I only went to a dog meat market once. If you don’t know what a dog meat market is, it’s exactly as it sounds. It’s where they slaughter and butcher dogs and sell their meat. You can find them throughout Asia – I went to Moran Market in South Korea.
As the co-founder of an animal welfare organisation that – amongst other things – works to end the dog meat trade, I’ve seen more examples of the brutality and horror directed towards animals than is probably healthy. Is there even a healthy amount? But at the time, I’d not visited one of these markets in person and that made me feel inauthentic when I spoke about them.
My colleague had been to these markets before and to many since. She is one of the bravest people I know. Moran Market was, at the time, the largest dog meat market in South Korea. The dog meat stalls have decreased in number over the past few years but they’re still there, if you look, tucked away amongst the bustle.
Moran is a wet market. A term that’s familiar to many of us now thanks to coronavirus. But wet markets may not be what you think. A wet market is simply somewhere that sells fresh, perishable produce. Could be meat. Could be fish. Could be fruit and vegetables. They’re called wet markets because ice or cold water is used to keep the produce fresh. Wet markets exist everywhere. What we actually mean when talk about the kinds of markets that harboured Covid-19 are live animal markets – places where they slaughter and butcher animals on site. Not all wet markets sell live animals. But some do and they’re the ones we should worry about. Moran is also a live animal market.
On the day we visited, there was a protest taking place. Local animal activists were demonstrating, and we took the opportunity to blend in with the crowd. Wearing baseball caps to disguise our white, blonde Englishness, we were indistinguishable from the Koreans around us.
There are things I could describe about that day. I could describe the smell, like nothing I’ve smelt before. Not immediately repulsive in itself, not like the stench of rotting meat, but a smell that is unique and will sicken me forever. I could describe the dogs. Crammed into cages, terrified and confused. Watching as one of their cage-mates was butchered in front of them and unaware of their own impending death.
Later that night, I pictured those dogs, the ones that were still alive, huddled in their cages. I imagined them as I imagine all dogs, taking the briefest pleasure in what slight beauty may still exist in their world. The companionship of their kind, a new smell on a gust of wind, and a night where they might still sleep and dream.
I have rarely felt so lost, so heartbroken, so utterly overwhelmed as I did that day.
And then there were the people. The traders of mortality. The buyers and sellers of death. I walked around that market and they stared back at me with judgement and offence, as though I were the one at fault for observing their business. They were so bold and unrepentant in their actions and I fucking hated them.
But hate is no friend to the work I do.
It’s hard for those who buy their meat in cellophane-wrapped convenience to imagine going down to a market and have someone casually kill an animal in front of them to take home. But for millions of people it’s normal. Maybe not always dog, but certainly a chicken or a duck. Because that’s better somehow. Except, of course, it’s not.
It’s easy to go to a dog meat market and hate the people you see. By dehumanising them and imagining them as evil, you get to paint them as villains. Because they butcher and sell meat more openly than we do, they must be more brutal, more sadistic, less caring. But the truth is, they’re not.
When I work to end these trades, there’s no place for that kind of hate. You can hate the cruelty. You can hate the actions. But as soon as you hate the people, you’ve already lost the fight. It’s not enough to be against something, you have to be for something better. And to create change you have to build a bridge between the world you’ve got and the world you want.
In the years since, one of the greatest successes we at CFAF (Change for Animals Foundation) were able to achieve was getting dog meat farmers (a dog meat farm is again exactly as it sounds) to close their farms while we supported them in their pursuit of alternative livelihoods. Growing blueberries instead of farming dogs. Change is possible.
I often think back to those dogs I saw at the market, and the countless others that still endure the same fate. Can I forgive those people who inflicted such brutality on those dogs? No, I can’t.
But I don’t have to forgive them in order to work with them and try to understand them. And it’s not like I’m completely guiltless myself. I ate meat, I eat dairy. I’m not killing the animals myself but I’m still complicit. Does that make me a hypocrite? Absolutely. We all are. But recognising that we are is a vital step on the way to finding a common ground.
And those dogs don’t care if we all become pals. That’s not what matters. All they want is for the brutality to end and to live as good a life as they can.
It’s for them that I, we, do this.
Harry Eckman is the Co-founder and CEO of Change For Animals Foundation (CFAF).
Harry works with hundreds of locally based animal welfare and protection organisations around the world, providing them with guidance on strategic thinking, planning and programme development. His work also includes lobbying to end wildlife in captivity and the illegal wildlife trade, campaigning to end the dog and cat meat trades, directing humane dog and cat population management projects, incorporating human behaviour change concepts into animal welfare and management programmes, and improving welfare standards in shelters and veterinary facilities.