seemed more concerned about elevating their profiles and pandering to donors than the welfare of the dogs.

“Before I went to Yulin, I reached out to all the big groups and said, ‘help me, and if you disagree with me, teach me and help me to be better,’ but everybody said no, so I went in and did what I felt I had to do,” he remarked. “I’m sure they thought, ‘look at this guy trying to be famous from doing this, he’s trying to bloat his image,’ but they don’t understand what I’m all about, or what I’m trying to do, or that I’ve destroyed my life for this. When you document torture for a living it’s a heavy burden to bear.”

Despite his less-than-positive interactions with humans at Yulin, Ching says he’s satisfied with what he and his volunteers accomplished, whether anyone agrees with his tactics or not.

“The typical Chinese method is to stop trucks, then test dogs for disease, but they’ve been doing this for the last 5-10 years,” he asserted. “I respect those groups that have that opinion, but you can’t do the same thing every year and expect a different result. In the field, in war, you do what you have to do to save lives and you do your best. Because of our Foundation, lives were saved and incredible awareness was raised. The goal is to end the festival, and to show that change is possible.”

Check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s Compassion Project PSA, which was released prior to Yulin:

 

Although Martyn Stewart also disagrees with activists buying dogs from meat traders, he does believe that every dog deserves a second chance. After all, he happens to be the proud dad of a Tosa mastiff rescued from a South Korean dog meat farm last fall by HSI. As a veteran sound recordist, videographer and photojournalist, Stewart has documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, including the dog meat trade in South Korea and China, but had never had the chance to attend Yulin until this year.

“I did a story for the BBC on the night of 21st, and stayed for several days afterward to see what was happening,” he explained. “I went into the dog meat markets and shot video of them chopping dog carcasses up, and filmed inside a slaughterhouse. We walked through restaurant after restaurant after restaurant full to the gills with people eating dog. The stench was horrible, and in the heat and humidity, it just stays with you in your nose.”

Like most activists who’ve been following the horrific event for several years, he expected the scene to reflect what he’d read in the media. But in the end, what he experienced turned out to be a bit different from those exaggerated reports and embellished truths.

“A lot of newspapers across the world were trying to sensationalize things, trying to make one isolated story, and hype it up to the point where it wasn’t really true,” he said. “There wasn’t all this aggression, all this in-your-face, no people trying to smash my equipment, as I’d been warned. There was some of that, but certainly, there were no ‘Angels of Yulin’ flying into the festival with capes on their backs and flying out with dogs. To me, Yulin appeared to be a pop-up activist’s dream for those trying to make a name for themselves, but at the detriment of the animals.”

Check out Martyn’s video of the festival (note: there are some disturbing images but no footage of dog slaughter):

 

On a positive note, Stewart felt encouraged by the conversations he engaged in with several Yulin citizens, most of whom didn’t like the idea of eating dog, as well as butchers who said their businesses had taken a drop in sales due to all the activism, outside pressure, and the government no longer endorsing the event. He had good reason to be optimistic – a recent survey commissioned by HSI shows that 64 percent of Chinese citizens between the ages of 16-50 would support a permanent end to the Yulin festival, that nearly 52 percent want the dog meat trade to be banned, and almost 70 percent claim they’ve never eaten dog. Still, Stewart admits that any expectations he’d entertained about Yulin being canceled next year were dashed by the sheer magnitude of the event.

“I went to Yulin convinced this would be the last because of all the hype and the pressure, but after seeing the reality of the festival and the extent of the dog meat being eaten, you realize that if this is the end, something miraculous has got to happen. Ending it has to come from within China, and legislation has to be put in place, which takes time, so thinking you’re going to go in there and close it all down in space of a few days, that’s not realistic. We have a million miles to go before we can even start to consider ending this festival, and Yulin is just another extension of somewhere else.”

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Dog meat traders count their spoils. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

Peter Li, China policy specialist for HSI, has a more hopeful outlook about the impending demise of the dog meat trade in China. As someone who has attended Yulin for three years in a row to research, document, and expose the festival, as well as rescue small numbers of dogs and cats, he believes the government is closer than ever to not only banning the barbaric festival, but also the industry (he breaks down the history, practices, and attitudes about the Chinese dog meat trade in this must-read article).

“In China, we don’t need more laws to shut down the dog meat trade,” he explained. “If the government enforced its existing laws and regulations, the trade would be dead. China is the only country among all the major developed nations that doesn’t have animal protection laws, so it’s about 194 years behind the rest of the industrialized world. We will continue to encourage them in enforcing existing laws, and press on for animal protection legislation there.”

But going the slow, legislative route toward permanent change can take years, if not decades to accomplish. Meanwhile, untold millions of dogs (and cats) will continue to die to satisfy the nation’s small minority of pet meat enthusiasts. When faced with that overwhelming thought, isn’t it understandable that front-line activists and rescuers would feel driven to go into blood spectacles like Yulin and save as many lives as possible?

