Eat, Prey, Love: Vietnam’s dogs double as family members and dinner

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A vendor sells dog meat at the Hanoi Beer festival held in downtown Hanoi.

Credit:

Hoang Dinh Nam

Editor's note: This article is part of a GlobalPost in-depth series. See also Dog Thief Down: Pet lovers turned vigilantes in Vietnam.

HANOI, Vietnam — Thu the dog butcher can’t help but look like a B-movie villain. A half-smoked cigarette smolders between his lips. His boots are slick with canine blood.

Worst of all, he keeps prodding dogs with a homemade shock baton.

Thu is pacing around a brick-walled slaughterhouse in the outskirts of Hanoi. There are at least half a dozen dogs here, trembling inside wire cages, too terrified to bark.

Thu zeroes in on a tawny mutt. He primes his DIY taser, a contraption powered by a motorbike battery and held together with electrical tape.

“In just a minute,” Thu says mysteriously, “this dog will be white as snow.”

It takes two jolts to turn it into a convulsing mess. Thu lifts its limp body by the neck with an iron clamp. He plops it onto a chopping board, jabs its throat with a small blade and slides a basin beneath its head to collect the blood.

And then the dog somehow stands upright, zombie like, and takes a few steps. Thu is impressed by its half-dead defiance. “What is this,” he says, “a mountain dog?” He reaches for a iron rod. The cement floor of his abattoir resounds once, twice, with the sound of steel breaking skull.

Dead at last, the dog is dunked into a vat of scalding water. Its fur melts off in clumps.

Sure enough, dogs boiled bald are a brilliant shade of white.

“See?” says Thu. “It’s as easy as bathing a child.”

 

Pork, dog, beef or kale

Within hours, Thu has finished off a few more dogs and showcased their meat in a glass display case. Scruffy guys and women cradling toddlers stop by to bum cigarettes and gossip — all while dogs shiver and bleed at their feet.

“I know Westerners think killing dogs is too violent,” says Thu, 43, who runs the busy dog slaughterhouse with his wife. “But for me?” he says. “This is just business.”

Thu pays about $45 per head for live dogs. He says he buys them off middlemen who collect from rural pet owners in need of cash.

When he’s not electrocuting and clobbering dogs, Thu can sound like a new-age farmer promoting the perks of free-range agriculture. “Dog meat is healthier than pork,” he says. “It’s not pumped full of all those chemicals.”

Whether you view Thu as an amiable neighborhood butcher or a dog-murdering monster depends a lot on where you were born. Many Americans can’t help but sneer at Vietnam’s dog-eating culture. Most find it repugnant. Or at least weird.

But weird varies wildly from culture to culture. Most dog-eaters think it’s weird that Americans let dogs sleep on their beds. (They’d just as soon nap with a rat.)

 

In Vietnam, older residents may find it doubly weird — better yet, obnoxious — to hear sermons on animal welfare from citizens of a country that once rained napalm on their heads to halt the spread of communism.

Meanwhile, billions around the world reject eating pork (Muslims and Jews), beef (Hindus), or any meat at all (vegetarians).

Westerners who recoil at dog eating naturally stir questions about the treatment of pigs and raise the specter of hypocrisy. Both dogs and pigs are capable of loyalty and affection. Both can be taught to complete complex tasks.

Most researchers believe swine are actually more clever than dogs; some even liken pigs’ intellect to that of chimps. Yet many Americans relish bacon just as many Vietnamese delight in dog meat sautéed with lemongrass.

So is eating dog really so sinister? And why did one intelligent species find its way into our hearts and another into our freezers?

Pets or pests

Dogs are indeed hard-wired to love us.

Spouses and friends may let us down; a dog’s love is unwavering. They greet us with unbridled joy and ask only for some kibble and a walk in return.

But treating them like family members — called “pet humanization” by sociologists — is a relatively recent phenomenon, even in the Western world.

Offering long strolls, modern medicine and name-brand food to dogs is easy when you have disposable income and leisure time. But the many people who have neither are more likely to see dogs as useful vermin — creatures that can be chained to a post to ward off intruders.

Much of the planet is too overrun with sickly mutts to view dogs as huggable companions. Try to pet one of these flea-ridden animals and you might feel their incisors slicing your hand. In many parts of Southeast Asia, that’s still the case.

But Asia’s economic boom has given rise to a growing class that can finally afford to dote on pets.

Nowhere is the clash between old and new pet sensibilities more stark than Vietnam’s north. Though this is Southeast Asia’s dog-eating heartland, it’s also home to young go-getters pursuing middle-class dreams — like earning enough income to pamper a poodle.

A grizzled farmer in Vietnam is apt to see dogs as violent and diseased. A well-to-do Hanoi millennial is more likely to see them as cute and benign.

 

Dogs can be all of the above. According to the emerging science of anthrozoology — the study of human-animal relations — the unique marriage of these qualities helps explain why most affluent societies tend to think dogs make better friends than food.

Don’t cook that carnivore

Many millennia ago, at the outset of the canine-human union, dogs weren’t kept around for the cuddles. They were four-legged waste eaters, alarm systems and, yes, an emergency source of food.

