How NOT to End the Dog Meat Trade

As the director of a non-speciesist, vegan, animal rights organization in Vietnam for the past six years, it is important that I speak out on the anti-dog meat trade movement in Vietnam and the proposed solutions to ending it as they have been discussed by organizations, both local and international, who have made this a priority.

First of all, eating dogs is bad.  We can all agree on this matter, I’m sure. There is no doubt, it’s a bad thing, so don’t expect me to debate that.  Stealing dogs for dog meat, selling dogs for dog meat, transporting dogs for dog meat, and all these processes prior to slaughter and during slaughter are objectively bad.  These points cannot be argued so I’m not even going to try.

Flaws in the prevailing methodology

What can be done by nonprofit organizations, rescues, government agencies, and the people of Vietnam to end the dog meat trade that has the whole world fuming?  Currently, the first item on the agenda amongst other organizations in Vietnam is taking a dog meat truck off the highway on route to somewhere up north for slaughter and consumption.  Sounds great, right? Anywhere from 200 to 1000 dogs can be saved from certain death in this case and we all know one dog not dying is good, so hundred not dying must be great. Again, not much of a question there, but let’s put this into the context of the bigger picture something which has been completely avoided by not only those who support the end of the dog meat trade, but the large organizations who stand to profit the most from the projects.

Legally taking the dogs off the highway is not impossible. This can be done if the truck does not have rabies certificates for all the dogs since dogs cannot be transported across provincial lines without proof of rabies vaccinations by law.  Obviously, this is poorly applied as millions of dogs are being transported every year.  Since Vietnam does not have animal protection laws, this is the only legal right any government agency has to stop the trucks, though they do not because they have nowhere to put them if they do stop them.  Confiscated goods, live or not, must be destroyed. The government does not have the facilities or staff to handle any kind of dog meat truck confiscation, so these trucks just keep passing on the highway.  There might be other reasons for this law being avoided, but the fact remains that confiscation requires appropriate facilities to house the dogs which do not as of yet exist in Vietnam. In addition, the requirement for a rabies certificate is merely a method of reducing the incidence of rabies as a threat to humans, not as a protection for animals.  Similarly, laws requiring helmets for drivers and passengers of motorbikes are there to protect public health, but they are so rarely enforced that it is a waste of paper to have even written the legislation. This can be said for many regulations in countries lacking basic rule of law such as Vietnam.

Five million dogs are killed for dog meat very year in Vietnam according to recent estimates from the Asian Canine Protection Alliance, a group of five large animal welfare organizations operating in Southeast Asia, none of which are actually founded or operated by Vietnamese though some do employ some local staff.  By that estimate of five million dogs, one truck would take approximately 0.01% of the dogs killed for meat every year. That is a pretty uncomfortable statistic.  The numbers aren’t great if we are looking at program impact and a simple cost-benefit ratio.  Now let’s measure it against the costs, legal implications, and long-term efficacy for ending the dog meat trade.

Resource Requirements: vets, facilities, and staff

The most vital aspect of costing any program like this against its effectiveness is to consider what resources will be necessary to care for these dogs.  Firstly, you need a place to put them.  Between 200 and 1000 dogs need a lot of space, and in Vietnam this must be extremely secure to prevent theft and it must also be far enough away from people to prevent neighbors getting angry and poisoning the dogs or otherwise causing harm as they will be extremely disruptive and likely quite smelly. House these dogs all in one giant space, and you’ll see that not only will they be loud, but there will be fights, and since none of these animals are sterilized or vaccinated, they’ll be making sweet puppy love and getting each other sick as well unless a large, professional team of shelter managers and vets are the first on the scene, not just the police who haven’t the slightest idea what to do with a single dog, much less hundreds of terrified animals in need of professional veterinary attention.

These dogs will need onsite security and care 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by competent professionals who can handle the needs of these animals and their behavioral issues. The vast majority will never have had a leash or collar on, some likely to not have had any positive contact with humans, so basic handling will be a challenge. They will require staff who can handle them in this situation.  Expect these staff not to be local because no one in Vietnam has the experience to handle 500 dogs, whether they are a vet or a rescue owner.