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Another common sight at Yulin – sick, stressed and dying dogs arriving at the festival crammed into cages on the backs of mopeds. This horrible industry has been directly linked to rabies outbreaks in humans, a common health problem in regions where the trade is most common, such as Yulin. (Photo courtesy HSI)

“No system of slavery or oppression should be allowed to continue, and we all wish this trade could be ended overnight,” he said. “But we agree with the statement that Animals Asia put out that animal welfare groups should not buy dogs in great numbers on the festival day, and in competition with other groups. That gave dog meat traders the opportunity to practice extortion by raising prices. They were doing it last year and the year before, brutalizing and humiliating activists who were buying dogs, and threatening to torture the animals if the activists didn’t pay top dollar for them.”

He continued, “We do not accept animal suffering, and I cannot agree more that we should stand up to be the warriors for animals, but there are different ways to solve these problems. Incremental change and progress will lead to the ultimate demise of the industry, and we have seen great changes in the last few years.”

According to Li, the Yulin government publicly disassociating itself from the festival in 2014 was a big step toward shuttering the festival, as is the tremendous domestic and international pressure that continues to come at the city from all sides. But for the first year ever, the Yulin controversy reached Chinese President Xi Jinping in the form of a formal resolution drafted by U.S. Congressman Alcee Hastings (D-Fla), and a letter from HSI – along with the signatures of 11 million people from around the world – calling on China to shut down the festival and ban the trade. What happens next is anyone’s guess.

120 dogs at HSI shelter-HSI

A few of the 120 dogs HSI took on from Marc Ching’s 1,000-dog rescue, resting up at the organization’s shelter in north China. All will eventually be placed in loving homes in the U.S., Canada, and the U.K. Some very little pups indeed! (Photo courtesy HSI)

The hope is that the Yulin government will finally wake up and realize that the damage the festival has caused to its city and country’s reputation is no longer worth the trouble. But until that happens, it’s important to understand that China’s dog meat problem goes way beyond one annual festival, said Li.

“Yulin is just a tiny part of China’s criminal dog meat trade,” he asserted. “HSI has been in China for the last decade, and we’ve been fighting a war against Asia’s dog meat trade on many different fronts and levels because we believe this trade is a comprehensive challenge. There is no quick solution. (An animal welfare organization must have a presence) in China all year long and the strategy has to be multi-layered and leveled.”

Although we may still have quite a distance to go until the pet meat trade is extinguished and buried in the history books as yet another shameful practice we humans once condoned, I remain hopeful that China is indeed on its way to becoming the more compassionate society it has every potential to be, for both animals and humans. Banning the Yulin festival will be an important first step in repairing the country’s global reputation, and demonstrating its intention to catch up with the rest of the developed world in animal welfare.

But before we westerners go pointing fingers and condemning other countries and cultures for their inhumane practices, let’s look in the mirror and take responsibility for the cruelties we inflict upon animals day after day in our own respective countries, whether in factory farming, puppy mills, entertainment, or the fur trade. Why is it okay to judge others for eating dogs or cats, when we greedily consume billions of chickens, cows, pigs and sheep (the U.S. and Australia hold court as the largest consumers of meat per capita) every year? Don’t we inflict plenty of pain and suffering upon these poor, sentient beings behind the closed doors of our nation’s slaughterhouses?

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The faces of the condemned at the Yulin festival. No innocent being deserves such a fate. (Photo courtesy Martyn Stewart)

It’s easy to get riled up about the Yulin dog meat festival, but keep in mind that this one event, horrible as it is, is only a small extension of a massive, 365-day industry that also thrives across other Asian countries including South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia. Stopping it won’t come from without, from westerners expressing outrage and telling these cultures what they can or can’t eat, but from within. Although we don’t hear about them due to the country’s highly censored internet, there are countless Chinese animal welfare groups made up of incredibly dedicated activists who have been diligently working for years against a system designed to support the exploitation and persecution of animals. They are the unsung heroes in this fight, and we must support their efforts whenever possible.

If you’d like to help end the dog meat trade in China and Asia, do your research and only support licensed charities that are open and transparent about their mission; have a verifiable track record of how they use their funds; don’t make a practice of bashing other rescue groups, and always make the animals their top priority.

We humans have created every single animal welfare problem that exists on this planet. We have been ignorant, selfish, entitled, and delusional in believing animals were put on this earth to serve our purposes, do our bidding, and “give up their lives” for our gastronomic pleasure. It’s time for our species to wake up, grow up, and start viewing animals for what they are – intelligent sentient beings who deserve to live out their lives in safety and peace. As our voiceless brothers and sisters with whom we share this beautiful planet, they deserve our guardianship and respect. It’s the least we can do for them.

