Dog Thief Down: Pet lovers turned vigilantes in Vietnam (VIDEO)

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HANOI, Vietnam — It’s not easy to be a dog lover in Vietnam. Across the country, they’re tormented by violent gangs that steal pets and sell them to dog meat restaurants. Dog meat is a pricey delicacy in Vietnam and snatching strangers’ pets is almost as lucrative as selling drugs.

The thieves are increasingly brazen. They’re usually armed with blades and tasers. They confront pet owners with a horrible choice: back down or risk death to save your dog.

But many Vietnamese are refusing to back down. In recent years, villagers have formed angry mobs to maim and even kill dog snatchers. They even post their attacks on YouTube as a grisly warning to would-be thieves.

Senior Southeast Asia correspondent Patrick Winn travels to Vietnam to meet with dog thieves and their distraught victims. He meets veterans of the US-Vietnam war who’ve killed dog thieves without remorse. And he encounters a young generation of animal lovers fighting to end the dog meat trade for good.

Filmed by and edited by video journalist Mark Oltmanns.

Credit:

Patrick Winn, Mark Oltmanns

Editor's note: This article is part of a GlobalPost in-depth series. See also Eat, Prey, Love: Vietnam's dogs double as family members and dinner.

QUANG TRI PROVINCE, Vietnam — It wasn’t supposed to be a double homicide. A few snapped limbs? Fine. Something nasty enough to make those dog thieves sorry they’d ever come to this tiny village in central Vietnam.

But once cries of “Dog thieves! Come quick!” rang over the moonlit rice fields, the intruders were as good as dead.

A post-midnight ambush had caught two dog-stealing bandits. Villagers jolted awake inside their cement farmhouses. They raced down mud paths to the spot where a few of their strongest farm boys had laid out the thieves in a ditch.

Dog thieves are a hated scourge in Vietnam, appearing at odd hours to snatch up pet dogs and cram them into sacks. The village, called Nhi Trung, had been robbed of more than 200 dogs in just one year, according to the village elders.

Families had wept over their pets’ fate: sold to butchers for about $20 a head and roasted for diners many provinces away.

But at last, they stood over their tormentors, and they were aching for revenge. Nearly 80 people, from gray-whiskered Viet Cong vets to young moms, joined in on the thrashing.

No one wanted to miss out on a cathartic kick to the skull. Before long, the thieves were motionless and blood puddled beneath their heads.

Vietnam is known as a harsh place for canines. Many Vietnamese, especially among the older generation, have an appetite for dog. They see the animals as food, not friends — a delicacy to wash down with a bottle of rice wine.

But a growing phenomenon — vigilante attacks against dog thieves — is chipping away at that stereotype. It turns out Vietnamese can be just as hostile to anyone who dares to harm the family dog.

“You may say we’re cruel to kill people over our dogs,” says 63-year-old Nguyen Dang Huan, a raven-haired and rawboned Nhi Trung rice farmer. He and his son are among 10 men convicted of the murders.

“But the time for patience,” he says, “was over.”

A video uploaded to YouTube in 2014 shows a barely conscious man surrounded by dog corpses and taunted by a Vietnamese crowd. The video does not cite a date or location but social media in Vietnam have been flooded with clips of vigilante attacks against dog thieves.

Back down or fight

Not all Vietnamese embrace canine cuisine. This practice is concentrated in the north. Those living elsewhere are more likely to see dogs as a hybrid between pets and livestock. A growing middle class, seduced by Western culture, is pushing society to see pups as full-on family members.

All dog owners, urban and rural alike, are targeted by dog-snatching gangs. These thieves are hired by quasi-legal dog butchers to supply meat on the cheap. They’re increasingly brazen and armed with machetes and tasers. And they confront pet lovers with a horrible choice: back down or fight back.

Police have done little to stop these thieves. Authoritarian Vietnam, which executes dodgy bankers and drug traffickers, administers some laws with an iron fist. Pet theft isn’t one of them. Police treat dog thieves like shoplifters, allowing them to pay a fine (or bribe) and carry on.