Most local rescue organizations neither vaccinate nor sterilize their rescues and they are kept in wire cages with little or no bedding, water, litter boxes, or decent vet care. It’s not that they do not love them, but they are not at all competent at facility management and animal behavior and vet care. Local volunteer-operated animal shelters simply don’t have the training or experience to handle this sort of rescue.  It’s not easy to do well in ANY country, regardless of the available resources. 

The facility and the quality of the design will make a big difference, so this will all need to be arranged long before the dogs come off the truck, not last minute when the stress is high and animals are dying in cages.  Expect this to be paid for by one of the large welfare organizations with millions of dollars in the coffers, not the Vietnamese government and definitely not the resource poor local rescues.  The local organizations have not been able to establish strict capacity limits at their own small facilities, nor have they established intake protocols after many years of operation, so this sort of huge operation is not going to go well if under their guidance. No matter how caring the local rescues are, they are all run by young and inexperienced volunteers who are not trained or equipped to shelter. 

Next to intake and facility set up is the basics of veterinary care which are absent in most of the country.  The average veterinarian gets out of 4 or 5 years of vet university with almost no hands-on experience with any kind of animal, much less 500 terrified, sick, and dangerous dogs with unknown infectious diseases.  Expect all the attending vets to be internationals because no one in Vietnam who is remotely qualified to handle the medical diagnostics in addition to the behavior of highly stressed animals has the time to get off work from their professional clinic in Hanoi or Saigon for rescue work.  Vets rarely know basic vaccine protocol or even how to inject medicines properly.  They do not have any experience diagnosing and treating infectious diseases, sterilizing animals, restraining animals, treating wounds, sedation protocols or basic pain relief.  A shelter managed by a team of Vietnamese veterinarians would be nothing short of a welfare disaster that would end in the suffering and deaths of hundreds of dogs. Again, this is not for lack of care, but the complete lack of adequate education and hands on training with animals. This has to be improved before we can expect Vietnamese vets to be able to take on a project of this magnitude.

The Numbers Game

Now let’s play with some prices.  At the cost price of $10 total for the 3 vaccines, for 500 dogs that costs $5000.  Add costs for sterilizing all the dogs at an average cost of $50 per animal (if the international organizations bring their own vets, portable gas anesthesia, and imported supplies) and that will add another $25,000. Just with sterilizing and vaccinating 500 dogs, without the cost of the facility, we have already hit $30,000.   This doesn’t include feeding them, treating any diseases or injuries they will have, or paying any local staff to manage the administration of this project and legal issues.  Let’s say they each eat food costing around $20 a month, so $10,000 a month for one year is $120,000 a year.  Just throwing some basic numbers out, not including operating costs and travel and accommodation expenses of the international and local staff (if any), then we are looking at $150,000 for one year to feed, sterilize and vaccinate 500 dogs not including any housing, staff, or operational fees such as vet supplies or administration.  Remember that we are speaking of saving 0.01% of the dogs killed for meat every single year in Vietnam with this one truck coming off the highway.  If we are looking for the most bang for our buck, and if you truly are a dog lover who wants to get the biggest impact towards the end of the dog meat trade, then you need to be looking hard at the numbers and putting them up against the bigger picture. 

Home, Sweet Home?

But these dogs don’t all just get homes nearby and go on with life, do they?  Where will these dogs go in the long term?  Who will adopt them?  As someone who has had a shelter for 6 years in Vietnam, unless all of these dogs are fully adoptable to overseas homes for an exorbitant price, expect them not to get placed in the loving homes you think are all waiting for them in Vietnam unless you allow people with no ability to house them securely to adopt. Since keeping a dog from going right back into the dog meat trade is obviously ideal, you would want to make sure each new owner was able to keep the dog safe inside a fenced garden which the majority of Vietnamese will not do.  Most will live out their lives at the facility, and with an average life expectancy of around 10 in Vietnam in safe conditions with basic vet care which is all they can get, those funds need to keep rolling in year after year and adding more dogs would not solve this problem. 

