Content warning: this essay contains descriptions and an image of animal suffering some readers may find distressing.
Having retired to Phuket in Thailand in 2003, my wife Gill and I were keen to make a positive difference in our adopted home. Having long been aware of the terrible suffering of the ever-increasing stray dog population, we decided to take action. Before long, we had joined forces with another retiree, Margot Homburg, and the Soi (“street”) Dog Foundation was born. Today, we believe Soi Dog sterilises and treats more canines than any organisation in the world, and is heavily involved in combating the highly controversial dog and cat meat trade in Asia.
Nobody knows just how many dogs and cats are slaughtered across the region for their meat, fur or skin because the dog and cat meat trade is not regulated; unlike official livestock, cats and dogs are not subject to any regulations regarding sourcing, transportation, slaughter or sale.
Dogs were first bred from wolves domesticated to protect livestock, crops and homes. Over time, specific breeds were developed – but historically, dogs have never been bred as livestock for food. Carnivores simply do not lend themselves to being successfully farmed, as the horrendous conditions of dog meat farms in South Korea – the only country where they exist – proves all too clearly. The South Korean farms, which pump the captive animals with antibiotics, also have an impact on human health by contributing to the country’s low antibiotic resistance.
The majority of dogs and cats used for meat in China and Southeast Asia are snatched from the streets or people’s yards. Many of them are cherished pets. The way they are transported – often thousands of miles by road, crammed in small cages – is just the start of their encounter with a practice so inhumane that you may need to take a deep breath before reading on.
Many animals die from injuries or suffocation on the journey. Those that survive will often be force-fed on rice to artificially increase their weight and hence their value on the market.
Methods of slaughter vary, but throwing live dogs into de-furring machines or boiling water is not uncommon. As is beating to death, blowtorching or electrocution by the insertion of a metal probe into the anus. Cats are usually either drowned by lowering cages into water or caught in a metal grab and plunged straight into boiling water to remove the fur. If an animal is lucky, it may be stunned first with a blow to the head. But whatever the slaughter method, it will be done in full sight of other animals who cannot be unaware that this will be their fate too.
But cruelty on this scale is normal, everyday work for the butchers doing the slaughtering. As for those who consume cat and dog meat, they are like most other meat-eaters: uninterested in how the animal on their plate was killed.
Because of the cultural controversy around the consumption of cat and dog meat, much of our focus at the Soi Dog Foundation has been on human health. Indeed, the only way we were able to persuade the Vietnamese government to ban importing dogs from Thailand was to warn of the risk of rabies, after tests we commissioned on the brains of dogs from Hanoi slaughterhouses showed many to be carrying the disease. While all ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) member countries have pledged to eliminate rabies, as long as rabid dogs are crossing borders in the region, the problem will remain.
The Covid-19 pandemic has illustrated what can happen when countries allow the uncontrolled slaughter of different species in close proximity to one another. The Chinese government has announced a ban on the importation of wildlife and declared that cats and dogs are not livestock. And while this has not stopped people from exploiting them for food, they can do so less freely. Meanwhile Vietnam has followed China’s lead with respect to wildlife but has yet to ban the consumption of dogs and cats, despite the clear threat to human health.
The Soi Dog Foundation has urged the World Health Organisation, the Food and Agriculture Division of the United Nations and the World Organisation for Animal Health to use their influence to ban so-called wet markets, but our calls have fallen on deaf ears. The World Health Organisation’s latest statement on wet markets is that “once they are in a position to gradually resume normal activities” after Covid, they must “ensure strong regulatory systems, high standards of cleanliness, hygiene and safety.”
The only thing we can be sure of is this: while our species continues to ignore the environment and destroy our fellow-creatures, we will be seeing diseases like Covid-19 more and more frequently.
John Dalley founded the Soi Dog Foundation in Thailand with his late wife Gill and their friend Margot Homburg in 2006. Since then the organisation has expanded internationally and received numerous awards for services to animal welfare.
CALL TO ACTION: Support Soi Dog https://www.soidog.org/content/make-donation, and sign the petition asking the Vietnamese government to outlaw the dog and cat meat trade: https://www.soidog.org/savethedogs/vietnam