“Humans have been eating dogs for a long time,” says Hal Herzog, a top expert in anthrozoology and psychology professor at Western Carolina University. “It’s quite possible dogs were originally domesticated because they were tasty but could also do chores.”

“When times got hard,” Herzog says, “you could eat them.” He cites the discovery, in Texas, of a 9,400-year-old mound of human feces flecked with bits of dog skull.

Today, dog is still eaten in small communities from Nigeria to the Philippines. Some Germans and French ate dogs to survive wartime blockades. Dog has even been sampled by the world’s most powerful man: Barack Obama, fed dog as a tyke in Indonesia.

But there are only a few nations where dog cuisine is relatively mainstream. They form an arc running from the Koreas through China and into Vietnam. By most estimates, humans eat more than 15 million dogs per year, and this Asian nexus supplies most of the appetite.

Over the past century, all of these nations have been marked by conflict and famine. That invites an easy explanation: Their dog-eating habits must be borne from desperate poverty.

But it doesn’t hold up, especially not in the 21st century, when most dog eaters in these rising economies will spend $40 or more — several times the typical local tab — on a dog meat dinner for four.

Dog is not a poor man’s meat. Price wise, it’s closer to rib-eye steak. In Vietnam, dog sells for roughly three times the cost of pork.

A basic fact of agriculture accounts for that lofty cost: There’s just no good way to raise dogs en masse on intensive farms.

Dogs are carnivores. They’re predators with fangs. There’s a reason Thu the dog butcher lifts them by the throat with steel clamps. He doesn’t want to get mauled.

But pigs, cows and chickens are harmless plant-eaters. They’re prey.

Humans can force them to live and die in cramped cages on gigantic farms, driving down their cost with economies of scale, so that we can enjoy their meat for cheap.

Try corralling thousands of dogs into tight pens, however, and you’re staging a bloodbath.

 

“Dogs don’t flock together for safety like prey animals” such as pigs, says Rosemary Elliott, president of the Australia-based group Sentient: The Veterinary Institute for Animal Ethics. Their tendency to fight, she says, means that “keeping them in pens isn’t effective.”

Elliott says forcing dogs into a typical farming pen would be “throwing carnivores into a space and watching them rip each other apart.” Like wolves, dogs must establish a social order that dictates access to food, water and female dogs in heat.

“They have to know who’s top dog,” Elliott says. This hierarchy is often hashed out through violence. (Pets are spared this savagery because order is imposed by an indisputable leader: the human.)

As for forcing dogs into corrals, “Some might say, ‘It doesn’t matter. They’re going to be meat anyway so who cares if they hurt each other?’” Elliott says. “Well, you’ve also got the spread of disease.” Dogs gnawing each another apart are likely to circulate rabies — a disease that’s fatal and easily contracted by humans.

The inevitable bloodshed, disease and even dogs’ expensive dietary requirements add up to make industrial canine farming look like a costly nightmare.

“There’s a reason it hasn’t been done,” Elliott says. Hence the current method in Vietnam: collecting pets and smashing them in the skull.

“The way dogs are slaughtered now,” she says, “is cheap and brutal.”

In search of humane dog meat

Forty thousand years ago, humans developed a symbiotic relationship with friendlier-than-average wolves and gradually transformed them into dogs. We’ve spent millennia selectively breeding dogs that bow to our authority and favor human companionship.

“That’s why you can’t come up with a humane dog meat operation,” Herzog says. “They need to socialize with us. They need to be played with.”

I asked Herzog to try anyway. If dog-eaters ever get weary of international scorn, can they possibly design a humane canine slaughterhouse? Like a typical American dog shelter that doubles as an abattoir?

“For me, shelters would not be the ideal,” Herzog says. “It’s never ideal to keep a dog in a little cage and only take them out for five minutes a day. They need more than that to be happy.”

Even dogs that end up in Vietnam’s meat trade get a better deal than that. Most run loose around their owner’s rice paddies before they’re sold to a slaughterhouse.

These dogs don’t get vaccinations and check-ups. But they at least enjoy a degree of freedom when they’re alive — even if that comes with a side of intestinal worms.

Herzog suggests that dog-eaters could “maybe pay people to raise them. That’s how we get guide dogs.”

But acquiring dogs through this method — or even creating well-staffed shelters offering loads of play time — would drive the cost of dog meat to ludicrous highs. No one’s going to pay $200 for a platter of dog ribs.

That brings us back to the status quo in Vietnam: collecting pets and strays, cramming them into wire cages and whacking them with pipes.

This is the fate of roughly 5 million dogs per year in Vietnam, according to the Asia Canine Protection Alliance. In Western circles, this trade is a blight on Vietnam’s reputation. Major animal rights groups such as Humane Society International condemn “severe cruelty at all stages of the dog meat trade.”

That cruelty is most glaring at the last stage: slaughter. Unlike in the US, where pigs and cows are stunned unconscious before death, dogs are often just bashed over the head.

Still, Herzog suggests that many of us, if given the choice, would choose the life of a Vietnamese dog over an animal farmed in US factories — even if the farm animal’s last moments are less excruciating.

