Dog thefts ravage countryside, provoke retaliatory violence

By Linh Do   November 6, 2019 | 04:35 am PT
Dog thefts ravage countryside, provoke retaliatory violence
Dogs wait to be slaughtered in a cage for sale as food in a village outside Hanoi. Photo by Reuters/Kham.
Dog thieves and dog owners have been locked in a murderous cycle of violence in recent years in Vietnam, especially in rural areas.

On October 29, calmly rather than in an eruption of anger, a group of villagers in the Central Highlands province of Gia Lai held two men suspected of stealing dogs in the village's communal house, beat one of them to death and severely injured the other. 

The people of Tor Bang village in Chu Prong District had caught Tran Van Nam, Pham Quang Trung and two others trying to steal a dog, but the two unidentified men managed to escape.

Nam, 48, died after being taken to the Chu Prong District Health Center and Trung has been admitted to the Gia Lai Province General Hospital.      

It was just one of countless acts of violence by dog owners who decide to take justice in their own hands against a crime that has been occurring all over Vietnam for years. 

The theft, which mostly serves the dog meat trade, has been increasing in terms of both numbers and cruelty, with the thieves using various instruments from ropes to poison to electric guns.

Since a dog can typically be sold to restaurants for several hundred thousand dongs ($1 = VND23,200), a thief who manages to steal four or five dogs a night could earn quite an amount.   

Like elsewhere in the country, dog thefts occur frequently in Gia Lai Province. The thieves here often use Tinopal, a toxic optical brightening substance, to make poison that can kill a dog in just a minute.

In the south-central province of Binh Dinh, dog thefts are also keeping authorities on their toes. Since last year the local police have investigated 12 cases involving dog thefts.

Nguyen Van Hoa of the province's Hoai Nhon District told the media that since the beginning of this year three of his dogs have been stolen. Almost every household with a dog in his hamlet has fallen victim, he said.

Though he took the precaution of securing his dog on the front porch, the thieves nonchalantly tore down a fence and dragged the dog away in a noose right before his eyes, he lamented.

"In the past when caught, dog thieves would be scared and try to flee. Now, however, they run away and return with accomplices to attack dog owners and rescue any of them who have been caught and take their equipment and even the dogs. Dog thieves are becoming too thuggish."

Many dog owners who have seen or heard their beloved animals utter a few last painful barks before being dragged away at night by thieves racing on motorbikes fear they might not be able to control themselves if they confront the thieves.  

"I’d beat them black and blue," a dog owner in Dong Ha City in the central province of Quang Tri, another dog theft hotspot, said.

Dog thefts are carried out at night as well as during the day, and spike around the 12th lunar month when many Vietnamese eat dog meat to dispel the old year’s bad luck and herald a fortunate new one.

Over the years dog thieves have become organized. In September police in the central province of Thanh Hoa busted a ring of four buyers and 17 thieves who had stolen over 100 tons worth of dogs in one year.

Most of the thieves in this case were drug addicts or seasoned convicts with criminal records, they said.

For thieves, being caught by the police is often a much more fortunate fate than being caught by dog owners and their neighbors.

In recent years many dog thieves have been beaten and even killed by angry mobs in acts of violence that Pham Cong Hung, a former Supreme Court judge, said was inexcusable.

"Dog thieves break the laws, but they are still human and must be treated humanely and within the limits of the law."

Seven years ago in the otherwise peaceful village of Nhi Trung in central Quang Tri Province’s Gio Linh District, early one morning villagers ambushed, caught two dog thieves in the act and beat them to death.

Ten were later found guilty of manslaughter and given various sentences ranging from two years’ probation to three years in prison.

Then, in an unprecedented turn, 68 other villagers confessed to the police that they too had taken part in the violence.   

Treating dog theft lightly

Many people point out that a major reason for dog owners taking the law into their own hands is the ineffectiveness of the laws. For most part, the laws treat dog theft as a minor offence that attracts a fine rather than a crime.

Under the Criminal Code, dogs are considered their owners’ ‘property’ and their emotional value is not considered.

Since most stolen dogs are valued under VND2 million ($86), many first-time dog thieves are fined and released if they did not commit any other crime or indulge in violence.

Several stolen dogs are seized by Vietnamese authorities. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Thao.

Several stolen dogs are seized by Vietnamese authorities. Photo by VnExpress/Hoang Thao.

They then go on to commit thefts again and again, creating a vicious cycle of confrontation in which dog owners burn their equipment and motorbikes, assault and even kill them, while the thieves equip themselves with lethal weapons such as knives and guns to fight back if caught.

The thieves often use motorbikes without number plates or with fake numbers making it difficult for the police.

Tran Duc Anh, head of Tran & Associates Law Firm in Dong Ha Town of Quang Tri Province, said the fact that dogs are not just inanimate property but have emotional value means it can be used as an aggravating factor against dog thieves and an extenuating factor for owners if a legal situation arises.       

For some, the root cause of dog thefts is dog meat consumption. According to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) Vietnam, Vietnam consumes around five million dogs a year, behind only China’s 10 million.

Recently the Hanoi and HCMC governments urged people to stop eating dog meat, saying it creates a bad international image and causes health risks.

According to food experts, dog meat often contains pathogens, has too much protein and is yet to be regulated by food authorities.

Hanoi authorities are planning to ban dog meat in the inner city, which gets many foreign tourists, by 2021. In the suburbs, authorities will need more time to manage street dogs.

Nguyen Ngoc Son, head of the Hanoi Department of Animal Health, told VnExpress that in recent years many Hanoians, especially students and government officials, have gradually stopped eating dog meat.

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