It’s still dark, the coming dawn a wash of paler blue in the inky sky over Namyangju, a small city outside of Seoul, when the line of vans turns off the main highway onto a gravel side road. The vans ascend the narrow drive up a brushy, frozen hillside, assembling above a cluster of ramshackle metal and tarp hangars.
In the glow of the headlights, the team from the HSUS and Humane Society International (HSI) piles out to start their work—pulling on heavy-duty gloves and hats, their breath forming clouds in the freezing air. There’s a layer of frost over everything, patches of mottled, crunchy snow on the ground as they head into the warren of sheds. They can hear the barking, increasingly frantic, coming from the cages there.
The dogs have heard the vans arrive, and as the team approaches in the gathering dawn, they’re up in their cages, some pacing and whirling, others cowering and shivering at the backs of their enclosures. A huge female dog with the coloring of a Saint Bernard paws at the front of her cage, eagerly waiting to be scratched around what remains of her ears—both her ears and her tail appear to have been chopped off. Cages full of fluffy white Jindos (a Korean breed that resembles a spitz) rattle as the dogs circle, excited and wary about the visitors.
Adam Parascandola criss-crosses between cages, checking on how the dogs have fared overnight. The director of animal protection and crisis response for HSI, Parascandola has worked in animal rescue for 20 years. Before moving to his current role, he worked for the HSUS, pulling animals out of dozens of neglect situations, dogfighting operations and puppy mills. Since shifting to HSI in 2015, he’s made about 20 trips to South Korea, each time to help close down an operation like this one, one that may seem unreal to many Westerners: This is a dog farm, and the dogs here—until very recently—were to be slaughtered and sold for meat.
The compound is a maze, each hangar leading on to the next, each lined with cages full of dogs. Feces and trash—packets of instant coffee, rusted farm equipment, empty cigarette packs—are everywhere, ground into the icy tracks in the mud. Before the rescuers arrived, the dogs were eating the food kept in a metal vat at the front of the compound. It’s full of what appears to be restaurant scraps: thin noodles, mussels, half a tangerine, hunks of unidentifiable bones too large to be poultry. The straw in the cages, the dogs’ only source of warmth, arrived a few days ago when the HSI team got to the site and began delivering relief to these animals.
Toward the back of the compound, a group of fluffy, wiggly golden retrievers wiggle harder as they spot the rescuers. One of the them, a dog the team has named Mia, has wooed the rescuers with her tendency to lean in for pats and stand on her hind legs to wrap her “arms” around anyone game for a hug. These dogs don’t appear to have been here long—their fur is still fairly clean and they’re not fearful, happily greeting the rescuers who open their cages. They may have been pets at some point; it’s not uncommon for pet dogs who’ve gotten lost or been abandoned to end up on meat farms. But it’s still startling to see these dogs, who look like the pooches often pictured romping on the cover of L.L. Bean catalogs, in these rusted cages, bound for someone’s plate.
That fate once seemed inevitable. But it is changing today.
Over the next few weeks, all of these dogs—there are some 170 of them on this farm—will leave this place, never to return. They’ll get loaded onto planes, and after a long ride they will emerge on the other side of the world, stepping into the light and the care of shelter and fostering partners in the U.S., Canada and the UK. From there, they’ll get the love and care they deserve.
Nara Kim of HSI, who used to work for an anti-puppy mill organization in Korea, says this kind of capacity was why she wanted to work for HSI. There are some good animal welfare organizations in Korea, she says, “but none of them have the capacity to close down even one dog meat farm and help all these dogs.”
This is the 10th dog farm in South Korea that HSI has helped shutter, working with dog farmers who have decided to get out of what’s increasingly seen as a business without a future. The organization helps fund the farmers’ transition to a new career—be it vegetable farming or something else—and saves the dogs who are left on the farms. So far, more than 1,200 dogs have found freedom after these meat-farm closures.
Over time, HSI hopes to change the future for millions more.
Best friends on the table
The eating of dogs is not ubiquitous in Asia—Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and the Philippines have all banned the slaughter of dogs for consumption—but in some countries, it remains dishearteningly common. People in Vietnam, Indonesia and China also continue to consume dog meat. What South Korea has that some of those other countries don’t, says HSI president Kitty Block, is an animal welfare law—one that provides animal welfare organizations grounds to go after the dog meat farmers on the basis of animal cruelty.
The animal welfare issues common to intensive confinement animal farming are present in dog-farming—the animals are kept in crowded, filthy environments and groups of dogs are often crammed into spaces far too small to hold them. Most caging offers little protection from the elements. Slaughter methods are brutal and repellant; the dogs are typically electrocuted, and some butchers deliberately inflict more intense suffering on the animals because of a common belief that the adrenaline rush caused by fear and pain makes the dog’s flesh taste better.
It’s a chilling reality, but there are reasons for hope: In South Korea, the attitude toward dogs and the dog meat trade has shifted hugely, even in the past few years. Pressure from international activists and from within Korean society has driven the change.
“I honestly haven’t seen another issue turn around this fast,” says Kelly O’Meara, senior director for companion animals and engagement for HSI.
The shift correlates with increasing advocacy around the issue, but also with modernization in South Korea and a growing culture of pet-keeping in the country. Even now, though, at a time when you can see women toting tiny dogs in designer purses and spot fancy dog grooming salons in Seoul, there remains a peculiar rift: A substantial number of Koreans believe that “pet” dogs and “meat” dogs are entirely different beings, and continue to regard the latter as soulless food sources whose suffering is no cause for concern.
Dogs on the wing
In the cargo area of Incheon International Airport outside of Seoul, the team assembles the dogs’ crates for their long plane ride and then waits hours to ensure today’s group gets safely on board their flight. There are often hiccups onsite—slowdowns at the airport seem to happen too frequently—and Parascandola and Block have to start making phone calls to get the wheels turning.
At some point in their conversations with airline reps on the other end of the line, something seems to shift, and cargo personnel start running around quickly, heading out to the loading area where the dogs are all crated, checking the papers attached to their crates, summoning the forklift loaders.
After days of work in the cold and filth of the dog farm, the moment shines. The team breaks into spontaneous applause as the machines carry the dogs to the plane. Mia, who’s staying one more night in foster care before she, too, flies away to a new life, romps around on her leash, offering fluffy golden retriever-style hugs to one person after another.
As the dogs disappear into the hangar, a representative from the export company who’s been helping with HSI’s transports here confesses that while he’s happy to see the dogs go, the sight makes him feel embarrassed to be Korean. “I hate that people will see these dogs and know they had to be rescued from our country,” he says.
It’s easy to empathize. The dogs will have better lives in the places where they’re going, will find loving homes and be cherished as companions.
But it’s worth stepping back and remembering: They’re headed to countries and societies where the majority of people still behave as though “pet” animals and “meat” animals are somehow different, the latter being soulless food sources whose suffering is no real source of concern.
Every culture has room to evolve. All animals deserve our kindness and protection. In Korea, in America, and around the world, this team fights for better lives for all of them.