But an ongoing rash of dog thief vigilantism suggests the law is out of sync with the public’s rage.

The Nhi Trung killings in the summer of 2012 were among the first in a nationwide wave of vigilante beatings. Since then, more than 25 mob attacks on dog thieves have killed at least 20 and caused an untold number of severe injuries.

These tales of vengeance have become a fixture in Vietnam’s state-run press. As one headline screams: “Lynch mobs portend anarchy.” Given that the authoritarian communist government controls the media, and is loathe to encourage unrest, the number of attacks is likely underreported.

Thanks to villagers with camera phones, many beatings are well documented on YouTube. Some mobs tied up thieves and draped them with signs reading “I’m a dog thief! Please punch me.”

Less lucky are the men tortured with their own tasers. Or kicked so hard they never wake up.

“We love our dogs,” says Nguyen Van Thiet, 72, a Nhi Trung war veteran who joined in on the killings. “Who’s the first to welcome you home each day? It’s not your kids. It’s certainly not your wife. It’s your dog.”

Vietnamese hang a sign around a bound man’s neck that reads, I'm a dog thief. Please punch me.

Like many old men in central Vietnam’s Nhi Trung village, Thiet was once intimate with violence. He is a stubbly faced man with a golf-ball sized chunk of muscle missing from his left bicep, which took an American GI’s bullet in 1968. He and his war buddies believed their killing days were over.

But Thiet, like so many others who have risen up against dog thieves, has no apologies. He has only one regret about that bloody night.

“The police should have charged the whole village!” says Thiet, sounding a bit insulted. “Let the record state that we all came together to defend our village.”

Tasers and lassos

If a dog hunter is deft with a lasso, his prey won’t get a chance to howl. The dog will suddenly go airborne, legs flailing, as its vision fades to black.

“You just hook its neck, yank and drag until it passes out,” says Dat, a wiry 38-year-old in Hanoi’s outskirts, who spent more than 10 years in a dog-snatching gang.

Dog hunters work in pairs. Two guys will travel to a neighboring province on a motorbike. One drives. The other works the lasso. For added stealth, most dog hunters now use homemade tasers – a contraption, powered by a motorbike battery, that can shoot electrodes at short-range targets.

You simply fire the weapon into a dog’s belly, Dat says, and jolt it with electricity. Then grab the animal while it’s still convulsing. “It adds a few more seconds to the job,” says Dat, fidgeting with his tobacco pipe. “But there’s a lower risk of barking.”

A YouTube video shows a loose dog snared and dragged by men on a motorbike. Closed circuit footage of dog thieving is widely circulated online in Vietnam.

Either way, the dog won’t regain consciousness until it’s already inside a sack, its snout taped shut, dazed and unable to cry for help.

Dog thieves are despised bogeymen in Vietnam. Even people who enjoy the occasional dog stew have contempt for anyone heartless enough to steal pets.

But the crime is hard to resist, Dat says.

Unlike cows, pigs or other valuable livestock, dogs are easy to subdue and stuff in a bag. And unlike suburban Americans, rural Vietnamese don’t confine dogs indoors. They post them outside overnight to ward off trespassers. But even fierce watchdogs are no match for two guys with a dirt bike and taser.

Best of all, Dat says, Vietnam’s authorities barely treat dog theft as a crime. Small-town police, often dysfunctional and corrupt, are happy to let thieves free with a small bribe.

“Dog thieves are never really scared of the police,” Dat says.

“We’re scared of getting caught by villagers and beaten to death,” he says. “No one cares if we live or die.” He learned this lesson over and over, in villages where he was caught and encircled by furious dog owners.

More than once, he slashed people with a machete to escape, he says. Some of his cohorts weren’t so elusive. One was stomped to death. Another was beaten so severely that doctors had to amputate his leg.

“You have to cut someone,” Dat says. “That’s the only way you’re getting out alive.”

Like dealing drugs, dog thieving attracts a certain type: poorly schooled, quick to fight and comfortable operating in society’s margins.

These men inhabit a criminal subculture with a strict code. You never snatch dogs in your own neighborhood. And you never reveal your trade to those you can’t trust.

