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Mercy in a Man-Eat-Dog World

2/15/12, dhartig SB10001424053111904103404576557781229591872.html

Thai Governor Lets the Dogs Out, but Meat Lobby Fights Back: 'Respect Our Customs'


BANGKOK--Rising incomes from China to Thailand, and a spreading fondness for pets, have put a crimp on an old practice still prevalent in some parts of Asia--eating dogs.

In China, some 200 animal-rights activists recently intercepted trucks filled with nearly 1,000 dogs bound for slaughter, and paid the dog traders about 80,000 yuan ($12,500) to secure the animals' release. Several of the dogs were sick or badly injured, according to animal-welfare organization Animals Asia.

The operation by activists in China last month echoed a similar push in Thailand's northeast, where locals are attempting to block the roaring, illegal trade of local dogs to restaurants in nearby Vietnam.

In Vietnam, roasted or stewed dog meat is in hot demand. Entire streets in Hanoi are lined with restaurants with signs offering thit cho, or dog meat, often alongside logos of Western soft-drink brands.

This presents an opportunity for dognappers in Thailand's arid Isan region. Villagers there don't eat much dog meat. Thailand's Buddhist culture frowns on killing stray animals, though, so street dogs are bountiful. Dognappers who are willing to break Thai law--which prohibits buying or selling dogs for food--have found opportunity selling dogs to Vietnam.

People involved in the trade say a contraband dog will sell for 1,000 baht, or around $30, twice the price of a couple of years ago.

Among those pushing back against the business is Rerngsak Mahavinitchaimontree.

Mr. Rerngsak, 58 years old, is the governor of Nakhon Phanom province, a major transshipment point for the dog trade where smuggled animals are whisked across the broad expanse of the Mekong River into Laos and then onto Vietnam or even China. Mr. Rerngsak organized a string of checkpoints with local police, and in August broke up a network of smugglers, rescuing some 1,800 dogs.

Another smuggling gang was intercepted at a river jetty on Sept. 6, and two men--one Thai and one Vietnamese--were arrested for allegedly trying to smuggle 120 dogs into Vietnam.

Since the August bust, animal-rights campaigners have raised around 20.7 million baht, or $690,000, to help keep the dogs at a special refuge. Mr. Rerngsak, a tall man with a slight stoop, hopes the dogs' rightful owners will step forward to collect them and that local residents will adopt the others. In other parts of the country, activists have rushed to rescue stray dogs from the devastating floods that have inundated large parts of central Thailand in recent weeks and which are now entering Bangkok.

"We raise dogs to obey us, not for food," Mr. Rerngsak said. "We must treat them well."

Mr. Rerngsak's campaign reflects Thailand's growing self-confidence. Animal-rights activists say that as Thailand has grown wealthier and trade links with its neighbors have multiplied, tolerance for the dog trade has eroded, thanks in part to the growing numbers of Bangkok residents who now have pets.

The dynamic is similar in the Philippines, where dog-eating is now largely confined to a few mountainous areas, and in increasingly affluent China, where more people are embracing dogs as pets.

Dog-eating persists and is sometimes celebrated in many pockets of the world. In China, consumption of the meat is believed to boost men's sexual performance. Wealthy South Korea has an active dog-eating lobby, whose members point out that the dogs raised for meat on dog farms are a different breed than those raised to be household pets.

"People rely on this trade for their livelihood," says Sawong De-chalert, a retired English teacher in Sakon Nakhon who represents local traders who are lobbying the government to legalize the dog-meat trade.

Then there is the issue of what anthropologists call cultural relativism. Humans in one part of the world often consume things, from grubs to pigs, that others find taboo or simply inedible. Just try explaining the Scottish art of deep-frying pizzas to an Italian.

"It's very simple," said Dao Van Bien, a 66-year-old Hanoi man. "Each country has its own culture and here we eat dog. Other people should be more broad-minded and respect our customs instead of trying to disgrace us."

In Bangkok, several hundred dog lovers and other animal-rights campaigners marched around the city's center on Sept. 4 urging people to stop eating dogs or selling them to countries where they are consumed.

Roger Lohanan, chief executive at the Thai Animal Guardians Association says Thailand needs to go further and enact specific laws to prevent animal cruelty. The Sept. 4 march, he said, was "just the beginning."

Nearly 1,000 of the dogs that Mr. Rerngsak rescued have since died of diseases or injuries stemming from their chronic mistreatment. Some, Mr. Rerngsak said, were recovered after smugglers tossed them out of the back of their pick-up trucks but later succumbed to their wounds despite volunteer veterinarians' efforts.

With the help of local campaigners, he has set up a website where dog owners can see photos of recovered dogs and reclaim their lost pets. People can also click on the photo of an unclaimed animal and apply to adopt it. So far, he says, three people have found their lost or stolen dogs on the site.

Mr. Rerngsak hopes the plan works. Until more pets are claimed, his rescue mission has another unforeseen problem--a large dog-food bill.

Mr. Rerngsak initially tried feeding the canines dried dog food like the kinds found in most pet stores. But the Thai dogs wouldn't eat it, preferring rice and chicken or pork--a taste they acquired by polishing off human leftovers.

"We have to buy quality rice for them," Mr. Rerngsak said. "They won't eat cheap rice because it is too mushy when cooked, and they won't eat poor-quality meat either. I think our donations will run out sooner than we thought."
--Nguyen Anh Thu in Hanoi contributed to this article.

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