“Let’s say you can be farmed. Or you can be a semi-stray dog that gets to run around,” Herzog says. “Then, one day, after you’ve led this pretty good life in Hanoi, you’re picked up and turned into dinner.”

“My guess?” he says, “You’d prefer to be the stray.”

Gluttony and heartbreak

It’s easy to conclude that any society that turns dogs into stew must be immune to the animal’s charms. But that’s not exactly the case.

 

Many Vietnamese dog-eaters try to compartmentalize their feelings toward canines. The one that follows them everywhere and likes his belly scratched is a pet. Every other dog is potential food.

“Honestly, we don’t feel differently towards a chicken or a dog,” says Nguyen Anh Tuan, 28, a Hanoi resident who works for one of America’s biggest tech firms. He’s also an avid dog eater. “Chicken, fish, dog. They’re all the same.”

Except when they’re not.

Tuan admits to feeling differently about one dog — his dog — that grew up alongside him during childhood. Its name was Mick. And its death still haunts him.

One day, as a teenager, Tuan returned home from a trip to discover the dog he’d raised from a pup had vanished. His father told him not to waste time searching for Mick. “My dad said, ‘Oh, I’ve eaten him.’”

“I was so furious,” he says. “My father never saw him as a close friend. He just saw him as an alarm system.” Tuan dug through garbage in hopes of finding a stray bone, a little sliver of his lost friend to honor with a burial. But even its remains were gone.

“I can really love dogs,” Tuan says. But these days, as an adult, he also really loves eating them — just like his dad. “If I see pictures of dogs getting killed, I’m touched. But if my friends invite me to go eat dog meat, I can let it go.”

Some can’t.

“It’s uncivilized!” says Vu Thi Thu Trang, a bespectacled 29-year-old woman from Hanoi. “To me, it’s like eating a human.”

Trang’s childhood was also warped by her father’s dog-killing habit. At least once a year, she says, he’d come home with a cute dog and tie it to a post in their yard.

“We’d keep it a while” — just long enough for her to get attached — “and then he’d kill it,” she says. “With one big bang on the forehead.”

“Even in primary school, this made no sense,” says Trang, dabbing at tears streaking her cheeks. “These dogs were my friends! And isn’t it cruel to eat your friends?”

She never let it go. Instead, the experience transformed her into Hanoi’s self-appointed savior of vulnerable cats and dogs.

 

Today, when she’s not working at her office job, or tending to her infant son, Trang pours every spare moment into a rag-tag operation called Hanoi Pet Rescue, which she created in 2012. Its mission: to find a home for every discarded pet in the city. No matter how ugly. No matter how sick.

Her phone rings, day and night, with citizen reports of abandoned pets. Trang and her team rush out on motorbikes, pick up stranded animals off the street and place them with foster families via Facebook, where the group’s page has nearly 150,000 likes.

But Trang and like-minded Vietnamese — who believe dog-eating is morally obscene — are only a tiny minority in Hanoi. “I pay a price for my position,” Trang says. “People laugh at us. They think I’m crazy.”

“We are a cultural anomaly”

To most Americans, Trang sounds perfectly sane — perhaps a voice of reason in a dystopian world where roasted dog heads are displayed on the street. But she has much less in common with the typical American of just a century or so ago, when animal welfare was a distant priority.

Imagine a city where the government pays the poor 50 cents to kill stray dogs. Imagine officials cramming unwanted dogs into cages and lowering them into a river as crowds watch for entertainment.

That’s New York City in the mid-19th century, when the metropolis was flooded with strays. An 1857 New York Times report described these mass dog drownings as a “confusion of howls, a gulping, bubbling, choking sound ... and when the water is drawn off, there are 50 dog corpses.”

“They’d do it all morning long,” Herzog says. “People would come and watch.”

Fast forward to the 21st century and the New York Times is running op-eds with titles like “Dogs are people too.” The public perception of dogs, Herzog says, has changed radically in the West. But many cultures haven’t come along for the ride.

“In most cultures, the idea that dogs are people is bizarre,” he says. “We are a cultural anomaly.”

Thu the dog butcher agrees: Westerners’ habit of coddling dogs is straight-up odd. But he concedes that slaughtering dogs is nasty work. He’s hoping to quit in the next few years. “It’s no good. Killing animals is bad luck,” Thu says. “I don’t want to pass this profession down to my children.”

Viewed through an American lens, Thu is vicious. He casually cuts dog throats and then goes back to munching noodles. He mashes dogs into cages so tight they can barely wriggle. He’s at his most menacing when he fires up his homemade shock baton and zaps dogs into a stupor.

But in Thu’s mind, he’s a responsible butcher with a compassionate streak. That shock baton? It’s not meant to torture. It’s meant to blast their senses so they don’t feel the blade at their throat.

“I used to just beat them with poles. But that causes too much pain,” says Thu, his taser at the ready. “That’s why I started using this. I think it’s more humane.”

This article was edited by David Case @DCaseGP.

Editor's note: This article is part of a GlobalPost in-depth series. See also Dog Thief Down: Pet lovers turned vigilantes in Vietnam.