Then take the individual welfare of the animals into account.  I know we have all seen viral videos on Facebook about dogs living in huge packs roaming the fields of Bosnia or Costa Rica or wherever and everyone seems like they are happy as clams.  This is just not reality.  Massive packs on the property size we can get in Vietnam are stressful experiences.  Not every dog wants to be part of a big pack and building a great facility in which all these animals are safe, protected, and happy in space to get away from one another or stay close is a multi-million dollar project anywhere in the world.  It takes a lot of competent staff which include professional fundraisers, a media team, accountants, lawyers, and countless individuals responsible for the daily care and administration of the facility and its residents. One truck requires a lot more resources than most people will ever talk about.

Large international organizations involved will push for international adoptions to the US.  HSI, Soi Dog, Hope and Wellness Foundation and many others have done this many times over as they take animals from dog meat and fly them to LA or other places around the world to countries in which there are still so many dogs sitting in shelters waiting for their new homes they are unlikely to find.  While 2.7 million dogs and cats are killed every year in American shelters, these organizations are adding more dogs from the dog meat trade to the country and these other rescued animals are losing the chance for a permanent home.  Fetishizing dog meat dogs is a huge trend now in the West and rescued dogs from home are losing out to dog meat dogs from abroad for adoption.  With 20 million dogs killed internationally for food every year outside of the US, if ending the dog meat trade by this method is the solution anti-dog meat campaigners support, I’d ask them to go back to the calculator and recheck those numbers. 

The animals not taken by the large organizations are often bought by small rescues or individuals. They are taking their cues from these big organizations with resources to buy large numbers of animals off traders. This process of buying animals may save one life, but that life is very easily replaced. I have done it myself early on in a very bad day at the shelter in which a dog catcher drove by when I had too much coffee and an end to my patience with seeing baskets of dogs being driven through my own neighborhood weekly. It is not at all something I would do again or recommend. The dog is now safe and loved and lives a magical life in Germany, and for that I am grateful, but she was replaced that same day by more dogs not so lucky. They all died and more consumers will be there waiting for just another dog like her. It solves nothing when demand is ignored.

Impact

Now let’s look at the social and economic implications of taking this dog meat truck off the highway.  How will it affect the total number of animals killed per year in the dog meat trade?  What are the implications for traders and consumers?  Nothing.  Nada. Zilch.  If even only half of the dogs killed in Vietnam were on trucks on the highway to be stopped and we could put them in some magical island where they would be safe, that would still leave 2.5 million dogs on the table. If we look at dog meat or cat meat as any other animal product such as pig meat, chicken meat, or even milk and eggs, we realize that a truck full of chickens taken to a sanctuary will not affect the consumer’s perception of chicken meat or eggs or disrupt the supply of chickens in the market.  In addition, making chickens illegal to transport, sell, or buy will not stop consumers from replacing that item with another type of meat with comparable price and taste. The meat of a dog, cat, chicken, cow, pig, or duck can all be replaced with another type of meat as the choices and availability remain high all over Vietnam, both in markets as well as backyards.

Add to this equation that the only organizations capable of handling such a rescue of a dog meat truck will be international. If Korean pig rescuers bought a truck full of pigs in the US, would American consumers or producers ever consider ending the market for pig corpses? Have we even touched demand by this method? If we are to put the government animal health department of Vietnam in control of these seizures, we will have overcrowded and uncontrolled hoarding facilities which will be managed by employees who have never had any practical experience or training in animal facility management.  If we leave the management of these facilities to the local rescues who still have not managed to work out that quarantine, vaccination, sterilization and enrichment are part of basic welfare standards, much less freely offered water, sanitary conditions, or food which consists of more than rice and eggs in their own overcrowded shelters, the facilities will also be a disaster. So the animals will suffer under Vietnamese control and the rescue will be nothing more than a media stunt for the international organizations involved.  This is not sound policy for ending the consumption of a food product of any kind, regardless of legality or the perceived moral imperative to save dogs from the dog meat trade.

Alternatives

Now we should consider the price and efficacy of a non-speciesist animal rights education program that encourages consumers to choose vegan products rather than support the violation of animal rights, destroy the environment, cause habitat destruction and species extinction, put public health at risk, and cause long term food insecurity.  We will have to put our bleeding hearts away for this. Our human egos will need to take a break, and you might need to put your pet dog in another room because the answer is that neither you nor your dog have any moral superiority over the 2 trillion land and sea animals killed every year for human greed.  What I’m going to say will conflict with your feeling that the suffering of dogs in the dog meat trade trumps the suffering of all other species killed for human consumption. The answer lies in the very simple fact that the vast majority of humans participate daily in animal cruelty through their consumption choices all over the world, regardless of race or nationality. 