“I didn’t tell my girlfriend for two years,” Dat says. When he finally confessed, she was horrified. Choosing love over fast money, Dat eased out of the game a few years ago. “Most women would have just dumped me.”

Thieves endure the risk and shame for a reason. Snatching dogs is a lucrative hustle. The going rate for a stolen dog is roughly $2.80 per kilogram, paid by butchers who don’t ask too many questions. They’ll buy dead dogs for about a dollar less.

“At my peak, I could steal 24 dogs in 24 hours,” Dat says. (His peak, he admits, involved a little meth.) On a more typical week, he’d earn $500. That’s equal to three months toiling under Hanoi’s minimum wage.

Market pressure

Dog snatching isn’t new to Vietnam. But in recent years, it’s spun out of control.

Ironically, the pet theft boom is linked to a shakeup in Vietnam’s dog meat supply chain that was promoted by Hollywood activists.

Vietnam consumes roughly 5 million dogs per year, according to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance or ACPA, a network that includes the Humane Society and several regional animal rights groups.

Most of the demand is filled by Vietnamese farmers who keep dogs around and occasionally sell a few for extra cash.

But until recently, there was another pipeline: imported dogs, namely from Thailand. Eating dogs is taboo in Thailand and its upcountry is overrun with strays. Rounding up dogs for Vietnam’s dog market, as one Thai official once put it, is like “selling garbage to foreigners for a profit.”

All dogs in the meat trade can expect to suffer. But the treatment of Thai-sourced dogs was especially cruel. They were crammed 10-deep into wire cages and starved of food and water on long truck journeys to Vietnam.

The dogs were arriving filthy and sick. Aghast at their suffering, activists recruited celebrities to whip up international condemnation.

Caged dogs bound for slaughterhouses are trafficked from Thailand to Vietnam, in footage obtained by the Soi Dog Foundation. The animal welfare group has used celebrities such as Ricky Gervais to advocate for better treatment of dogs in Asia.

“I didn’t know these animals were caught up in this hideous crime,” says Ricky Gervais, with pained eyes, in a public service announcement produced by one of ACPA’s core members, the Thailand-based Soi Dog Foundation. He is joined by Judi Dench, who tells of “innocent creatures crammed into cages so brutally that their bones often break.”

These tearjerker appeals work well on Western audiences. (The video has exceeded half a million views on YouTube. But they have little effect on Vietnam’s officials, who defend dog-eating as traditional cuisine.

“When meeting with Vietnam’s government, we haven’t been emphasizing that this trade is cruel,” says John Dalley of ACPA and the Soi Dog Foundation.

Instead, they’ve hammered away at the threat of rabies borne by sickly foreign dogs, Dalley says. “We’ve been telling them that human lives are at risk.”

Swayed by fears of a health crisis, Vietnam finally banned the import of live dogs bound for slaughterhouses in 2013. Only smugglers still get dogs through; Supply has reduced to a trickle.

This is a major victory for ACPA. But the ban has had an unexpected knock-on effect. Dog slaughterhouses were left scrambling to find new sources of meat. And before long, family dogs began to vanish en masse.

“It’s put a ton of pressure on the market,” Dalley says. “But that means they’re forced to go out and steal more and more pets to meet demand.”

Posh pups

“I don’t need a boyfriend,” says Bui Thuy Ly, 26, a petite accountant who favors hot-pink lipstick and crisp Nike tracksuits. “I have Sam.”

Sam is a cuddly pooch. He’s white as a snow drift. He’s soft as cotton candy. And he has tasted luxury that Vietnam’s peasants could only dream of.

“He really likes to be massaged,” says Ly. She’s speaking to the uniformed staff at one of Hanoi’s poshest dog spas, where Sam is lolling in a warm bath. One young man is working suds into Sam’s fur; another is revving up the hair dryer.

Never mind rice farmers: Most middle-class Americans would envy Sam’s spa routine. Each Saturday afternoon, he is shampooed, trimmed and massaged by a team of beauticians. For four hours.

