South Korea is well known as a nation that eats cats and dogs, and its open and widespread consumption of such popular animals attracts international criticism. This has been strengthened by the country’s apparent indifference to the violent methods used to prepare this controversial element of their diet. But despite the gradual appearance of some Western inspired notions of animal welfare, the line between those animals treated as pets and those treated as food remains blurred.
I spent over a year in South Korea observing the cat and dog meat trade and the strongly ingrained idea of a connection between meat consumption and its perceived health benefits. It is estimated as many as 2m dogs are eaten in the country every year. Some dogs in Korea are bred specifically to be used as food, yet many more animals bought and sold for their meat are actually family pets that have been caught in the streets - or simply sold by their owners at the market. Some customers specifically look for “pedigree” cats and dogs because they are thought to have purer blood than “non-pedigree” individuals and can fetch up to ten times the price.
Eating dog meat is thought to regulate body temperature, and consumption reaches its annual peak during the summer. However, it is also consumed steadily throughout the year, especially in the context of all-male social gatherings. One reason for this is that another perceived health benefit is that if a dog is hung and beaten to death over a fire, then an increase of adrenaline in its blood will increase the sexual stamina of the person who consumes the flesh, usually in the form of a soup or stew.
Older men often take younger male employees to dog meat restaurants as a way of strengthening the social ties between company workers. These outings often start with a visit to a dog meat restaurant to enhance sexual stamina, followed by a trip to a strip club or brothel, or “love hotel”.
The violent method of slaughter for dogs is also technically compatible with Korean law. Dogs are treated as livestock, but peculiarly, as livestock that cannot be processed as food. A consequence of this is that it allows shopkeepers to use violent killing methods without having to observe legal slaughter regulations required for animals destined for food, ensuring the trade, which is seen as essential to the Korean economy, is not jeopardised.
Cat meat, on the other hand, is mostly consumed by middle-aged working class women, again for its perceived health benefits. Because cats are agile creatures, their meat and bones are thought to cure rheumatism - and working women need to ensure they remain in good health long into their sixties or seventies in order to support themselves financially. Cats are boiled (sometimes alive) in pressure-cookers and it usually takes ten cats to produce one small bottle of cat soju (goyangi soju), an alcoholic elixir thought to keep arthritis at bay for a few weeks at a time. I also observed some shopkeepers adding cat meat to dog meat meals because cats are less expensive than dogs. This substitution helps keeps the production cost down in a market where a cat costs about the equivalent of £10, while a dog is about £100.
From plate to pet?
Despite the prevalence of the consumption of dogs and cats in South Korea (and it is also widely eaten in other countries including Thailand and Vietnam, an increasing number of people are considering the animals as pets rather than sources of food and there is a growing (but often mocked) animal welfare movement. One charity even runs a vegan restaurant where customers can go to meet rescued animals and adopt them. But dog meat restaurants are still seen as ideal settings for male dominated professional outings, and social pressure to attend these gatherings is high. Many resident animal welfare advocates confessed to me that they had consumed cat or dog meat when in their thirties because of family and professional pressure. It is therefore quite possible that young people who are actively opposed to the trade today might end up embracing the practice later on in their lives for similar reasons.
A number of South Koreans remain in favour of dog and cat breeding for meat, and some remain in favour of continuing violent slaughter, despite the bad taste it leaves in the mouths of international opponents.