Let’s consider the consumer here for once.  This is almost never part of the conversation because dog meat organizations media staff are so busy pulling on your heart strings with pictures of puppies in cages rescued last minute by a pretty white girl that we miss the fact that there is a buyer for these animals and, like any other market, we must understand who this consumer is and address their reasons for consuming dog or any other animal if we want the market to end.  For one thing, this subject has no academic or market research whatsoever in Vietnam.  There has been one study by Animals Asia published in 2015 that discusses the consumers in China, but no studies have been made in Vietnam yet. There is not a single source that we can point to that tells us who these people actually are.  All information about consumers, transporters, suppliers and thieves is purely journalistic and anecdotal.  No surveys, no quantitative or even legitimate qualitative research has been conducted.  We currently have conferences managed by international organizations in Vietnam and elsewhere which are specifically working towards ending a market for which they have no statistical information on the market itself.  We are attacking a market for which there is no real data, just viral videos of tortured animals which have created a media storm and done absolutely nothing in terms of solutions.

Let’s put this in the context of human rights causes.  The subject of sex trafficking has been the focus of well-funded and extremely comprehensive research by government agencies, international organizations, and academic institutions done by professional researchers in the field of gender studies, sociology, criminal law, economics, and the health professions.  We have a solid base of literature from which to understand the market from supply to transport/smuggling and demand by individual consumers. Research is well-funded and solutions are varied depending on the region.  This is how you approach a problem in which you need to change consumer habits.  Consider also cigarettes, narcotics, and even soda pop.  We’ve identified none of the most simple aspects of the dog meat trade in any way that can help address disruption of this market.  Instead, we have bleeding hearts raising millions to slap Bandaids on bone cancer at the expense of long-term strategies for ending animal exploitation in general.  

Speciesism

The main proponent of the dog meat trade conferences in Vietnam, the ACPA, very boldly begins its website front page with probably one of the most speciesist statements possible: “Dog’s are man’s best friend and they are being cruelly killed for food”.  At some point, we need to acknowledge that being friends with any sentient being, human or non-human, should never be a prerequisite for determining its moral value and need for protection from harm.  Whoever said dogs are man’s best friend has never snuggled a pig in their bed, clearly, but I digress. This claim does nothing but put man’s desire for a loyal companion at the center of the moral universe in spite of 8.7 million other species we share the planet with that are pretty attached to their lives and would enjoy a life free from pain and suffering, too, regardless of their perceived value to humans of which they could really give a damn about anyway.  Is life only valuable if it enjoys the company of a human? 

So why do we not address the problem with dog meat in the context of animal use in general?

$$$$$$$$$$$$$$.  That’s why.  The convergence of accepting that dog meat needs to be banned and the fact that all animal industries are not in any way different is a confronting concept and one that makes people run and hide with their wallets safely tucked away.

Speciesism is the moral baseline now, a fact that is unfortunately driven home by welfarist and single-issue campaigns, and as long as you don’t make people aware of their own connection to animal cruelty in a non-vegan lifestyle and have your finger pointed far across the world at entire countries they know nothing about, then the funds will roll in.  These low-impact rescues will be possible at the expense of real solutions for the two trillion animals who would be pretty damn pleased if we would just push for the rights of all species rather than single out a couple of cute species to protect and hold above all others in moral regard.  

The “V” Word

As long as the organizations with large budgets and massive audiences continue to shun the vegan message, it will remain sidelined as an extremist view, one that seeks to disrupt the lives and economies of those “salt of the earth” farmers, threatening the very fabric of society.  Sadly, that’s all horseshit.  Yes, we intend to shift markets, provide alternatives to animal use, and create an environmentally sound restructuring of food systems.  Farms can adjust, though I recognize that is a broad statement that requires a great deal of explanation based on individual countries’ geography and climate.  Those who raise animals and own land are not people we want shoved out of jobs and out of the food production system.  Governments and private investment need to step up to the plate and work on this process of shifting the agricultural economy.  It’s not impossible but it takes the will and funds to push forward, things we will never have if we continue to keep quiet about the detriment to animals, the environment and human health if we keep on this path of boosting animal agriculture.