“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

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Marc Ching – A Brave Rescuer On a Mission of Compassion

“You cannot tell a country who does not have the same value system as we do to love dogs. The only way is to plant a seed. And to let dogs themselves soften their hearts. In time I am certain you will no longer have a society that eats them. That no longer bashes in their skulls because their lives will now hold meaning.” – Marc Ching

Lucky for dogs everywhere, there are a growing number of animal advocates, rescuers and activists throughout the world fighting on behalf of man’s best friend. But not everyone is willing to risk life and limb – or come face-to-face with one of the planet’s most violent forms of animal cruelty – in the process. Enter Marc Ching, founder of the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation and owner of The PetStaurant. A holistic pet nutritionist and Japanese herbalist by profession, this incredibly brave rescuer has taken it upon himself to save as many dogs as he can from the Asian pet meat trade.

Ching’s harrowing odyssey into this dark underworld began last May, when he learned about the summer solstice lychee and dog meat “festival” in Yulin, China. Shocked and disbelieving that such an inhumane practice could actually exist in the modern world, Ching bought a plane ticket, grabbed a backpack and headed to China with a raw determination to witness the trade for himself and rescue as many dogs as possible.

Ching the rescuer

This is Marc Ching – rescuer, savior and modern day hero. These poodle pups were rescued from a trash bag. Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

“My first trip was after the Yulin festival, on Sept. 1,” he says. “When I went to China I saw things I didn’t know people could do. I knew they ate dogs there but I didn’t know about the torture and abuse aspect associated with the preparation of the meat. It’s one thing to read about it or go to a dog farm, which is like a very dirty breeding facility, but it’s another to go to a slaughterhouse and see the methods people have created just to harm another living creature. It doesn’t make sense to me – it’s unspeakable.”

Since that first fateful journey, which shook him to the core but also galvanized his resolve to keep coming back and save more dogs, Ching has made three additional trips, rescuing a grand total of 249 canines from some of the worst and largest slaughterhouses in notorious dog meat locales including China’s Guangzhou province; Busan, South Korea and Hanoi, Vietnam. Unfortunately, only 61 dogs survived their ordeal.

“My trips are a little different than those of most people who rescue from the dog meat trade,” Ching says in his soft Hawaiian accent. “Typically people go to dog farms and try to shut them down or push meat trucks off the road. I actually go into the slaughterhouses and rescue dogs that are being dismembered, tortured or abused.”

Hanoi slaughterhouse-2

A slaughterhouse in Hanoi, Vietnam, a city notorious for its incredibly violent meat trade. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

As the founder of a nonprofit focused on rescuing, rehabilitating and rehoming severely abused dogs in the U.S., Ching is no stranger to cruelty. But he admits his rescue missions to Asia have come at a cost both mentally and physically – he’s been beaten, held hostage, had a machete put to his throat, a gun at his head, and lives with visions that will haunt him for the rest of his life. But neither mental anguish nor fear of death has deterred this gentle savior from his quest.

Since that first fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants trip to China, Ching has developed a more organized process that includes travel itineraries, securing translators and veterinarians in advance, working with teams of researchers to locate slaughterhouses, and finding ways to obtain undercover video footage – without getting caught (he was beaten severely when a South Korean butcher caught him wearing a GoPro). Posing as a wealthy American dog meat buyer, he makes a point of never going to the same slaughterhouse twice.

“It’s actually a great cover,” Ching boasts. “When I come into a country I prep my translator for about two hours before we go out, so when he goes to a slaughterhouse with me he knows what to say. He’ll tell the butchers, this is my client, he’s a rich American and he wants to buy (large quantities of) dogs that have been abused and tortured but still alive, because he’s going to kill them himself, prepare the meat and export it to America.”

Ching rescuing hope-crop

Marc with Hope, the first dog he rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. Hope has since recovered from his injuries and has been brought back to the U.S., where he serves as an ambassador for Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation’s China Effort. He is indeed a miracle! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

He continues, “Before we go out we call local veterinarians and ask them how many dogs they can take, treat and keep for a few months, because the number of vets we find determine the number of dogs we save. So our process now is to take the dogs, load them up in vans and get them straight to the vets.”

For those unfortunate dogs who don’t make it to the vet, Ching makes a point of driving them into the countryside and giving them a dignified burial.

“At least they knew in their last moments that someone cared for them,” he says.

Despite the unspeakable horrors and mental anguish he has endured along the way, Ching insists his Asia efforts are worth the pain and sacrifice, especially when he’s able to fly dogs to the U.S. and bring them to his foundation in Sherman Oaks, Calif. So far, Ching has brought back 46 lucky dogs, most of which have since been rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes.

Rescued from China-2

These puppies were rescued from a slaughterhouse in China. It is unthinkable that anyone would want to harm such innocent beings. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“It’s very expensive to bring these dogs to the U.S., so I try to adopt out locally to Canadians or veterans who live there, as well as to great local Asian people who would never hurt their dogs,” says Ching. “But the ones that I bring back are the dogs that really mean something to me – they all have a story. I also realize these dogs have value here…people in America rally around them. Part of raising awareness is showing people the end product of (my rescue missions), so it becomes tangible to them. It spreads awareness that there are people in these countries doing these things and we should do something to stop it.”

