Hanoi, Vietnam – Tha Rae, a small town whose name means “butcher village”, is located in the northeast Thai province of Sakhon Nakhon and it’s a hub for the region’s multi-million dollar illegal dog trafficking industry.
About 150km of Laos separates the province from central Vietnam, from where the animals make their way up to Hanoi to fetch as much as $ 10 per kilogram of dog meat – two to three times as much as pork.
Dog meat is illegal in Thailand. It is not illegal in Vietnam, but the importation of dogs for consumption from abroad is. Defying the law, at least 10,000 – and by some estimates as many as 30,000 – dogs are smuggled from Thailand through Laos to Vietnam each month to feed a popular industry, an activist with Soi Dog Foundation, a non-profit based in Thailand, who didn’t want his name published.
The activist runs a network of undercover agents across Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam who try to intercept dog smugglers in a game of cross-border cat-and-mouse. In the past week he and his men have stopped two pickup trucks from crossing the border through a new route in Bueng Kan province. One had 117 mutts.
“The other had 163 in the back of one pickup, which takes some believing,” says Soi Dog Foundation founder John Dalley. “But we’ve got the pictures.”
A Soi Dog Foundation activist says the traffickers make $ 10-$ 30 per dog in Thailand, an amount that rises above $ 250 in Vietnam – good money in one of the poorest parts of the region, especially considering they get most of the animals for free by corralling strays from the streets.
Mongrels are packed into wire cages and stacked on top of each other in the back of pickup trucks – 10-15 per cage, 70-100 per truck, crammed as tightly as possible with limbs sticking out for a 2-3 day journey with no food or water. Several die from dehydration or suffocation in the course of the trip, activists say.
As witnessed by blogger Austin Bush, before a recent crackdown in Thailand up to 1,000 dogs would be shoveled into a large truck, flooding the road with the dank stench of “fur and excrement coupled with the endless sound of howling and fighting”.
From the moment they’re seized until they’re killed, the way the animals are treated is brutal.
“They’ll be force-fed with pipes shoved down their throats, since they are sold by bodyweight,” says Dalley. “Dogs will be burnt with blowtorches to get rid of their hair.
“There is a belief that causing pain increases adrenaline which tenderises the meat. So you have dogs that have their legs broken right before they’re killed, dogs that are boiled alive, dogs are killed in front of other dogs.”
In Hanoi’s Cau Giay district, Dan Thi Ngan cuts slivers of meat with a large butcher’s knife. Even without understanding the sign labeled “Thit cho” above her shop, it is easy to ascertain what dish she sells. The storefront displays the grilled torsos of several medium-sized dogs.
Ngan and her family have been running this stall for 10 years, and they share the road with four other dog-meat vendors. At the restaurant next door, a group of mostly men are having a late Saturday lunch: a plate of dog and a round of beers.
“We eat dog meat at the end of the month, or when we have bad luck, and because it’s tasty,” said one of the diners.
While there are towns in north and northeast Thailand that are fond of dog meat, it is demand from north Vietnam that drives much of the illicit trafficking.
“There’s not enough supply to match demand in Vietnam, especially in the north,” says Tuan Bendixsen of the Animals Asia Foundation in Hanoi.
Over the past couple of years, however, even northeast Thailand’s strays have not been enough, leading smugglers to increasingly look towards a new source – people’s pets.
“It’s very common to have dogs stolen in Hanoi, even if you let the dog go out on its own for just a few minutes,” says Tuan. He describes the experience of his in-laws who live nearby. “One day they opened the front door, the dog went out and in 10 seconds it was gone.”
Tho, a lifetime Hanoi resident, lost her dog last September and suspects it was kidnapped for the dog-meat trade. “We were having our gate repaired at the time, and so he wandered outside. He liked to play with other dogs.” Her family never saw their pet again.
Tuan says there have been situations where community members have formed groups to stop pet thieves when they hear that one is in the neighbourhood. “Thieves sometimes get beaten up or killed by the owners,” he says.
The kidnapping phenomenon has spread to Thailand, with Dalley reporting that pets are now being stolen from the country’s south.
Change of strategy
“They are smuggling pets because strays are becoming scarce, especially in Nakhon Phanom and Sakon Nakhon,” says Phumphat Phacharasap, a former member of parliament and one of the few politicians to take on the powerful industry.
“I’ve had my life threatened,” he says. “There’s definitely a lot of corruption involved. It is very influential as a lot of the smuggling happens in areas where people are poor. Authorities are often paid to keep quiet. Even the police are paid off.”
Local authorities also mostly don’t care; from their perspective, the strays are a nuisance anyway. And in Vietnam, consumption of dog meat is a part of the culture, and many feel it is hypocritical to accept the slaughter of chickens and cows for food, but draw the line at mutts.
“Culturally, politically, there is no answer for stopping dog meat now,” says Tuan. “In the 1940s and ’50s, during times of famine, people ate dogs to survive. People believe that dogs are rich in protein, and people like the taste.”
Tuan says national governments aren’t eager to take responsibility for the issue. An alliance of animal welfare organisations in the region is trying a different tack – getting the Thai, Laos, and Vietnamese governments to crack down on the trade for the dangers it poses to human health.
They are pushing the countries to meet and develop a plan of action to address dog trafficking.
According to Lola Webber of the Singapore-based Change for Animals Foundation, dog meat consumers are at high risk of contracting rabies and cholera, as well as trichinosis. From a sample of 76 dog brains collected from slaughterhouses in south and highland provinces of Vietnam, Webber says 16.4 percent were infected with rabies.
“Realistically we have to look at this,” says Tuan. “We’d love to change people’s minds about how to treat dogs, but in the near future we need to work on the health issue.”
Dalley agrees. “We’ve got pictures that no newspapers would publish because they are so grotesque,” he says. “But the cruelty is not going to convince any government to do anything.”