The Dilemma of Eating Dog Meat

“How much is that doggie in the window?” That’s the song title and the query of the popular song immortalized by Patty Page in the 1950s, to which 26-year-old Mai Anh’s answer would be: nine million đồng, the equivalent of US$400.

That’s a lot of đồng for a dog, in a country where the average monthly salary is about US$220.

Anh is a teacher living in Hà Nội. She named her pup, a snow-white English bulldog, Bạch Bạch, which means white in Vietnamese.

“I am willing to spend money because I really like this breed of dog. I got my puppy online,” she says. “All white English bull dogs are very rare in Việt Nam. Luxury dogs in Việt Nam go anywhere from a couple million đồng to hundreds of million đồng.”

Anh is part of Việt Nam’s emerging middle class and expensive, imported dogs are their latest accessories. It’s a way for the young and ambitious to express taste and social status. The trend is also helping Việt Nam become more pet-loving and thanks to the rise in the standard of living, the pet industry here is growing, fueled by a demand for premium pet goods and services.

According to Digi-escape, a Sài Gòn-based pet industry publication, the first pet shop was opened here in 2006. A decade later, there are now over 76 pet shops and vet clinics all over the city.

A quick search on Google shows a result of about 20 animal hospitals nearby, mostly privately owned, and all claim to have modern equipment, state-of-the-art facilities high quality level of care for pets.

Digi-escape writes that the market for all things furball is still “small, fragmented and developing but with potential”.

And pet lovers aren’t just heaping their love on fancy foreign pups.

Phú Quốc Ridgebacks, a dog breed from Phú Quốc Island in the southern Kiên Giang province, have gained popularity amongst dog enthusiasts. With only 700 known registered purebreds in the world, the short-haired, slender dog with the distinct ridge on its back is one of the world’s rarest pooches. Prices for these dogs range anywhere from two to 320 million đồng. In 2008, the Việt Nam Kennel Association was formed and that’s started a nationwide campaign to preserve and protect the Phú Quốc dog.

Still, make no mistake about it. It’s difficult to be a dog in Việt Nam: They can go from being someone’s favorite pet to another person's favorite dish as quick as the blink of an eye.

From “The Dog Meat Song”, or “Bài Ca Thịt Chó,” by Nguyễn Hải Phong to a rap song titled “Trộm Chó" or “Stealing Dogs” by Nam Lee, a number of songs expound on the ways dogs can be cooked or caught.

But a recent YouTube hit “Thịt Chó Không Ngon Đâu”, meaning “dog Meat is No Good” by entertainer Huy JOo, is receiving love from pet lovers all around the web for its humane, though somewhat idealistic message. The song is a parody of the popular love song “Giữ Em Đi”. Huy JOo keeps the original catchy melody, while switching up the lyrics to call for a stop on dog meat consumption.

“I always remember my doggie, out playing when it was snatched. And I vow to never touch this delicious dish again, because I love dogs so much,” he sings.

As pet ownership increases, the dilemma of dog meat consumption is arguably clear. The ethics of eating any meat is hotly debated around the world. But it’s the treatment of these animals that is raising alarm bells.

There is a myth that the more pain the animal has to suffer before being killed, the tastier the meat. Some restaurants hang dogs, then bludgeon them to death to maximize the fear factor.

Methods of dog slaughtering can include anything from electrocution, burning, chest stabbing to throat slitting. A horrifying fate one can only imagine coming out of a horror movie is indeed the reality for many dogs in Việt Nam. There is no evidence to show how violently an animal is killed relates to the meat quality outcome, but watching this inhumane practice is heartbreaking.

According to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance, an estimated five million dogs are killed annually for meat in Việt Nam. That figure puts the small Southeastern nation second on the list of Asian countries which eat the most dog meat, after China.

And not just dogs are being eaten in Việt Nam. Cat meat is also considered a treat in many parts of the country. Although it is illegal to consume cats, there are still plenty of restaurants serving cats in the North. A recent story in the South China Morning Post Magazine on the illicit cat trade quotes the owner of a restaurant located in Bắc Ninh province, saying, "Everybody wants to eat cat now - it is more delicious and exotic than other kinds of meat," and "Some people are superstitious and eat it to bring them strength and good fortune.”

Ironically enough, the restaurateur also shares that lawyers, policemen and rich people are the restaurant’s regulars.

The combination of tradition, the belief that eating dog meat brings good luck, and social custom will make it very difficult to wean people off the taste for dog meat.

Despite the many challenges, the animal rights community is growing rapidly in Việt Nam. Activists are becoming more vocal in the fight, not simply against dog or cat meat consumption, but against the larger issue of animal cruelty.

Catherine Besch - one of the co-founders of the Vietnam Animal Welfare Organization (VAWO) in Hội An, in Central Việt Nam, says that one of the biggest problem is education. VAWO is amongst many young animal advocate groups who are actively working to make Việt Nam a friendlier place for animals.

Catherine Besch explains: “You have to have the whole family on board if you want this change to happen in Việt Nam, so that changes everything. [...] If dad still eats dog, how are you going to do that.”

Besch says awareness campaigns should emphasize on Vietnamese values: “One big advantage that Việt Nam has over a lot of places is the concept of shame. So if the majority of the society think that cruelty and neglect is a bad thing, and they see that happening at their neighbor's house, and they are willing to stand up and say “Oi, hey, no!” [then] that in it itself is so much more powerful than most countries that I’ve lived in. This idea that, “Oh well, you make me lose face,” for some reason has been really effective.”

While there is a younger generation of advocates sprouting up to spearhead animal welfare organizations, Besch expressed concerns that animal rights communities still lack education and knowledge to care for mistreated animals and come up with standards and guidelines.

She says there is a need for a collaborative effort between animal rights organizations in order to make animal welfare legislation happen in Việt Nam: “To get a grassroot social activism movement going in a country where people are into it but they don’t know what to do, two steps are needed.” Besch explains:

“Step one: Love animal. Step two: [People say] I don't know what to do now.The idea is to try to figure out how to bind them together and give them step by step results-based tasks so everyone knows what to do next. Get on the same page. If we are separate, we are a whisper. If we are together, we are a roar. We can make a voice so much stronger in that country.”

Besch also wants society and the legal system to take care of animals, she says, so the rescues don’t have to. It’s the dream for decades and decades in the future, but it’s the goal that they constantly work towards, she adds.

Anh, the proud and protective owner of Bạch Bạch, says she won’t let her pup get to the point of having to be rescued.

“If they get my dog, they won’t eat him because he is imported,” Anh says. “They’ll try to re-sell him for money. Only locally bred dogs are hunted for meat. I am afraid of dog snatchers so I alway keep my dog indoors. When I go out, I make sure to put a proper leash on him.”

The new generation of pet lovers who see animals as friends will serve as the driving force against animal cruelty in Việt Nam and push back the demand for dog or cat meat. Việt Nam is still a long way from becoming a safe and friendly country to pets, but changes are happening.