Ching says one of his most special rescues is Sorrow, a black and white French bulldog he saved within minutes of being brutalized in a slaughterhouse in Tongzhou, China.

“That’s a dog who means a lot to me because he’s become the face of what I do now, as so many people have seen that picture of him with his mouth and feet bound,” says Ching. “If you love animals, especially dogs, and you see that picture, it’s just emblematic of what they’re doing over there. That dog and the dogs I rescued from that slaughterhouse, they are miracles, because once an animal enters a place like that, there’s no getting out – they were supposed to die. So I think people connect to that image, because he really is a miracle.”

Sorrow upon rescue

Sorrow just moments after his rescue. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

Rescuing and getting treatment for dogs in other countries, especially those with extensive medical needs, can be incredibly costly. As the saying goes, “if you want to help animals, get rich.” Luckily, Ching’s thriving wellness and nutrition-centered pet store, ThePetStaurant, has enabled him to fund his Asia missions without having to rely heavily on donations, although he always appreciates any help he can get from his passionate supporters.

“My business is very successful, but where most people would buy a Rolex watch, I save dogs,” says Ching. “I never want someone to look at what I do and pollute it by saying I do it for (donation) money because that’s not possible – I lose a few hundred thousand dollars a year on these rescues because they’re so expensive. But in the end it’s worth it because this means so much to me.”

Ching’s purity of intention is also reflected in the beautiful, tragic, yet inspiring writings he posts on Facebook and Instagram before, during and after his missions. Writing has essentially become a therapeutic outlet for Ching, who admits he has been deeply traumatized by what he has experienced. Yet besides helping him to heal his heart and mind, his heartfelt, sometimes gut-wrenching posts have also touched the hearts of thousands of animal lovers throughout the world, devoted social media fans who follow his travels and cheer him on, every step of the way.

Hanoi, Vietnam-2

Marc on the back of his translator’s moped in Hanoi, following a near-death experience at a slaughterhouse. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“I actually post in real time when I’m (in Asia), so I’m able to take my experiences and use my words to paint a picture so people can feel the moment,” says Ching. “I think they appreciate that and they can see what it’s like out there.”

But after staring into the jaws of death one too many times, this devoted husband and father of two has begun to rethink his strategy, from one of rescuing to shifting a mindset that will inspire lasting change.

“In starting this I didn’t have a goal, I just went out there and rescued dogs from slaughterhouses,” Ching explains. “Internally, I felt like it was a way to save myself, because it’s addicting, that moment when you feel like a hero. But in the long run, especially on trip three, it because so burdensome on my consciousness I even had a hard time living my life. Now my goal has changed from risking my life to creating an effort where I’m doing something to end (the dog meat trade).”

At the core of this new strategy is a media campaign in China and South Korea that will feature a short documentary tempered with graphic undercover video footage Ching and two undercover slaughterhouse workers have compiled over the last several months. Dubbed “The Compassion Project,” its intention is to shed light on the abusive practices tied to the trade, turn people away from eating dog meat and support change.

Ching and rescue

Marc with a very grateful Bull terrier he rescued from Li Yuan, China. The kisses make it all worthwhile! Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“In China and South Korea they care more about image, so my goal is to put this media campaign together, line up celebrities and schedule important meetings with people in the government. My message will be, ‘you can be hated by all these countries because of this inhumanity or you can rise up and decide that your country is better than that.’ In our culture we used to have slavery and lynching, but one day we realized that was no longer acceptable and we changed. I believe their countries are no different and that they’ll change in time, too.”

He continues, “Their celebrities (are very important to them). If Yao Ming did the same thing for us as he did (for WildAid’s anti-shark fin soup campaign) in China, I could almost guarantee dog meat would be wiped out in a matter of months because these places where they’re doing it would have so much local opposition, they’d have to end it.”

Meanwhile, Ching is about to embark upon a fifth mission, this time to Thailand, Cambodia, northern Vietnam, South Korea and Yulin, China, a trip he expects to be his “most intense yet.” It appears there is no stopping this determined rescuer.

Sorrow&foster brother-2

Sorrow snoozing with his foster brother. He is back in the U.S., doing great and already has several prospective families vying to adopt him! Photo courtesy of Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation.

When a human being bears witness to terrible atrocity, they are forever changed. I can attest to that, just from researching and writing about the dog and cat meat trade. So when I tell Ching he is my hero, that I could never do what he is doing, that I am so grateful that there are people like him in the world, willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference in the lives of animals, he just laughs.

