Should dogs be in their hearts or freezers? Vietnamese are divided

By Long Nguyen   September 17, 2019 | 09:51 pm PT
Should dogs be in their hearts or freezers? Vietnamese are divided
Dogs waiting to be slaughtered for meat at a dog slaughterhouse in Hanoi, July, 2012. Photo by AFP/Hoang Dinh Nam.
Vietnamese authorities are discouraging the consumption of dog meat, but public opinion is sharply divided on this.

It is early one morning in Saigon's rural district of Cu Chi, and two young men on a motorbike have stopped on a small bridge, a cage with three whimpering dogs inside tied to their vehicle. They quickly slaughter the animals. 

"I have done this for years, sometimes I kill 30 dogs a day," the man named Vinh says.

It is one of many slaughterhouses in Ho Chi Minh City supplying dog meat to hundreds of downtown restaurants.

Vinh cannot believe that one day he might have to give up his livelihood because authorities are stopping the consumption of dog meat.

Last September Hanoi authorities urged people to stop eating dog, saying it tarnished the city's image and could spread rabies. A year later Ho Chi Minh City authorities are making the same appeal, citing severe health risks and appealing to sentiment.

Vinh is not the only one to be surprised.

Duong, a thirtyish customer at a restaurant in downtown Saigon, where people are sitting around a small table, drinking rice wine and eating grilled dog meat with lemongrass, says: "I do not see any difference between dog meat and pork or chicken; it is just a choice."

That was two days after the city authorities’ appeal, but the five people at the table seem disdainful.

Some people believe eating dog meat at the end of the lunar month helps get rid of bad luck, and restaurants serving the meat usually attract large crowds at this time.

Also, like in some Asian countries, Vietnamese think dog meat makes men more virile.

Sociologist Trinh Hoa Binh says it might be impossible to persuade people to abandon dog meat since eating it is an entrenched habit. "Those recommendations are not realistic, it is not easy for people to stop eating their favorite meat."

Eating dog meat should be seen as a custom rather than a civilizational aspect to be compared with western culture, and so trying to persuade people to give it up is unnecessary, he said.

"We should tell people and businesses to not kill dogs and cats ‘brutally,’ and preferably not in public. But we shouldn’t tell people to stop eating dog meat outright. If the meat is cooked properly, food is still food," Binh said.

Tran Huu Son, vice president of Vietnam’s Folklore Association, agreed with Binh. He said eating dog meat was simply a part of the country’s culture.

"People need to differentiate their feelings towards animals raised as pets and animals raised as food," he felt. A conservative estimate by the international division of the Humane Society of the U.S suggests that more than 80,000 dogs are smuggled from Thailand, Myanmar and Laos to meet the demand for dog meat in Vietnam.

There are gangs that carry stun guns and other weapons and roam residential areas to catch dogs. If anyone tries to stop them they are willing to attack.

Vietnam consumes around five million dogs a year, the second highest number behind only China.

Fading habit

The popularity of having pets among youngsters means the lure of dog meat is fading.

Huynh Thi Nhu Quyen, a thirtyish woman in Ho Chi Minh City, had her dog electrocuted and taken away in front of her eyes six years ago, and decided to become a savior of dogs.

With support from people on social networks, she goes around to slaughterhouses and pays money to rescue dogs.

"I pay VND0.7-1 million ($30-43) for a dog. I cannot imagine how people can kill and eat dogs, they are our friends."

Quyen and some of her like-minded friends save dogs from the butcher’s knife and put them into foster homes before their old, or new owners are found.

As an animal rights activist, Quyen supports a ban on dog meat. Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City authorities have not issued any bans so far, and only encourage people to stop.

Vinh, who has just killed five dogs and put them in a freezer, says: "I will stop selling it if they ban it, but the thing is people still eat it and I am just the supplier."

Leaving for school to pick up his children, he adds: "I do this for a living because I have a family. I try to be a responsible butcher, serving my customers good products."

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