Sam doesn’t know it but he’s more than just a dog. He’s a status symbol. In urban Vietnam, pampered pets exude cosmopolitan cool.

A stylist blow dries a dog named Sam in an upscale Hanoi dog spa. Vietnam’s growing middle class sees imported pets as a status symbol and push society to see pets as friends, not food.

Modern Vietnam is not the joyless, communist backwater envisioned in old war movies. It’s a nation of young strivers who are racing to catch up to the developed world.

A stodgy communist party may still be in charge, but the Vietnamese people are actually more optimistic and pro-capitalist than Americans, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center poll.

Almost everyone in Vietnam (94 percent) favors free market systems. Almost all (again, 94 percent) think today’s kids will become richer than their parents. America, where the respective figures are 70 and 30 percent, looks comparatively gloomy.

But Vietnam’s go-getters are still chasing the so-called Western lifestyle, a jumble of ambitions marked by lattes, iPads and brand-name jeans. Toting a fluffy pet signals you’re climbing to the top, above the downtrodden who lack the time or money to pamper a dog.

There are no reliable statistics on dog ownership in Vietnam. But the number of pet shops — about 25 in Hanoi, 60 in Ho Chi Minh City — has boomed in recent years. Hanoi, infamous for its dog meat eateries, is also home to three dog spas.

In the urban centers, the trend is moving the needle of public opinion: Dogs are increasingly seen less as vermin or meat and more as loving companions.

“Loving dogs like you’d love a human ... is getting more and more popular” says Nguyen Hien, a 26-year-old marketer from Hanoi. She and other dog fanatics gather in a park each Sunday to let their pets scamper in the grass. Paranoid of dog thieves, they prefer to turn their pups loose only when they have safety in numbers.

A vet’s assistant cradles a dog abandoned at her clinic in Hanoi.

Hien’s cat-sized dog is appropriately named Meow. She has dyed its legs to look like raccoon tails; At his next spa appointment, Meow’s head scruff will be colored cherry red.

“My boyfriend got Meow for me,” Hien says. “He’s like our son.” Eating dog is not just unhip among young Vietnamese, she says. For those who see dogs as proxy kids, it’s downright creepy.

“Since we got Meow, I don’t eat dog meat anymore,” she says. “And my boyfriend is also no longer allowed to eat it.” She subscribes to a sentiment common among millennial Vietnamese dog lovers: Their generation will reject canine cuisine and doom it to irrelevancy.

Deluxe dog shakedown

That won’t necessarily put dog thieves out of work.

Dog-snatching gangs have already innovated to capitalize on the fancy dog craze. Their new racket: abducting dogs and extorting ransoms from distraught pet owners.

“I can’t stop thinking about my dog,” says Vu Quynh Van, 19, a petite college freshman whose pet was stolen in late January. “It’s either been killed or stolen by some shop. It’s really sad.”

While domestic breeds are still sold to the slaughterhouse, expensive-looking imports — pugs, huskies and labs preferred by the well-to-do — are fenced at dodgy pet shops. These stores are run by cold-blooded negotiators who specialize in stocking stolen pets.

 

A roasted dog is displayed at a street-side stall in downtown Hanoi. Many in Vietnam believe eating dog at auspicious times of the month can erase bad luck.

 

Van’s dog, snatched up after it broke free during an evening walk, is far from fancy. It’s a common local breed that wouldn’t fetch much in a pet shop. More often than not, that’s a death sentence for stolen dogs.

This has not stopped Van from frequenting these shops in hopes of recovering Buoi, her scruffy black dog. She is ignoring advice shared by fellow dog thief victims on Facebook forums: Let a friend negotiate on your behalf lest shop owners detect your desperation and jack up the price.

Two weeks after her dog vanished, Van is still clinging to a shred of hope. She enters a Hanoi shop that has a reputation for fencing dogs, and confronts the owner: a middle-aged woman sporting a bun and a hoodie.

“Do you have lost dogs here?” asks Van, producing an image of Buoi on her phone. “I have this photo.”

Within seconds, the shop owner sizes up the dog — domestic, boring, edible — and casually declares its fate.