“I recently wrote a post where I describe what that moment of rescue is like for me,” he tells me. “I go into this place and it’s like you’re breathing into the rain. That’s what it’s like because there’s blood everywhere, everywhere there’s screaming, and it’s usually raining for some reason, and I’m just drenched. And when you save this dog and this dog looks at you, it’s like that moment when you’re in love with someone…it’s amazing. I don’t think people realize that there’s beauty in what I do.”

To learn more about Marc Ching, read his incredibly heartfelt writing and find out how to support his efforts, check out the Animal Hope & Wellness Foundation website and Facebook page.

Ching rescuing Sorrow

Ching cradling Sorrow before heading to the vet. Many dogs that end up in the Asian dog meat trade are lost or stolen pets. Photo courtesy of Marc Ching.

“People look away from the pictures because they cannot stomach it. People do not want to hear about the abuse because they cannot endure to listen to it. But you cannot turn away. You cannot close your eyes because in doing so you just enable it. In doing so you pretend things like this do not exist, and then the suffering and sacrifice become meaningless.” – Marc Ching

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

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

Hawaii’s Ongoing Dog Meat Saga

I absolutely despise the dog and cat meat trade more than any other animal cruelty issue on the face of the earth. It is a horrific, barbaric industry that unfortunately still thrives across Asia and Africa, a form of animal abuse that is so egregiously cruel, I am amazed that animal activists aren’t engaging in more boycott campaigns or live demonstrations than they already are, demanding an end a gruesome industry that has absolutely no place in our 21st century.

This is the issue that horrified me enough to completely change the direction of my career and dedicate my writing to animal welfare. It inspired me to go from an armchair critic to an activist, from a carnivore to a vegetarian. And while there are many animal cruelty problems here and abroad that deserve ongoing attention and swift action, the pet meat trade is the one issue that upsets me far more than any other kind of abuse.

So imagine how horrified I was to discover that technically, it is actually legal to slaughter and eat a companion animal in most states here in the U.S.! Yep, in the supposedly pet-loving U S of A, you can go into a shelter, pick out a dog or a cat, take it home, fatten it up, butcher and eat it in the privacy of your own home. Just don’t try to sell the meat – that’s against the law simply because the USDA doesn’t license or inspect the meat of companion animals.

I was shocked. How could there not be tons of state laws, or even a federal law, to protect dogs and cats from becoming dinner?

After extensive research, including combing every animal legislative website known to man, I discovered that only two states – California and New York – have laws that explicitly prohibit the slaughter, possession and sale of dog and cat meat for human consumption. Meanwhile, New Jersey and Georgia have statutes that simply ban the sale of dog or cat meat, while Virginia outlaws the unnecessary killing of an animal for anything other than “farming activities.”

Last fall, Pennsylvania tried and failed to pass legislation that would have banned the raising, slaughtering or selling of dogs and cats for human consumption, but thanks to a statute included in the bill that prohibited pigeon shooting, NRA lobbyists succeeded in stopping its passage.

So that’s it – two states that have decent laws, three states that sort of touch upon it and 45 states with nothing. Yes, all 50 states do have felony animal cruelty statutes, but most of them are unclear and porous, leaving plenty of wiggle room for pet-eaters to get away with their crimes, depending on how the laws are interpreted.

But do any of our states actually have a big enough problem that would warrant stronger, more explicit legislation? After all, lawmakers aren’t going to go out of their way to enact any kind of law without some sort of need.

According to my friends at the Humane Society of the United States, dog and cat-eating is not a substantial problem in most of America. Yes, there have been rumors of underground dog meat trades in certain areas and isolated, one-off incidents in various communities from time to time, but overall, our country does not house an organized pet meat trade that warrants great concern. But then there’s the Aloha State…

Think Hawaii and you would never imagine that such a beautiful, tranquil place would harbor a very gruesome secret – its very own underground dog meat trade. Yep, thanks to a glaring loophole in the state’s anti-cruelty law, you can actually get away with eating a dog (or a cat) “if bred for human consumption” and killed “humanely.” As a result, a small percentage of Hawaii’s population has continued to satisfy its taste for dog meat, with few repercussions.

A puppy trapped in the Asian dog meat trade. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

A puppy trapped in the Asian dog meat trade. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

All that could have changed with the passage of SB773, a bill reintroduced earlier this year by the Hawaii office of the Humane Society of the United States that would have closed that loophole for good and strengthened the state’s existing anti-cruelty law. But for the second year in a row state legislators killed the HSUS-sponsored bill before it ever had a chance to reach the governor’s desk.

Here’s what Inga Gibson, HSUS Hawaii senior state director, had to say about this very frustrating situation.

“We have cases of dog slaughter every year but none of them can be prosecuted fully because of the way the law is currently written,” she explained. “This bill simply would have closed the loophole and explicitly prohibited the selling, breeding, raising, transporting, trafficking or consumption of dogs or cats, as well as given law enforcement more tools without having to catch the perpetrator in the act of slaughter.”