Most well-known animal organizations will not utter the word “vegan” for fear of getting their lights cut off within the month when donors take off.  But these same organizations will be sure to preach the horrors of the dog meat trade while telling their donors it’s all fine and dandy to pay companies to put 6 billion male chicks in grinders as standard practice in the egg industry so that they can avoid being confronted about their own daily participation in animal cruelty. Just a word to the wise: if you talk about ending the dog meat trade but cannot put down the bacon cheeseburger, you have no moral ground to stand on and your message is completely irrelevant. 

Supply and demand

Have the anti-dog meat campaigners said anything about how they plan on ending the demand for dog meat?  Nope.  Not a word.  Can a protest in front of the Chinese Embassy or a resolution in Congress end the demand for dog meat?  Nah.  Not a chance. I’d recommend a passport and a few years of actually living in one of these dog meat countries first, connecting with locals, learning the language, culture and local politics.  If I see one more English celebrity make an announcement about how they are fighting dog meat, I could possibly vomit my own intestines.  What about writing a petition and getting millions of pretty white people 7000 miles away to sign it? Since when has that ending consumer demand for ANYTHING? That’s not it either in countries in which citizens lack the rights of protest and in which elections are usually a scam.  Rule by the people doesn’t exist in Vietnam, so signing a petition online that was shared on Facebook is not going to do diddly shit.  Please Google “Rule of Law”, check how that applies to the dog meat countries you are concerned about and get back to me on that. 

Supply is equally ignored though as the only way to avoid having dogs in the dog meat trade is to prevent them by being born at all.  Mass sterilization prevents animals from being born into any miserable situation like life on the streets, exposure to abuse, accidents, and disease.  It also keeps people from having animals they do not want that their can sell into the dog meat trade. But then if you want sterilization, some rather comprehensive changes in the veterinary capacity of local clinics will need to be addressed.  When you have vets in their 50s practicing for 30 years with little to no sedation for surgeries with unsterilized instruments, sterilization is not an option.  On an individual level, it is better to avoid the exposure to vets who cannot perform the operation safely.  And then who is addressing long term veterinary training for local vets and helping clinics to access the appropriate support and material resources for a mass sterilization program?  Not the anti-dog meat campaigners.  The veterinary industry is far from being up to the standard necessary to perform sterilizations across the country that will be safe and effective for managing the population of unwanted animals.  Without vets, you are not going to touch the dog meat trade.  Not even close.

Beating our heads against the wall

It’s unlikely if you made it through this essay that you feel terribly hopeful about ending the dog meat trade. The flaws in the current methodology are glaring and the discussion is not even on the table about how to improve it.  In a decade in rescue off and on, I have learned that the rescue world is horrendous at self-reflection and constructively critiquing and then adjusting its methods. Donors who know nothing about Vietnam or most of Asia are guiding the marketing for the organizations that work there.  They want cute stories, or they want horror stories in which some superhero rescuer saves the day for hundreds of dogs who would otherwise be eaten- neither is realistic or productive.  When the animal rights sector starts professionalizing, we might see some change, but the bleeding hearts and many of the animal eating. “animal lovers” of the world are putting an unnatural amount of focus on a problem that cannot be solved in the way it is currently being addressed.  Veganism is still a dirty word amongst the rescue community, though it would be valuable for us all to note that no vegan eats dogs.  Promote veganism and you might have a message that is clear and you will still have the ability to save trillions of animals rather than just the 20 million you think are cute enough to bother with. Having hope in rescue is something for short term volunteers as watching this shitshow for six years in Vietnam has ruined quite a bit of my faith in humanity, not of Vietnamese nearly as much as Westerners.  I have seen virulent racism on the posts about dog meat and enough baby mama drama to put a Brazilian soap opera to shame.  In the end, I know I do not consume or use any animal at all on any day of the year.  Go vegan and end speciesism in rescue!