The grim reality of the cat meat industry in Vietnam

March 16, 2024 | 05:30 pm PT
Darren Barnard Teacher
Over 1 million cats are killed for consumption in Vietnam every year, according to animal welfare organizations.

Stolen from the streets and people's homes, crammed into small cages for days on end whilst the sellers ensure they have enough to earn a profit before transporting, often with no food, water or ventilation - these are the cruel conditions many of these beloved pets have to endure before arriving on someone's plate. The survivors of this journey who haven't succumbed to dehydration, exhaustion or injuries from the capture, then have to suffer even further by being individually drowned in a bucket.

In December 2023, Pham Quoc Doanh, the owner of Gia Bao - a former cat restaurant in the northern province of Thai Nguyen, discussed how he even had to often use alternative methods of bludgeoning the cat to death, electrocution or boiling if drowning was not initially successful.

His story shed some much-needed light on the cat meat industry in Vietnam and was shared in international newspapers around the world, such as Daily Mail, South China Morning Post and Metro. An important focus on his story with Business Insider was how his guilt encouraged him to reach out to Human Society International, who offered him a grant to help close down this business and explore another venture. Doanh intends to use this money to open a grocery store and has expressed a greater sense of peace with himself since the closure.

Doanh's story exposed the cat meat industry in Vietnam to many around the world and even to many within Vietnam, where the sale of dog meat is far more common and discussed frequently by locals and foreigners. Unfortunately his story is a rare example of an individual within Vietnam sourcing this alternative form of income instead of continuing running a thriving restaurant selling cat meat.

On a similar note, around 5 million dogs are still consumed in Vietnam every year, but as many restaurants continue to close and other Asian countries such as South Korea recently banning the sale of dog meat - is the future a little brighter for the two most-beloved pets on our planet here in Vietnam?

Firstly, it is worth considering why cat meat is consumed in Vietnam. Many of the older generation argue it is part of their customs and tradition. Whereas, younger individuals may be attracted to consuming it due to the exotic nature of the dish. Some Vietnamese also suggest that consuming cat meat repels bad luck and has healing properties.

Similar to the dog-meat trade, there is arguably a growing disparity in how different generations of Vietnamese consider the ethics of going to a restaurant that sells cat meat. It is more likely eaten at traditional event such as a wedding, where an elder member of the family may insist on it being included in the spread laid out the table.

One of the significant contrasts to the dog meat industry is that, until January 2020, the hunting, slaughtering and consumption of cat meat was explicitly illegal in the country, as parts of measures stipulated in a 1998 government decree to prevent rats from damaging crops. It begs the question, why was this law reversed? I find it baffling frankly.

As countless dog and cat meat restaurants have closed in Hanoi in recent years, owners continually opt to switch to hotpot places or other businesses to gain more customers. The apparent tide against the consumption of these animals was further exemplified in 2022, when Hoi An became the first locality to phase out dog and cat meat when authorities signed a Memorandum of Understanding with animal welfare organization Four Paws.

I would argue that it is much easier and greatly encouraged for this move to take place in Hoi An, where a huge percentage of the income comes solely through tourism and attempts to depict a better perception of the country to outsiders. I would love to see other provinces follow suit in the coming months and years. However, I fear this is far closer to fiction rather than reality at this point.

In the north of Vietnam, Hanoi and Thai Binh have been identified by Four Paws as hotspots for the cat-meat industry. Although the organization states they are not aware of any farms in Vietnam where cats are bred specially for the meat trade, one has to imagine that a lot of these cats are being traded and sold in secret and it is difficult to determine the true scale of it.

Their website states that a live cat is sold for around $6.50 per kilo and one kilo of their meat costs approximately $8.50. This meat can go towards creating dishes such as the southern specialty rau ma (Vietnamese pennywort) which is tossed in sesame seeds and garnished with coriander before wrapped around the cat meat and then dipped in peanut sauce. It has been a popular dish for many over the years, but I would insist that an alternative meat could easily be used without losing much flavor.

Despite drawing optimism from stories such as Doanh's and the positive regulation in countries nearby, I strongly hope that with stories gaining a readership from an international audience and the growth of international tourism there will be increased external pressure, and more importantly, internal support to find an alternative to running a business in the cat meat industry going forward.

*Darren Barnard is a British teacher in Hanoi.

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