For most people the U.S., especially those of us who consider our pets family, the idea that our country would have any sort of issue with dog-eating is both shocking and upsetting. But as someone who grew up in Hawaii and worked in animal shelters and as a humane investigator for many years prior to her position at the HSUS, Gibson said she is all too familiar with Hawaii’s ongoing dog slaughter problem.

“It’s been happening here for years,” she told me. “Unlike some developing countries, Hawaii does not have free-roaming, un-owned dogs, so the dogs who are killed for their meat here are lost, stray or stolen pets. There have been numerous reports of dog slaughter over the years, including two cases last year where dogs were found decapitated with their feet removed, a common method used to prepare a dog for consumption. Most people know it’s been happening for some time but it’s something everyone’s brushed under the rug, just hoping their pet doesn’t end up being a victim.”

Here’s an undercover video shot by Carroll Cox, president of EnviroWatch and longtime anti-dog meat activist in Hawaii who posed as a meat buyer and rescued this dog from certain death:

Despite plenty of evidence to support the need for a stronger anti-slaughter law, Aloha State lawmakers have been historically resistant to doing anything about it. In fact, proposed legislation explicitly prohibiting the slaughter of dogs and cats has come before the state legislature for the last eight years, yet somehow never managed to gain enough traction to make it through the necessary hearings, she explained.

“It’s never been publicly voted down but was always held up due to some process, such as running out of time or not being scheduled for the appropriate hearings,” Inga said. “However, it’s only since last year that HSUS has made this bill a priority, and that was because of the 2007 case of Caddy.”

As the most well-known victim of Hawaii’s dog meat trade, Caddy was an 8-month-old Lab/Shepherd mix who was stolen from the Moanalua Golf Club after his owner gained permission to leave him in an equipment shack while he golfed. Landscape workers at the club later pleaded guilty to stealing, slaughtering and eating the dog. While the men were charged with felony animal cruelty, both got off on probation. Still, thinking this case would send a strong message to the community about the consequences of engaging in this cruel practice, the HSUS hoped the problem would dissipate. But when Gibson continued to receive reports of dog being slaughtered throughout Hawaii, the organization realized it was time to push for a stronger law.

So in early 2014 they did just that, introducing SB2026, an anti-slaughter and trafficking bill that received overwhelming support from the community and passed unanimously all the way through its Senate and House committees. Until it died when the House failed to schedule it for a final hearing.

Dog owners and Inga Gibson (far right) gather at the Hawaii Capitol in support of 2014 Senate Bill 2026.

Dog owners and Inga Gibson (far right) gather at the Hawaii Capitol in support of 2014 Senate Bill 2026.

“It shocked me because we had the most heartfelt testimony from people, people crying and telling stories about dogs being stolen by people they later found out were dog traffickers,” Inga said. “Even with all that the bill didn’t pass. And the headlines were, ‘Still Legal in Hawaii: Eating Pets,’ and we thought, is this is the message we’re sending, is this what we want to be know for? It was so shameful.”

While the majority of Hawaii residents abhor the practice of eating dogs, Gibson theorized that the small percentage of the population who are engaging in this practice aren’t doing it out of need but rather to satisfy a taste preference cultivated in their home countries.

“No one is consuming dog meat here due to poverty or war times or because it’s a food staple,” Inga said. “This isn’t a dietary issue, it’s a food choice and they’re using the excuse of ‘culture’ for the continuation of those activities. They know it’s not socially acceptable, as this is all done in backyards with dogs that come from underground sources, but I don’t know if they know it’s wrong legally. But these are people’s pets, these are family members and they deserve our protection.”

Besides the immense cruelty it inflicts, this illegal and unlicensed backyard industry also poses serious public health risks. Toxoplasmosis, e-coli, cholera, trichinellosis, and other infectious parasitic, bacterial and zoonotic diseases can be transferred to humans when slaughtering, handling or even eating dogs or cats. Rabies transmission through dog meat is the reason many Asian countries including the Philippines, Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand have long prohibited the trade, although enforcement remains an ongoing problem.

A rescued meat dog in Thailand stares up hopefully at its rescuers. Photo credit: Soy Dog Foundation.

A rescued meat dog in Thailand stares up hopefully at its rescuers. Photo credit: Soy Dog Foundation.

So while 48 states without strong anti-slaughter laws may not see a need to enact this kind of legislation, what’s Hawaii’s excuse? After all, this is a state where dogs are being stolen from people’s yards and sold to dog traders (evidently for $35 per dog) with customers waiting in the wings to purchase their “products.” It is even rumored that some restaurants actually serve dog meat, if you know how to order it. How could Hawaii lawmakers not recognize the urgent need to protect their constituents’ pets?

