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Turning point for animals in Korea

A U.K. animal welfare expert has called for more action to protect pets and farm animals in Korea.

Paul Littlefair, head of external affairs for British charity the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has been visiting Korea since 1999 and said he has seen many positive changes in the past 12 years. 

But the RSPCA representative, a graduate in Chinese language with many years’ experience living and working in East Asia, said Korea still has some way to go to tackle the problem of abandoned animals and effectively enforce animal protection laws, last revised in 2008.

Only around 25 percent of the 100,000 or so unwanted dogs and cats ending up in Korea’s 385 local government shelters ever find new homes.

Around 65 percent of animals abandoned and taken to shelters are either euthanized or die of disease or natural causes.

Surviving animals often face a lifetime in cramped shelter cages.

“When dogs are housed long-term in shelters it is almost impossible to properly meet their needs, and that is not humane in our view,” Littlefair said.

“But I recognize in Korea in lots of cases both public and private shelters become long-term homes and sanctuaries for dogs, most with little or no chance of being re-homed.” 
Paul Littlefair
Paul Littlefair

He said the number of cats and dogs abandoned here had surged in the past eight years as Koreans began buying more pets.

“What’s failed to keep up with that is education around responsible pet ownership, what you need to do to keep an animal properly and what to do if things don’t work out.”

His most recent trip to Korea last week included delivering a three-day training course to shelter managers and officials, and speaking at a veterinary conference about helping pet owners care for their animal’s behavioral and psychological health, but said the bottom line for protecting pets was simple: “Don’t abandon them.”


Throwaway culture

“The root of the problem is the lack of effective regulation or enforcement in pet breeding and sales,” he explained.

“The commercial breeding of pets is a problem. People at the point of sale aren’t getting a lot of information about the animals, and I would guess that a lot of puppies and kittens are being sold at too early an age with consequent health or behavioral problems which ultimately cause them to become unwanted.

“There is also the general issue of a throwaway culture -- the idea that if an animal is not what you would expect it to be, you abandon it. But this by no means a phenomenon restricted to Korea. ”

He cited a controversial RSPCA U.K. poster campaign in 1989 which depicted a pile of dead dogs to show the volume of pets euthanized after being given up.

“At that time we faced a similar problem with unwanted animals. British people like to see themselves as a nation of animal-lovers. With this shocking ad the RSPCA was telling them: ‘Through irresponsible pet ownership this is the scale of the problem you are leaving us to deal with,’” Littlefair said, drawing a parallel with Korea now. Two decades later around 95 percent of animals taken in to British animal shelters are re-homed.

The RSPCA is working closely with the Korean government and local animal protection groups to prevent pets ending up on the streets, or worse. 
Dogs at KAWA shelter in Seoul. (KAWA)
Dogs at KAWA shelter in Seoul. (KAWA)

Local animal charity KAWA warns that abandoned pet dogs can end up being killed for dog meat, and has rescued stray puppies in the nick of time from being beaten to death in the street.

“In the past it has probably been the case that some animals that have been abandoned, or even re-homed have been sold on to meat traders,” Littlefair added, but said that dog meat was only one of many challenges facing Korean animal welfare groups. 


Dog meat

“How to handle the issue of the dog meat trade is always going to be difficult,” he said.

“Eating dog meat is still relatively widespread even though consumption appears to be on the decline now. It is almost certainly not as popular as it was at its peak over 10 years ago.”

Korean animal rights campaigners have been mobilized on the issue that has drawn global attention since dog meat restaurants hit international headlines during the 1988 Seoul Olympics. Littlefair, however, feels the issue should be put in the proper perspective.

“Although it has great symbolic meaning … from the RSPCA’s point of view, it should not be allowed to overshadow other improvements that could be made.”

And many believe these improvements are slowly taking effect in Korea through increased public awareness and a move from “very minimal” and “cosmetic” animal welfare laws passed in the early ’90s to more robust legislation in place today.

“Korea is at a turning point for animals. What we have seen is a real increase in awareness about animals and their needs,” Littlefair said. “There has been a substantial shift in attitude from the public, and animal welfare has become a serious area of government concern.”

The changed public sentiment toward animals was sharply felt when mass live burials of up to 1 million pigs during last year’s foot and mouth crisis shocked the nation.

The country was criticized internationally for the culling to control an outbreak of the highly contagious disease between last November and January.


Developing compassion

People here were also outraged by the inhumane methods used, accusing the government of putting financial concerns ahead of animal rights.

“Last winter, for the first time ever we also saw a strong negative reaction from the people doing the culling,” Littlefair said.

“That had never happened before to my knowledge. There was a lot of online traffic and blogging from the people who had to do it. People were saying ‘I was asked to do this. It’s awful, how can we as a country be doing this? It’s not right.’”

While Korea is a well-developed country economically, “when it comes to animal welfare it is still relatively underdeveloped,” he observed.

“But it is moving very fast. The ministry of agriculture, in the last couple of years has made a lot of moves toward improving animal policy.”

The Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries is developing plans to launch a higher welfare farm assurance and food labeling program modeled on the RSPCA’s “Freedom Food” initiative. Expected to be launched in the next couple of years, it will be the first government-run animal welfare labeling scheme of its kind in the world.

“The program will cover the entire lives of farmed animals, how they are reared, transported and slaughtered. That is a major progressive move.”

Although in the recently revised legislation the penalties for animal abuse did not go as far as campaigners here wanted, Littlefair said the RSPCA welcomed any improvements and hoped that what is now on paper will be fully acted upon to protect the safety of animals in Korea. 


Buying pets for good

The Korean Animal Welfare Association provides some tips on buying a pet with welfare in mind.

1) Consider the commitment: Unless adopting an old pet to care for its final days, understand that both dogs and cats live up to 15 years. You should be able to include your pet in any future plans. Many pet owners give away their pets when they are expecting a baby in Korea, and very few find new homes.

2) Revise your financial stability: Buying pet food and taking your pet to the vet for vaccinations costs money, but it could cost thousands of dollars if your pet gets injured or has a serious illness as it ages.

3) Spend time with your pet: If you are single, living alone and working 10 hours a day, you should not get a dog that needs daily outdoor activity. Dogs are social animals and being alone at home all day could cause depression or other illnesses.

4) Adopt from a shelter: Fifty-thousand dogs are abandoned in Korea every year. Some think pet store animals are healthier than dogs in shelters but it is untrue. Shelter dogs are vaccinated and many are used to being around people and other dogs. If you must get a puppy from a breeder, check the animal welfare record. Most pet shops in Korea use puppy mills where female dogs are over-bred and euthanized by age 4, when they can’t produce any more litters.


By Kirsty Taylor (kirstyt@heraldcorp.com)
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