I’ve started to write this post many times since I came to Korea, and I’ve never been able to finish it – mainly because I find it difficult to justify my point of view without sounding judgmental, irrational, or condescending. With that disclaimer, let me start by showing you this picture of the restaurant next door to my apartment.
I live in the building on the far left of the picture, behind the tall trees. I walk past this restaurant several times a day, and yet only a few weeks ago did I find out that it serves dog meat. Sure enough, when I looked at the sign, I saw it there, plain* for all to see: 보신탕 (bosintang). Dog stew. That’s Not my idea of a dog feeder. Bad joke.
The sale of dog meat is – contrary to popular belief back home – not legal in Korea. However, not much is done to strictly enforce the law, as is evident from the fact that this large sign has been present on a main road since long before I moved here.
I have never eaten dog, and I never will. But this statement obviously earns me some criticism from those who are aware of my attitude towards travel, and experiencing other cultures to the full. Yes, there are some things I refuse to eat because I know that as soon as they were in my mouth I would retch – beondegi, for example (the silkworm pupae that are a popular street food snack all over Korea), or random bugs on sticks. It’s not limited to unfamiliar Asian delicacies: I’ve had the same reaction to slimy raw oysters in Ireland, or snails in a French restaurant, although I have actually tried both of those. The retching followed as expected!
Dog meat, however, is an entirely different matter. Cooked and served in a restaurant, it looks no less appetising than beef or lamb. Were I to accidentally consume some without knowing what it was, I’m sure I would enjoy it. But my reaction to dog meat is an emotional one rather than a matter of personal taste/preference. Dogs are pets, not food.
Ah, argue those with whom I’ve debated the issue, but the distinction between pets and livestock is subjective. Some people keep pet sheep, chickens, ducks, rabbits… they love them as companions, while others see them as food. How can I declare that dogs are pets and expect that to be globally true? Particularly as the dogs bred for meat in Korea are not the same kind as those kept as pets.
So then I fall back on my final desperate point: the animals are mistreated! They are kept in tiny cages awaiting slaughter, and tortured, often beaten to death! (Traditionally, this is seen as the method of enhancing the “medicinal qualities” believed to be present in the meat.) Official sources report that this no longer happens, and that the dogs are killed quickly and humanely, but I’ve seen enough recent photo and video evidence to convince me that this is not true.
Ah, argue my opponents, but do you know how those other animals are treated before you eat them? Do you eat chickens (or their eggs) that have lived miserable, uncomfortable lives in cages? Do you know the living conditions of the cows whose milk you drink? Have you seen images of slaughterhouses?
Yes. Yes. Yes. And Yes.
So what, then, is my problem? It can’t be that dogs are pets, because I don’t judge other cultures’ beliefs by those of my own culture. It can’t be that the dogs are badly treated, because I apparently turn a blind eye to the mistreatment of other animals whose meat I consume on a regular basis. Heck, I’ve eaten the still-squirming tentacles of an octopus, possibly even chopped off while the creature was still alive, and I certainly lost no sleep over it.
There are apparently three groups of people in Korea, when it comes to the controversial issue of dog meat. The largest is the group who’ve never eaten dog and who believe that more should be done to enforce the law against its sale. I’ve seen them campaigning on the streets of Seoul, with their stalls laden with posters and pictures of horrible, horrible scenes of dog farms and markets. I’ve spoken with the campaigners, and signed their petitions, so I suppose I’m in that group, even if I am unable to provide a solid argument for my presence there. Then there’s the next group – those who have never eaten dog and do not want to try it, but who also strongly believe that others are entitled to do so if they wish. This is the group I feel I should be in, but I know in my heart that I’m not. And finally, there’s a very small percentage of the population who do eat dog, and are vocal about their belief that the consumption of dog meat should not only be legalised, but also popularised both at home and in other cultures, so that it becomes no more unusual than eating any other kind of meat.
If it weren’t for the cruelty issue, I would almost certainly be in the middle group. No, no ‘almost’ – I would be. To me, a dog is somehow closer to human than animal, and I couldn’t eat something that is capable of love, affection, and loyalty towards me – but I have no right to force that belief on to others. It’s the memory of those horrific videos and pictures I’ve seen that puts me into the same category as many, many Korean people, who believe that the law should be enforced.
And so I now walk past that restaurant next door every day and feel a little bit sick as I think about what happened to the poor animals whose bodies are being chopped up and stewed inside it at that moment. And then I go home and eat eggs from unhappy chickens, and drink milk from mistreated cows, and cook the flesh of pigs that probably squealed like frightened children in their dying moments.
Sigh. I am one tortured soul.
[*OK, so it’s not plain in the photo, but it would be plain if you were actually here, walking past! It’s written in fairly large red writing on the left of the sign, above the yellow telephone number.]