As a Korean-American, my reaction to South Korea’s dog meat trade is mixed. On the one hand, I’m heartbroken to learn about the truly inhumane ways these animals are kept and slaughtered. I love dogs — and I mean love, love, love dogs. I grew up with them as part of my family and am so grateful for the joy and comfort they brought me. Currently, to placate my desire for a dog of my own, I work part-time for a dog walking company and I follow more dogs than humans on Instagram.
Despite this, I still bristle when I read headlines like “Olympics Puts Spotlight on Korean Practice of Eating Dog Meat” and “U.S. Olympian Rescues 90 Dogs from Korean Dog Meat Farm.” Where was that kind of outcry during the London 2012 Olympics? Why weren’t there any stories of athletes shutting down cattle farms or adopting piglets?
“I do agree that it’s not my place to impose western ideals on the people here,” Gus Kenworthy, the American freestyle skier, stated on his Instagram post as he posed with his newly adopted South Korean pup, Beemo. During his time in the country, Kenworthy also helped shut down a dog meat farm and ensured that 90 dogs would be relocated to homes in the U.S. and Canada.
Perhaps “not my place, but I’m gonna do it anyway” would have been a more accurate statement.
Not that I blame him. I’m happy for little Beemo, who is surely going to have a wonderful life with a loving family ― the life that he deserves. On an individual level, I don’t doubt Kenworthy’s straightforward intention: He saw dogs suffering and wanted to rescue them. I get it. Imagining one of my own childhood dogs confined to a tiny wire cage in the freezing cold or blistering heat, only to face a painful death before being consumed by humans is horrifying.
But to claim that this larger movement of public protest has nothing to do with the imposition of Western ideals on the East is condescending. All animals feel pain and are capable of suffering, and the life of a dog is not inherently worth more than the life of a cow, a pig or a chicken. It seems only dogs are viewed as sacred in the West. In the U.S., we call them man’s best friend. Dogs represent unconditional love and loyalty, and because of this longstanding cultural bond, it is much easier to be compelled to action to save dogs and ignore cows.
Yet cows are suffering just as much as any dog on a meat farm. Longtime slaughterhouse worker Ramon Moreno told The Washington Post that many of the cows were still alive as their tails were cut, their bellies torn open and their skin pulled off. “They die piece by piece.”
Most readers will agree that the thought of eating a puppy is appalling. But what about veal? Calves raised for the purpose of veal production are fed a synthetic formula lacking in iron in order to make the calf anemic and keep its flesh pale. They spend their eight-to-16-week lives confined to small cages barely longer than their bodies and too small for them to turn around. Yes, many people agree that raising veal is also cruel, but let’s be honest: Most of us in the West would be more tolerant of seeing a baby cow on a menu than a puppy.
“Culture should never be a scapegoat for cruelty,” Kenworthy wrote in his Instagram post. True. So where is the same overwhelming outrage over bacon in the U.S.? Why aren’t we outlawing pepperoni and canceling those orders for the holiday ham? Pigs are extremely intelligent animals. Mark Bekoff, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Colorado, wrote that pigs are “able to solve challenging problems, they love to play, they display a wide range of emotions, and they have unique individual personalities.”
They sound a lot like dogs, don’t they? If Kenworthy had been raised with a family pig instead of a family dog, would his perspective on animals be different?
“How can we demand change from another country when we have yet to figure out a way to change our own?”
In Korea, dogs have been raised for consumption since the era of the Samkug (57 B.C. to A.D. 676). While they were also traditionally used as guard animals, it wasn’t until the economic improvement and higher standards of living in the 1990s that more people began to see dogs as pets. There are still many older-generation Koreans, especially in rural areas, whose livelihoods depend on these farms. However, many younger-generation Koreans are against the practice of eating dogs and they are now driving change within the country.
One of South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s first acts after being elected in 2017 was to adopt a dog from a meat farm, according to The Wall Street Journal. The news outlet also reported that “Lee Jeong-mi, a lawmaker with the minor left-leaning Justice Party, aims to draft a bill before the end of her legislative term in 2020 to force the gradual closure of dog-meat farms.”
The Humane Society International estimates there are nearly 17,000 dog farms still operating in South Korea, so it will take time to shut them all down. But not as long as it would take to shut down the estimated 69,000 pig farms and 922,000 cattle farms here in the United States.
Shutting down thousands of dog farms would devastate those Korean farmers, their families and their local economies ― just like shutting down all those pig and cattle farms would in the U.S. How can we demand change from another country when we have yet to figure out a way to change our own?
As a dog lover, I do want to see the closure of those farms, and I am glad there’s a movement within Korea itself that wants to end the practice. However, as these changes occur, I hope that those thousands of farmers will also be given the support and resources needed to survive and find another trade, so that this decision improves the lives not only of dogs, but of the Korean people.
To those athletes from the West who are bringing attention to this issue, who are shipping dogs out of the country and posting selfies with their new rescues, carry on. Please continue giving these pups a chance at a new life. Just be upfront about your cultural bias. Admit that Western ideals are at least part of what’s compelling you to take action. It’s OK, you can still keep the dog.
Nicole Im is a recent graduate of The New School’s MFA program in nonfiction.