Wednesday, July 2, 2014

What's so Wrong with Eating Dog?

Image by Gael Chardon 

With less than 2 months until I leave, I thought I'd give my perspective on the old chestnut of eating dog in Korea.  I have partly dealt with it before on a few occasions, but it is summer again (the best time of year to eat dog, apparently, it will improve stamina in the hot summer months) and stories about it keep coming up, with the same old nonsense being said about it.  In this piece I will confront the main argument from the cultural relativists and many Koreans themselves:

"Westerners are hypocrites, they eat sheep, pigs, chickens, deer, cows, ducks, and more, but draw the line at dog.  Korea, China, and Vietnam just view things differently, they simply have a different culture.  Who is anyone to say eating dog is wrong?  It's the same as eating any other animal."

I partly agree with this sentiment - shared by many Western people and Koreans alike - there is a big chunk of hypocrisy going on (even wrote a blog about vegetarianism based on it), yet at the same time, I have my issues with what they are ignoring.

There is a special relationship between dogs and humans, it goes back thousands of years.  I am a huge fan of dogs; they are so loyal and so genuine, they can teach people a lot about life.  It is sad to see many dogs still getting so excited to see their owners, even when they are treated badly by them, but that is the spirit of the dog, the eternal optimist.

The adoration of the dog in the West at least gives people a place to begin with compassion towards animals.  Of course, there will be many Koreans, Chinese, etc, who think the same way about dogs and care for animals, but as a pattern in society, frankly, the treatment of dogs is clearly different.

Once you have a place to start, comparisons can be drawn between other animals, which can raise consciousness.  Most people completely ignore these comparisons, granted, but by having sympathy for the dog, a crack appears and a way into people's hearts and minds is possible with regards all other animals.

The problem with the attitude towards dogs in Korea, that I see, is a general heartlessness to all animals is largely present.  It's not like some other animal gets most of their love - in the US is dogs, but in Korea its deer, for example - all animals are well and truly outside the sphere of what the average person should be compassionate or concerned about in a large section of Korean society (especially the older generation).

Remember also that it is not just the eating of dogs, but the treatment of them and the slaughter of them.  Unfortunately, as the dogmeat trade is technically illegal and unregulated in Korea (an example of one of many laws never enforced), the standards of care are appalling.  Some Koreans (mainly older Koreans), believe beating the dogs or strangling them to death slowly causes a surge of adrenalin that makes the meat taste better, and they are often kept in terrible conditions.  In fact, in China also, dog meat always seems to go hand-in-hand with horrifically cruel living conditions for the dogs, abhorrent methods of slaughter, unhygienic practices, and unethical means of procuring the dogs (e.g. stolen from pet owners).

We know it is possible to ignore animal suffering, we all do it to some extent, but when you have the ability to be so indifferent to the suffering of an animal that worships the ground you walk on, and can be the most trusting and loyal friend you've ever had, I think that points to something more than a little troubling.  Many people are hypocrites when it comes to dogs and the treatment and eating of other animals, but at least they have some ability to feel the pain of non-human animals.  I worry that those that treat dogs poorly and eat them may be almost completely numb when it comes to animals, which also begs the question about what goes on in their minds with regards to some fellow human beings.

In another blog, I mused on the reasons for Koreans eating dog and speculated that there may very well be justifiable reasons for it in the past, and perhaps we can understand why they still do so.  I focused mainly on history and poverty in that piece. Whatever the reasons though, you have to weigh the current attitudes and whether they are right, wrong, damaging, or not.

There is a concern I have about cultural morality in this part of the world, and I think the way Koreans treat dogs highlights this quite nicely.  Duty is very important here, and what troubles me is how rigidly defined these duties can be.  Things workout fine most of the time, and perhaps more kind deeds are done and more thought given to others as a result (to those who you have a duty to be kind and thoughtful to), maybe even a more orderly society as well.  However, when someone or something sits outside the traditionally defined duties (think strangers, people from other countries, and animals), it can be a recipe for a lack of moral consideration and I think this is what happens in dogs.

When I see a dog chained-up outside all their lives, or even worse hit and abused, I think about how I would feel if I were in its place, I put myself in its shoes - so to speak - and I think this method of being empathetic is shared by most people.  I don't believe this is how the mind of many Koreans works.  Fine, you can say this is just a theory, how on earth do I know what goes on inside their heads?  But I can draw conclusions from the behaviour I witness, and this is what I see.  I believe the traditional moral duties outlined by Korean, and possibly Chinese culture, actually get in the way of the natural empathetic urges towards the suffering of other beings that people everywhere have.

Korean culture has this set of duties for different people in different situations, even the dog has a duty.  In Korea, any dog too large for an apartment has a duty to sit and guard the house outside, that's just its place, to argue otherwise is futile.  The owners job is to feed it and give it water and pretty much nothing more.  The thought of, "Its freezing outside, the poor dog must be cold.  If it were me, I'd appreciate being inside or least having another blanket", is a thought process I think simply doesn't occur in many Korean people.  For this reason, even some of the most basic and easy to solve discomforts are left unattended to.  Time and time again I see this as I travel around Korea and have even witnessed it in my own Korean family with their treatment of dogs.  It is really quite shocking.  I find myself often muttering under my breath, "Well, the least you could do is x, y, and z, it would require almost no effort or expense at all and would make the dog's life quite a bit better."

This is not to say that cruelty does not exist in the West towards dogs, but the poor treatment I see in the West is done mainly by people who are poor and disadvantaged and are just overwhelmed by the responsibility of having a dog, or they are genuinely nasty, evil people.  What I see in Korea is that you have the poor and the occasional nasty person, as usual everywhere, but also genuinely normal, good, nice, caring people, with the means to care for dogs better, doing horrible things to dogs or just completely neglecting them, that's the difference.  These are also not isolated cases, the neglect and mistreatment of dogs is widespread among perfectly decent people in most other respects.

There have been a few articles in the Western press about the practice of eating dog meat and the relationship between Koreans and Chinese and their dogs. According to Japan Crush, even Japanese netizens sided with the dog meat eating tradition in China.

This article in the New York Times after the Sewol tragedy, actually annoyed me slightly.  I know news articles can't cover everything, but it made it sound like Koreans really adored their Jindo dogs, but in my experience, they are usually chained-up all day and forgotten about, sometimes even sold for dog meat (my uncle in-law did this with his) even though they are designated a "National treasure".  The reverence for the Jindo dog is mainly in words only, it seems.

Read about my own personal experience with this little Jindo dog in Korea.

Change is afoot though, and the number of people in China and Korea objecting to the treatment and eating of dogs is increasing.  Protests in Yulin, China surrounding the traditional summer solstice festival of eating dog have hit the news, and South Korean animal rights activists have staged protests in Seoul.  I find this encouraging, as I do the lack of support eating dog meat seems to have with the younger generation.

There really is something unsettling about eating dogs and I think the intuitive disgust of it by many is a justifiable thing.  I say this while at the same time agreeing with what other people say about the hypocrisy of eating other animals and how we treat them (I really do think factory farming is one of the most disgusting things imaginable), but I hope you can now see why I think that it is so especially horrible to eat dogs.  Because after all, if you can't muster any compassion for dogs, what hope do other animals have?

For more information on the current situation and the law regarding dog meat see the link below: