NATIONAL

[Weekender] Why Koreans abandon so many dogs

By Ock Hyun-ju

Koreans’ aversion to adoption, lax regulations lead to inhumane desertion

  • Published : Jun 12, 2015 - 21:31
  • Updated : Jun 13, 2015 - 11:35

The thousands of dogs Aerinwon, a private shelter in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, may have been abandoned, but it doesn’t mean they have given up on humans.

They jump around and wag their tails as people pass by their enclosure, as if forgetting their past poor treatment.

Their lively response is ironic, considering the majority ended up in the facility as they were considered either too ill or too old.

Some people brought them in after rescuing them from an abusive environment, its director Kong Kyung-hee said, but others have been less kind, secretly dumping their pets at the shelter at night. In many cases, such abandoned pets are bitten to death by other dogs.

Dogs wait in their enclosure at animal shelter Aerinwon in Pocheon, Gyeonggi Province, Wednesday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“Some cruel people throw their dogs out of car windows and run away. The dogs, who tend to return to their masters, chase after the cars and end up being run over,” said Kong, cuddling and patting the dozens of dogs that surrounded her.

Kong began taking in unwanted dogs 32 years ago. Now, more than 3,000 dogs are housed outdoors in wire cages at the shelter, with the number increasing each year.

“It is difficult to accommodate the rising number of dogs with limited resources, but I cannot let them die on the streets or be put to death by the government,” the 72-year-old woman said, who looks after abandoned pets with four staff while living in a small container house.

“Puppies are, of course, adorable when they are young. People mindlessly make emotional purchases, and easily ditch them when they start to misbehave, bark, lose their hair and fall ill,” Kong said.

According to government statistics, some 81,000 pets were abandoned in 2014, with the majority being dogs. Of these, only 31.4 percent were adopted and 13 percent were reclaimed by their owners, while 23 percent died in shelters and 22.7 percent were euthanized.

The number of abandoned pets has dwindled from 101,000 in 2010 to 81,000 in 2014, but the decline hardly means that animal rights awareness has increased, activists here point out.

“The culture of easily buying and giving up pets, the huge costs of medical treatment and food, conflicts with neighbors over dogs’ barking and the hectic pattern of life in modern society are to blame for the discharging of pets,” Song Joon-kyu, a researcher from think-tank The Seoul Institute, said at a forum on abandoned animals.

It is the norm for Koreans to buy dogs from pet shops rather than adopt one from animal shelters as they tend to prefer dogs of “pure” breeds. In the pet shops, they can pick a dog of a certain breed, color and size for as little as 100,000 won ($90), like shopping for clothes. When shopping for dogs online, the prices are even lower.

But it is not only about Koreans’ pet-purchasing culture. There is a more fundamental problem: the supply of dogs exceeds demand. 

Kong Kyung-hee, head of animal shelter Aerinwon, pets dogs around her inside the shelter, Wednesday. (Ock Hyun-ju/The Korea Herald)

“The root cause of dogs being abandoned is an industrial structure that enables people to easily purchase dogs from pet shops and throw them away,” said Park Ana, an animal rights activist at Korea Animal Rights Advocates.

“Thousands of unlicensed breeders are producing more pets than society can take in,” Park said, accusing the government of failing to track down and clamp down on the illegal businesses.

While the government does not actually have statistics available, more than 3,000 dog farms are thought to be illegally operating across the country to cater to the demand for dog meat and special breeds of pets, pro-animal activists claimed.

Many of the dogs in Kong’s Aerinwon were also brutally abused when they arrived.

“I recently rescued a dog from a dog farm, where she was forced to give birth to nearly 50 puppies in total,” Kong said. “When she first arrived at our shelter a month ago, she could not even walk.”

Such “puppy factories” are notorious for inducing female dogs into heat to keep them producing puppies while locked in a small cage.

“The key to promoting animals’ rights lies in lowering the number of pets by regulating the illicit dog trading businesses,” Park said.

Under the Animal Protection Law, homeless animals found on the streets are rescued and transferred to some 368 animal shelters, either sponsored by the government or run directly by municipalities. The facilities then put up advertisements on the government’s website for seven days to look for their owners.

Unless they find their owners within 10 days of arrival, the shelters can put the dogs up for adoption. If not adopted, dogs are eventually put down, as the state-run shelters do not have enough money or space to keep the growing number of incoming animals.

There are also hundreds of privately-run shelters like Kong’s Aerinwon set up to rescue animals in danger of being euthanized. Running on donations, some private facilities grapple with a lack of funding and come under fire for offering poor conditions for dogs, which raises their own questions over animals’ welfare.

Thus, it is difficult to say whether euthanasia is good or bad from an animal-welfare perspective, said Cho Hee-kyung, head of the Korean Animal Welfare Association.

“The question is whether dogs in such poor conditions (at some private facilities) can be happy just living,” Cho said. “Society needs to address abandoned animals’ rights, too.”

As part of campaign to prevent pet abandonment, the government enacted a new system in July 2014, requiring all pet owners to register dogs aged over three months on a government system. Those who fail to do so can face a fine of up to 400,000 won.

Since the rule took effect, less than 890,000 pets have been registered nationwide, approximately 55 percent of the total estimated by the central government.

“The pet registration system should be reinforced and all the pets should be microchipped so that the authorities can trace pet owners who abandon their furry friends,” the activist Cho said. “The system is already in place, but is far from properly working.”

The government is aware of the situation.

“We will partner with veterinarians and animal rights organizations to promote the system and raise awareness of why pets should be registered,” said an official from the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs, who asked not to be named.

“But some citizens say that the government should focus on expanding welfare for people, not animals,” he said. “There seems to be no broad consensus yet on animals’ rights in Korean society.”

By Ock Hyun-ju (laeticia.ock@heraldcorp.com)