With a head the size of a basketball, broad shoulders and massive paws, Florence might at first seem imposing. But the mastiff mix’s wagging tail and puppy-like wonder in her wrinkle-topped eyes are endearing. When you toss her a stuffed toy, she gives it a good shake and pins it against the ground for soft nibbles. No intent to destroy, just play.

Florence is working toward adoption, but just a few months ago she had a far different fate. This gentle giant was destined for someone’s dinner plate.

Florence is one of 250 dogs rescued from a large South Korean dog meat farm Humane Society International helped close down this year. The rescue is part of an ongoing effort to end the dog meat trade in South Korea, the only known country in Asia that solely farms dogs for human consumption. “There are thousands of farms there, but the government turns a blind eye,” says Kelly O’Meara, HSI director of companion animals and engagement. That means there are no animal welfare standards in place or even an accurate farm count.

Dog being removed from a cage by HSI rescuers at a South Korea dog meat farm.
Rescuers from Humane Society International carefully lift the dogs to safety.
Meredith Lee

The animals are raised for about a year before traders buy and take them to markets. O’Meara estimates that between 2 million and 2.5 million dogs are killed each year. “The majority are large breeds, for obvious reasons”—mastiff mixes, jindo mixes and even golden retrievers.

In 2014, HSI began a multi-pronged effort to help farmers transition from dog farming into more reputable trades, such as growing blueberries and peppers.

Rescued dog being comforted by a volunteer
Meredith Lee

“We’re working with farmers who have some measure of compassion and want to do the right thing," O’Meara says. The rescue team brings the dogs to the U.S. for adoption and demolishes the enclosures so they can never again be used. HSI gives seed money to the farmers, who become advocates for HSI’s work. That’s part of the deal. In 2015, four farms shut down after word-of-mouth spread about HSI’s efforts.

The work not only helps the dogs and farmers, O’Meara says, it also creates societal awareness and pressure by highlighting the truths of the trade. In light of the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea, continued exposure could bring major change.

Florence, a dog meat rescue, sniffs volunteers at a shelter in the US.
Florence sniffs volunteers after she arrived in the United States.
Lynne Ouchida

The HSI rescue team arrived in Wonju for the last of three dog transports in late April. For two weeks, they gently scooped up 15 to 18 dogs a day from barren metal cages, readying them for their flight. “The first thing you notice each day is the smell and sounds of them barking and thrashing around in their cages,” says HSI rescuer Adam Parascandola. Some dogs paced back and forth from boredom. Some cowered in the corner. Others ventured curiously forward to sniff rescuers’ hands.

Medical problems varied: infected eyes, pressure sores from the wire flooring and prolapsed rectums from dehydration. Volunteer Abbie Hubbard remembers one mastiff’s solution to the wire flooring. “She was probably an 80-pound dog and had herself curled up in her metal bowl because of nothing solid to sit on.”

A recently rescued dog from the dog meat trade being comforted by staff.
A recently rescued dog from the dog meat trade gets some love after her flight to the United States.
Craig Ruttle
AP Images for The HSUS

The HSUS set up a temporary shelter in New Jersey for the majority of the Wonju dogs. Dozens of the HSUS Emergency Placement Partners stepped forward as well, such as Humane Society of Central Oregon, which took Florence. “These partners are taking in these traumatized animals and rehabbing them and providing them with medical care and nutritious food,” says Kim Alboum, the HSUS director of the emergency placement program. “It’s a big commitment.” Apollo, another huge mastiff mix, arrived with old wounds on his legs and hips from the wire flooring he once lived on. Thanks to the shelter’s care and donated food from Halo, in partnership with Freekibble and GreaterGood.org, he recovered and has been adopted. He loves sticking his gigantic head between the front seats on car rides.

The Animal Welfare League of Alexandria in Virginia, where Hubbard works as deputy director, has taken dozens of HSI dog meat rescues. These dogs experience a lot of firsts, she says: First feel of solid flooring and grass, first time walking on leash, first time being loved. Each dog’s progress is an unraveling of tension once their basic needs are met. Then come the special moments, like when one mastiff mix named Grace began playfully tugging on a braided toy with Hubbard. “That made my heart sing,” she says.

Hubbard adopted a Sapsaree (think Benji but bigger) from HSI’s first rescue last year. “I see joy every day in Minnow,” she says. She loves to curl up in people’s laps and play with other shelter dogs, especially the ones from South Korea. But running is her favorite. “For her to go from a tiny cage and then see her like that, that’s when I can’t hold back my tears.” 

Advocates still at work in Yulin

Authorities in Yulin, China, withdrew support for a dog meat festival held each June two years ago, but the mass slaughter continues. Activists will again go to the city this summer to protest and rescue dogs. A recent HSI investigation revealed that about 300 dogs are killed each day in Yulin to supply the city's restaurants. During the festival, that number jumps. But HSI consultant Peter Li says that this year, following the closure of slaughterhouses and a big dog meat market, the festival should be diminished. "Every year it becomes smaller," he says. "And it is going to die—maybe in five years, maybe 10 years."

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