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Saturday, September 28, 2013

In Vietnam "Pet Food" Has A Whole Different Meaning Than It Does Here

I haven't been in Vietnam for years but I don't remember any restaurants serving dog meat in Ho Chi Minh City or anywhere else we went. A report this weekend in The Guardian makes it clear that eating dog meat is a very common occurrence there and that "every year, hundreds of thousands of pets are snatched in Thailand, then smuggled into Vietnam, destined for Hanoi's top restaurants and street stalls. Demand for dogmeat is so high that supply has become a highly lucrative-- and brutal-- black market." When I first started traveling in Asia in 1969, the first important survival lesson I learned was, don't eat the meat.
Down the leafy streets of north Hanoi's Cau Giay district, not far from Nguyen's family business, sits one of the city's most famous restaurants, Quan Thit Cho Chieu Hoa, which has only one thing on the menu. There's dog stew, served warm in a soup of blood; barbecued dog with lemongrass and ginger; steamed dog with shrimp-paste sauce; dog entrails sliced thin like sausage; and skewered dog, marinated in chilli and coriander. This is just one of a number of dogmeat restaurants in Cau Giay, but it is arguably the most revered, offering traditional dishes in a quiet setting along a canal.

"I know it seems weird for me to eat here when I have my own dogs at home and would never consider eating them," says Duc Cuong, a 29-year-old doctor, as he wraps a sliver of entrails in a basil leaf and takes a bite. "But I don't mind eating other people's dogs." He swallows and clears his throat. "Dog tastes good and it's good for you."

No one knows exactly when the Vietnamese started eating dog, but its consumption-- primarily in the north-- underlines a long tradition. And it is increasingly popular: activists claim up to 5 million of the animals are now eaten every year. Dog is the go-to dish for drinking parties, family reunions and special occasions. It is said to increase a man's virility, warm the blood on cold winter nights and help provide medicinal cures, and is considered a widely available, protein-rich, healthy alternative to the pork, chicken and beef that the Vietnamese consume every day.

Some diners believe the more an animal suffers before it dies, the tastier its meat, which may explain the brutal way dogs are killed in Vietnam-- usually by being bludgeoned to death with a heavy metal pipe (this can take 10 to 12 blows), having their throats slit, being stabbed in the chest with a large knife, or being burned alive. "I've got footage of dogs being force-fed when they get to Vietnam, a bit like foie gras," says John Dalley, a lanky British retiree who heads the Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation, which works to stop the dogmeat trade in south-east Asia. "They shove a tube into their stomach and pump solid rice and water in them to increase their weight for sale." Nguyen has a simpler method for bumping profits: "When we want to increase the weight, we just put a stone in the dog's mouth." He shrugs, before opening up his cage for another kill.

The government estimates that there are 10 million dogs in Vietnam, where dogmeat is more expensive than pork and can be sold for up to £30 a dish in high-end restaurants. Ever-increasing demand has forced suppliers to look beyond the villages where dogs have traditionally been farmed and out to towns and cities all over Vietnam. Dog-snatching-- of strays and pets-- is so common now that thieves are increasingly beaten, sometimes to death, by enraged citizens. Demand has also spread beyond the country, sparking a multimillion-pound trade that sees 300,000 dogs packed every year into tight metal cages in Thailand, floated across the Mekong to Laos, then shuttled for hundreds of miles through porous jungle borders, without food or water, before being killed in Vietnamese slaughterhouses.

This is a black-market industry, managed by an international mafia and facilitated by corrupt officials, so it is little wonder activists have struggled to curb it. "At first it was just a handful of small traders wanting to make a small profit," says Roger Lohanan of the Bangkok-based Thai Animal Guardians Association, which has been investigating the dogmeat trade since 1995. "But now this business has become a fundamental export. The trade is tax-free and the profit 300-500%, so everybody wants a piece of the cake."

...In Hanoi, dog restaurants generally huddle together, with signs bearing a dog's head, or a roasted dog's torso hanging from a large metal hook. Along Tam Trinh, a stretch of road south of the city, dozens of roadside stalls sell roasted dog to customers arriving by motorbike and on foot, with lines sometimes 10 deep. Teenagers in basketball shorts chop up the dogmeat with heavy butchers' knives, sprinkling on a potent seasoning of curry powder, chilli, coriander, dill and shrimp paste, before skewering the meat to be barbecued. In the shop run by Hoa Mo-- a 63-year-old woman who has spent her entire life selling dogmeat-- a man is handed a plastic bag containing 12 dog paws. "My wife just gave birth but she's having trouble lactating," he explains. "There's an old recipe that calls for boiling the paws in a soup; we'll use that to help get her going again."

Each stall owner buys from suppliers who provide as many as 100 dogs a day, yet none of them knows where or how the dogs are sourced. Only one worker, Sy Le Vanh, a boyish 18-year-old slicing up carcasses at a family-run stall, says the dogs "must be Vietnamese". "I'm pretty sure our supplier used to get dogs from Thailand and Laos," he says, "but they were always so scrawny."

Pet ownership is still relatively new in Vietnam-- dogs here have traditionally been reared for either food or security purposes-- so campaigners have chosen to scrap the "cruelty" argument in favour of emphasising dogmeat's effect on people's health. It has been linked to regional outbreaks of trichinosis, cholera and rabies, a point activists underscore as the region looks to eradicate rabies by 2020. At the first international meeting on the dogmeat trade in Hanoi in late August, lawmakers and campaigners from Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam agreed on a five-point plan, including a five-year moratorium on the cross-border transportation of dogs for commercial purposes, in order to research the impact on rabies transmission.

...[R]esearchers stress the historical human-dog bond and point to dogs' intelligence, using examples such as Chaser-- a border collie whose vocabulary includes more than 1,000 English words-- to prove their mental capacities are comparable to those of two-year-old children. But apologists say it is hypocritical for a culture that eats sheep, cows, pigs and chickens to draw the line at dogs. Pigs, for instance, do as well as primates in certain tests and are said by some scientists to be more advanced than dogs, yet many of us eat bacon without a second thought.

This is circuitous reasoning, as Jonathan Safran Foer has argued in his book Eating Animals. He points to dogs as a plentiful and protein?rich food source, and asks: "Can't we get over our sentimentality?" He continues: "Unlike all farmed meat, which requires the creation and maintenance of animals, dogs are practically begging to be eaten. If we let dogs be dogs, and breed without interference, we would create a sustainable, local meat supply with low energy inputs that would put even the most efficient grass-based farming to shame."

His is an argument unlikely to win over many fans in the UK, the world's first country, in 1822, to make laws protecting animals from cruelty. It is a confounding issue, in part because it involves comparing cross-cultural mores with no clear answer. As the Australian philosopher Peter Singer put it in his 1975 work Animal Liberation: "To protest about bullfighting in Spain, the eating of dogs in South Korea, or the slaughter of baby seals in Canada while continuing to eat eggs from hens who have spent their lives crammed into cages, or veal from calves who have been deprived of their mothers, their proper diet and the freedom to lie down with their legs extended, is like denouncing apartheid in South Africa while asking your neighbours not to sell their houses to blacks."

Curious as to how this philosophy might play in Vietnam, I ask Duc Cuong, the doctor eating at the dogmeat restaurant, if it makes any difference to him that his meal could be someone's pet. "No," he says. "It's not my pet, so I don't really care."
Other countries where you might find dog on the menu include China, South Korea, Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria... and both Canada and Switzerland!

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