“This is the reality of Hawaii politics, a plantation-era mentality that clings to activities perceived as ‘cultural,’ regardless of whether they’re right or wrong in the 21st century,” Inga explained. “No one has stood up and supported dog slaughter, but legislators are avoiding this issue because they don’t want to be seen as discriminating against any particular ethnicity. So I believe it’s an avoidance of controversy or of anything that could be perceived as controversial. But in refusing to pass this bill, they’re simply defending an indefensible practice.”

I love it when people try to make the “culture” argument to defend or justify animal cruelty. After all, human sacrifice and slavery were once part of our culture. So was binding women’s feet. Humans are supposed to evolve and change with the times, and the myriad cultures that inhabit the state of Hawaii should be no exception. We DO NOT eat dogs and cats in the United States of America, period. Culture is not a viable excuse!

Curious about why he didn’t think this ongoing cruelty was significant enough to have supported SB773 and not just let it die (which he did), I tried contacting Hawaii senate committee chairman Maui Senator Gil Keith-Agaran but he didn’t bother to respond to my repeated requests for comment.

Despite two years of disappointment, Inga said the Hawaii HSUS remains undeterred and will reintroduce the bill again next year.

So what can you do to help get behind the animal-loving citizens of Hawaii and finally get this much-needed bill passed into law? Contact Hawaii Governor David Ige and urge him to support anti-dog and cat slaughter legislation as well as stronger animal protection laws in his state. You can also follow this important issue by visiting the Hawaii HSUS Facebook page.

While I love Hawaii and would love to visit, I certainly won’t be experiencing that “Aloha spirit” any time soon – I do not spend my tourist dollars in places that support the dog and cat meat trade. So that means that besides Hawaii, I won’t be traveling to China, South Korea, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia or Indonesia, either, to name just a few places that condone this abhorrent practice. That’s fine. I’d rather go back to Europe, anyway.

Dogs living out their short lives in filthy cages at a South Korean dog meat farm. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

Dogs living out their short lives in filthy cages at a South Korean dog meat farm. Photo credit: SayNoToDogMeat.Net

“The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” – Mahatma Gandhi

Why I Care Like I Do

Blame it all on Facebook. There I was, innocently scrolling through my morning news feed, sipping coffee and catching up with what my friends were doing, when I stumbled upon a photograph that changed my life.

The image depicted several German shepherds on the back of a rickety-looking truck, packed in cages far too small for their large, long-legged bodies. In fact, the dogs were crammed in so tightly, their paws stuck out between the metal bars in awkward, seemingly painful positions. Languishing beneath a thin tarp that barely shielded them from the hot sun, they were clearly suffering, their mouths hanging open as they panted, their faces the epitome of stress and exhaustion. And there, leaning against the truck’s passenger side door stood the driver, a skinny Asian man smoking a cigarette with a blasé expression on his face, seemingly oblivious to the anguish of the animals in his care.

The scene hit me square in the heart. These poor canines could have been my shepherds, who at the time were dozing contentedly in their respective spots on my home office floor, their bellies full of breakfast. And as I read the photo’s caption my blood turned to ice. These beautiful, intelligent, emotional creatures weren’t headed to a shelter or anyplace where their suffering would be ended and eventually forgotten. These unfortunate dogs were headed to the live meat markets of Vietnam, where they would be slaughtered and eaten.

I felt as if my brain was about to explode. Did people in Asia really eat dog meat? Wasn’t that just an old joke? Maybe they had in the past, during times of desperation, of famine, but not now, not in the 21st century! I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading. I had to know more. I did a Google search and began to read and read and then read some more. And with every article, every website, every image, graphic or otherwise, my heart began to break into more and more pieces.

Yes, I discovered, people in Asia and even Africa eat dog (and cat) meat. In fact, pet meat is a multi-billion-dollar, unregulated trade, especially in parts of China, South Korea and Vietnam, where the flesh of companion animals is considered a delicacy and purported to have (unproven) health benefits. Approximately 10 million dogs and cats are eaten each year in China alone. But the worst part? These “humans” involved in this trade weren’t just killing these animals, they were torturing them first, living under the false belief that the adrenaline stimulated by intense fear and suffering makes a dog or cat’s meat more flavorful and beneficial to one’s health.

Suddenly my reality was no longer the same. I felt like Alice after she’d fallen down the rabbit hole, or Neo in “The Matrix” after he swallowed the red pill. I knew I couldn’t go back to being happily oblivious that this level of cruelty existed – those days were over. I would have to do something, and at that very moment I decided that I would do what I did best – write. I would use my writing skills to let the world know that this horrible trade existed and must be stopped.

Mind you, my objective wasn’t to condemn any culture for its food choices, but to stop this egregious cruelty. To “humanely” kill and then eat an animal is one thing, but to intentionally put it through prolonged, agonizing pain is another. That is simply barbaric and wrong.

