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Exploring controversy over dog meat

Tom Starkey / Khmer Times Share:
Dogs are seen locked in crates before being slaughtered and sold for consumption. Dog meat consumption in the country is not unheard of, with 10 to 12 percent of Cambodians reported eating the meat regularly. Fresh News

On July 6, Siem Reap Provincial Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries ordered all dog meat traders and sellers to cease business activities in the province, effective immediately. The move was lauded by organisations and officials alike who saw it as a potential impetus for a nationwide ban on dog meat trade. But an overnight ban does not equate to overnight eradication and a deeper look into stakeholders – especially amid the pandemic – is needed to properly evaluate such a move.


Dog meat consumption in Cambodia is not hidden. In fact, global animal welfare organisation Four Paws International estimates 10 to 12 percent of Cambodians eat the meat regularly.

It is also a common source of income for many in the country, with the meat fetching upwards of $3 per kilogramme.

At a market in Phnom Penh, local vendor Heng Sophal says she has been selling dog meat, known as “special” meat, for nine years. This, Sophal says, makes up around 30 percent of her daily earnings.

She shares: “I usually begin preparing the meat at around 4pm as people usually buy it in the afternoon to drink alcohol with.”

Sophal says she normally buys dog meat from suppliers in Kandal province, who in turn source it from Siem Reap province. With the enforcement of the ban in the province, Sophal now worries the move will lead to a surge in dog meat prices thus affecting her livelihood.

“If dog meat trade and consumption is banned, I think I would lose a lot of customers who not only buy the meat but also purchase drinks with it,” she says.

 

Changing courses

However, changing consumer attitudes in the Kingdom have been noted. In 2018, director-general of the Cambodian Mine Action Centre Heng Ratana became one of the first government officials to publicly decry dog meat consumption as he cited the animal’s huge contribution to demining efforts in the Kingdom.

A combination of factors, including increasing pet ownership, raised food expectations and rising animal welfare consciousness among the younger generation, have also contributed to a downward view on dog meat trade.

This is supported by the growing trend that considers dog meat consumption as “uncivilised”, with some Khmer people also not partaking in the act, driven by the belief that doing so goes against Buddhist values.

 

The legal dogma

Despite such turnaround, Cambodia continues to grapple with dog meat trade due to several factors. Perhaps the biggest of which is the lack of a specific law against the act, which in turn has only served to breed criminality.

Firstly, although legislation regarding animal production and health was passed in 2016, there are no “dog farms” by which the policy could be enforced as dog meat is usually sourced through strays or stolen pets. Furthermore, since dog slaughterhouses cannot obtain a licence for food safety, all are therefore operating illegally, violating public health.

A report by Animal Rescue Cambodia in 2019 said: “The [dog] collection process is brutal, with dogs often beaten over the head into submission. Dogs frequently suffer from broken bones, wounds and other injuries while they are being caught.”

“A variety of slaughtering methods were observed and all were crude, inhumane and caused prolonged suffering. The areas in which slaughtering took place were unhygienic and dogs were killed in full view of other dogs. The most commonly observed methods included clubbing on the head several times and cutting the neck with a knife or hanging dogs from trees for around 30 minutes until they suffocate,” it said.

The report added: “Drowning is also a popular method of killing several dogs at once, where dogs are packed tightly in small metal cages which are lowered into black stagnant water. Dogs transported from Siem Reap to Kandal province to supply dog meat restaurants in Phnom Penh are almost all subject to mass drowning.”

 

A dog’s death

Secondly, stealing pets using a variety of unscrupulous methods has become commonplace in the dog meat trade.

Although there is little information on criminal arrests in connection with such trade in Cambodia, a comprehensive report by China-based Animals Asia found a rising number in “snatching gangs” and “black market trading routes” formed to sell the meat.

The report said the gangs employed signature dog stealing methods, such as using poisoned darts.

On one occasion, the report noted: “When stealing a dog, the thieves were caught by the dog owners. In response, they beat the owners and shot poison darts containing succinylcholine chloride at them, killing one and injuring the other.”

The report added confrontations between thieves and owners were becoming more prevalent, resulting in even graver crimes taking place due to the trade.

 

Dog trafficking

Thirdly, although agriculture departments are supposed to be notified regarding the movement of animals in the Kingdom, they usually are not when it comes to the dog meat trade. This leads to dogs being illegally trafficked and unchecked for diseases thus posing a significant danger to people they come into contact with as well as the consumers.

Dr Katherine Polak, veterinarian and Head of Stray Animal Care Southeast Asia at Four Paws, says: “Rabies is endemic in Cambodia, with the vast majority of human cases attributable to dogs. There is mounting evidence – spanning over two decades – of the dog trade’s relation to transmission of rabies, as it encourages the mass movement of dogs [carrying] unknown diseases to be transported [over] long distances, between provinces and across international borders.”

“Such mass and unregulated movements of dogs are in contravention to recommendations and guidelines by leading human and animal health experts,” she adds.

Indeed, amid a global zoonotic pandemic which is assumed to have emerged due to unchecked animal trade
and consumption, the need
to manage the industry has become more pressing than ever.

 

Man’s best food?

Lastly, as one of the economic pillars supporting over 32 percent of the country’s annual GDP, tourism is of huge importance to the Kingdom.

A report by Four Paws this year said: “The economic importance of tourism to local governments cannot be understated. Governments [in Southeast Asia] want their country to be seen as forward-thinking and positive, not as a society ignoring severe animal welfare issues.”

The report found: “Fifty-two percent of the respondents agreed they would not visit a country again if they encountered animal cruelty.”

Given that dog meat is
not inherently connected to Cambodian culture compared to other countries such as Vietnam, the challenge of phasing out dog meat trade and consumption, especially in tourist areas, pales in comparison to the impact of a potential halving in the number of tourists.

Dr Polak says, “Although the long-term aim to ban the trade will require the closure of restaurants and slaughterhouses, conversations will be essential to ensure that owners and traders are still able to provide for their families, just without the need to kill dogs.”

“The dog meat trade is as much of a people issue as it is an animal issue. Most Khmer people that we have interviewed do not want to be in the trade but, due to financial circumstance, find it one of the easiest ways to make money and provide for their families,” she said.

 

Food for thought

Cambodia’s path forward will need to be tread carefully to ensure it phases out the cruelty associated with dog meat trade, whether a national ban is rolled out or not, without depriving its people of livelihood.

Dr Polak cites the work of Four Paws and Animal Rescue Cambodia as perfect models for alternatives.

“We assisted with the conversion of a dog meat slaughterhouse in Takeo province late last year, where we helped the owner convert the abattoir into a rice and vegetable cultivation plant and drilled a well for selling water. Previously, the facility was responsible for killing over 2,000 dogs annually and the owner was desperate to get out of the trade,” she says.

Dog meat, she adds, is as cheap as other meat such as chicken and pork. This, she says, should allow small businesses to adapt and move away from the especially cruel trade.

“The ultimate sustainable solution is a multifactorial one that deals with the trade directly through ban and enforcement while also addressing overall lapses in animal welfare, poor veterinary training, lack of rabies control and dog vaccination programmes and inadequate resources for pet owners,” says Dr Polak.

As Cambodia monitors the effects of the “historic” provincial ban, only time will tell how the move plays out. While banning alone cannot tackle such a complex issue, it nevertheless presents a promising incentive to lead the way.

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