“It’s not normal to find domestic dogs here,” she says. “I’m afraid it’s been killed for meat.”

 

It takes a village

The men and women of Nhi Trung are familiar with the art of repelling invaders.

This whisper of a village, where that seminal dog thief killing went down, is all dirt roads and cement homes. It sits inside Quang Tri province, just 15 miles from the old DMZ where Vietnam was once split in two — communist forces to the north, American-backed forces to the south.

Many still remember when the skies rained napalm and the rice fields were poisoned by Agent Orange. Routing the American intruders, and reuniting Vietnam, was a hellish struggle. The recollections still bring shudders.

When dog thieves began terrorizing Nhi Trung, leaving the village sleepless and twitchy, an old unwelcome feeling returned. Once again, the elders felt besieged.

“When I was a soldier in the American war, I didn’t kill my captives,” says Huan, who in 1972 survived an 81-day siege on a nearby citadel. US Marines referred to that battle as the “meat grinder.”

“If someone surrendered, you forgave them,” Huan says. “Even if they’d killed my comrades.”

“But these dog thieves aren’t as worthy as enemy soldiers,” says Huan, who is among the men convicted in the Nhi Trung killings. “They have no honor. They don’t care about life.”

The old farmer’s heart was hardened by the sight of his favorite dog, Rex, “strung up right in front of my face” by dog thieves. In total, his family has been robbed of seven dogs, he says. “It’s too much to bear.”

Like many Vietnamese, Huan has sampled dog meat a time or two. But this is not dog meat country. Even during times of famine, dog meat cuisine was considered a quirk native to Vietnam’s north.

“We don’t have a taste for it,” says Tran Xuan Tiep, 66, the village’s top-ranking communist party official.

Vietnamese farmers do not spoil their dogs. They don’t shampoo or dye their hair. They think the Western habit of sharing a bed with dogs is gross — and when your dog’s paws are soaked in rice paddy muck, it is.

But they show their love in other ways. Outside the dog-eating north, villagers often bury deceased pets and place rice on their graves to nourish them in the afterlife.

“The human-dog relationship is very powerful. Almost like man and son,” Tiep says. “You hit your son and he might run off for a few days. Hit your dog and he’s back for dinner that night.”

Thieves once saw Nhi Trung’s dogs as easy pickings. Many of the district’s youth have left the rice farms for industrial boomtowns. Perhaps the dog thieves thought there were too few young men left to defend Nhi Trung. Perhaps they saw it as a helpless hamlet, defended only by old men with creaky bones who pose no threat to taser-wielding bandits. But that wasn’t the case.

With the approval of their communist party chief, the village mustered three men in their late 20s to lay in wait. They were the ones who wrestled the thieves to the dirt in that late-night ambush.

But the killing was a village effort, carried out by young and old, male and female, and even a man in his 80s.

A few elders tried to calm the crowd, but it was futile: Almost all had lost pets. Their rage was explosive.

The police later recovered more than 50 impromptu weapons — garden hoes, tree limbs and fence posts — at the scene. The villagers had thrashed the men over and over in the dark.

Police, overwhelmed at the scale of the crime, opted to charge only 10 men with the murders.

But that wasn’t good enough for Nhi Trung. In a move authorities called “unprecedented,” 68 others confessed to the same crime and demanded to share the punishment, and the glory, of protecting their village.

Huan and others were sent home with a suspended sentence — a perk offered to men who helped liberate Vietnam from the Americans. But three men, including Huan’s 20-year-old son, remain locked up under sentences ranging from six months to two years.

They will not waste away in prison. The trio are deluged with sweets and home-cooked food by locals proud that they helped inspire a wave of mob justice that has since swept Vietnam. One of their imitators, a mob in Vietnam’s north that also killed two dog thieves, upped the ante with a whopping 800-person confession.

“I’m proud,” says Huan, an infant grandchild dozing in his lap. “We’d do it all over again. But if there is a next time, we’ll try not to kill anyone.”

This article was edited by David Case @DCaseGP.

See also Eat, Prey, Love: Vietnam's dogs double as family members and dinner.