I felt like I was on fire. I contacted the animal welfare organization that had posted the photo and volunteered my writing and editing services to them. I learned everything I could about the trade, its history, its economic impact, its players and the propaganda and fake medicine they tout to perpetuate the demand and thus, line their pockets. I forced myself to watch videos I now wish I hadn’t seen and cried out loud in horror and despair. What I was witnessing was raw barbarity. How could any human being do such things to another living creature?

My brain haunted with images I couldn’t shake, I lay awake at night, staring into the darkness and sobbing at the thought of all those innocent animals that were probably suffering right at that very moment, while I was powerless to stop it. Unable to halt my tears, I often awakened my poor husband, who wasn’t sure what to do but hold me until I cried myself to sleep.

I knew it was wrong to blame an entire culture, that there were many wonderful animal lovers and activists in these countries who cared about animals, despised this trade and were fighting to stop it, but I struggled with hateful, judgmental and racist thoughts nonetheless. Though I tried to remind myself that people involved in the dog and cat meat trade were most likely ignorant and desensitized individuals who were the product of an environment bereft of compassion and empathy, I hated them nonetheless.

It seemed that the more I learned, the angrier I became. I went through a very bitter, cynical period. I got irritated when someone would ask me what I was writing about and when I would try to tell them they’d make a face and cut me off with, “ugh, okay, stop, I don’t want to know!” I didn’t understand why people would rather be ostriches choosing to remain ignorant rather than become enlightened so they could either do something to stop this suffering or simply help to spread awareness, too.

Then I realized I was being a bit of a hypocrite – with my own eating habits. Here I was, consuming the meat of farm animals while at the same time judging other cultures for eating the meat of companion animals. What made the lives of pigs, chickens, cows, lambs and turkeys any less important than those of dogs and cats? No creature, be it human or non-human, wants to suffer and die. I knew I had to walk the walk if I was going to talk the talk, so I started reading everything I could about the evils of factory farming to help lose my taste for animal flesh, something I had always consumed in moderation but still enjoyed from time to time. I read Jonathan Safran Foer’s “Eating Animals” and from cover to cover in two days. What a brilliant book. It opened my mind and did its job by ending my desire to eat meat forever. It’s been two years since I last tasted animal flesh and I’ve never looked back.

I felt good about not eating animals. I had been practicing yoga for almost 20 years and had always tried to live by the yamas and niyamas (the essential principles of a yogic life), one of the most important being ahimsa, or non-violence. But while I had stopped being violent in my eating habits, I was still being violent in my thoughts – toward people who either didn’t seem to care or “didn’t want to know.” I realized that harboring all this anger and resentment was only hurting my psyche and not solving anything, so I began to shift my thinking and my attitude. After all, did I really want to be one of those self-righteous vegans? Not really.

Sure, anyone with a compassionate (non-psychopathic) heart cares about animals, but I do believe there is such a thing as “compassion fatigue” in our society. Our world is riddled with so many problems, so much cruelty and pain, that I think most people feel helpless, overwhelmed and not sure what to do or where to even begin. So they shut down. I’ve certainly been there. And just because my eyes were open didn’t mean that everyone, even members of my own family, were interested in opening theirs.

I couldn’t blame some of my friends for saying they couldn’t read my Facebook posts anymore, which had become an outlet for my burgeoning animal activism. So what if they just wanted to see pictures of cute, fuzzy puppies with inspiring quotes to make them feel all warm and fuzzy inside? I knew I had to try to understand where most people were coming from so I could let go of my frustration with their lack of “likes” when I posted something I thought was really urgent and important. I knew I would find my “tribe” of fellow animal activists eventually, but meanwhile, it was time to find other platforms for my animal-centric writing and awareness efforts. And that’s when I began to write for Dogster.com and soon after, started this blog.

For thousands of years humans has been exploiting animals for their own benefit. What right do we have to continue this tyranny, especially now that we know without a doubt that animals are sentient beings who have emotions and feel pain, just like us? Non-human species don’t have the ability to fight for their rights, tell their own stories, or change the systems that are harming, enslaving and murdering them. So I will tell their stories and be their voice and maybe, just maybe, I will get through to someone and they will feel inspired to help animals, too. Just imagine if everyone did one thing, big or small, to make a difference – what a safer, happier and more compassionate world we could co-create together!

So this blog is dedicated to the animals, to all the amazing, unique and inspiring individuals, past and present, who have touched my life, loved me unconditionally and always stood by me. I have been lucky enough to call many dogs, cats, rabbits, chickens, goats and horses my closest friends, creatures who made me laugh, gave me love and asked for very little in return except to be taken care of and treated with kindness. They have been my greatest teachers, forever inspiring me to be a better person and a more loving caretaker. I can’t imagine who I would be or what my life would be like without them.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

Me and my boys, Hugo (left) and Gizmo (right). Hugo has since traveled to the Rainbow Bridge. His mommy really misses him.

“Never, never be afraid to do what’s right, especially if the wellbeing of a person or animal is at stake. Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way.” – Martin Luther King Jr.