As the Yulin Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in China draws outrage around the world, in Cambodia restaurants serve up canine meat on a smaller scale. But even here the dish does not come without controversy.
Min Toeun’s husband dangles a noose through the cage at 7am every day and hooks one of the dogs around the neck. Then he yanks the dog up against the inside of the cage until it stops howling – normally after about 10 minutes – at which point he uses a hammer to cave in its skull. The noose is used to avoid dog bites, Toeun explained.
Toeun and her husband run a dog-meat shop in Kandal province. On Wednesday morning, he was away at a nearby village, responding to a call to collect another dog; almost all of the dogs they roast or cook in curry are sold to them by owners fed up with their bad behaviour, Toeun said. This week, there were 10 dogs split between the two steel cages behind the shop.
Across Cambodia, restaurants, butchers and slaughterhouses continue to fulfill demand for dog meat. But the trade is controversial, dividing opinion in Cambodia and further afield. To some, it is the source of one of Mother Nature’s tastiest meats, while to others it is unethical and inhumane. And it has again made international headlines in recent weeks with the start of the annual Lychee and Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China. Ten thousand dogs and cats were predicted to be slaughtered and eaten over the 10-day event, which ended yesterday.
A petition on Change.org calling for an end to the festival had gathered more than 4.6 million supporters as of this week, and a video created by the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation (AHWF), an American NGO, featured the likes of Matt Damon, Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara and other celebrities encouraging people to speak out against the festival.
Closer to home, AHWF founder Marc Ching included Cambodia on a whistle-stop “Road to Yulin” dog rescue tour of Southeast Asia earlier this month. Ching was unreachable for comment this week. The foundation’s only other employee, operations director Valerie Ianiello, explained that Ching returned from his trip depressed and had chosen to isolate himself while he recovered.
The AHWF claims on its website that it opposes the dog-meat trade because the belief that high levels of adrenaline in a dog’s system before death enhance the taste and health benefits of its meat could lead to animals being tortured. None of the numerous owners or patrons of dog meat outlets reporters spoke to this week had heard of this practice.
On June 14, Ching posted on the foundation’s Facebook page that he had bought a Cambodian slaughterhouse that had been killing between 20 and 60 dogs a day – Ianiello this week gave the figure as 15 to 20 – and helped the owner open a vegetarian noodle restaurant.
The following day, he posted footage of a team of men pulling the building down with ropes. Ianiello said Ching had originally hoped to use explosives, but that permission from the government was withdrawn.
Ianiello was unable to provide the address of the slaughterhouse or contact information for its owner, but Post Weekend spoke with people in Phnom Penh who had agreed to foster dogs taken from the slaughterhouse while AHWF found them homes in the US.
One of the foster owners was Martina Mayr, who recently established Animal Rescue Cambodia to work on animal welfare issues in the Kingdom. She took on three of the dogs rescued by Ching. One was missing its front paws, although Mayr said the injuries seemed too well healed to be recent. All three were friendly, even if one had chewed up Mayr’s mosquito curtains.
“I wanted to name them; but I don’t know... they’re only staying a month,” she said.
Keeping dogs as pets is nothing new in Cambodia. Loh Sothy said that he has sold dogs on the side of Sihanouk Boulevard for nearly 20 years, and they fetch anywhere between $20 and hundreds, depending on the breed.
“It’s quite expensive, but if [the customers] love dogs, they don’t think so,” Sothy said. “I don’t know about the people who eat dogs, but they don’t buy pet dogs to make food because it’s expensive. I used to eat dog before, but I haven’t for 10 years now.”
At least some who eat and sell dog meat see no contradiction in loving the pet and the flesh. Yan Gnet’s family has a simple dog-meat restaurant near the Rovieng commune market in Takeo’s Samrong district. Out front there are two large, low tables where workers come on their lunch breaks to chow down on $2.50 bowls of curry.
Out back, the curry pot steams atop an open fire, a snarling face staring up from it. Metres downwind from the pot is a 2m-tall concrete cylinder. Through a hatch in the cylinder’s lid, two dogs could be spied cowering in the darkness. Outside a small, golden-haired dog scuttled around as the family prepared for the lunchtime rush.
“I don’t cook my dog because it is smart and lives with us, but the dogs that are sold to us were bad dogs,” Gnet said. “Before we kill them, we tie their neck like a cow.”
Gnet’s wife Tep Heang said the family bought one or two “bad” dogs per day. “I buy them for 7,000 riel (about $1.75) a kilogram, or 120,000 (about $30) a dog,” said Heang. “People call me when they want to sell their dog because it attacked other animals or doesn’t listen to its owner.”
Om Sok, 24, and Chin Sophay, 32, go to the same dog meat restaurant on Kao Dai Road near Phnom Penh’s Darm Kor Market five times a week.
“We always want to eat it, we’re like dog addicts,” said Sok, a motodop driver. “It’s similar to beef.”
Except beef is more expensive. A plate of dog meat costs 5,000 riel (about $1.25) and the 500 ml bottle of rice wine to wash it down (beer clashes with dog on the palate, Sok explained) costs just 1,000 riel (about 25 cents).
Sok said that in his home province of Svay Rieng, he once kept a dog around the house but never got the satisfaction most people derive from a pet.
“I never named him because we don’t care about them the way people do in the city,” Sok said. Even so, he confessed that he could never kill a dog he had cared for, and that there is an indefinable difference between dogs and other animals. “Animals that I feed, I don’t kill them,” he said. “[A dog] is more special than other pets.”
While many are enamoured with dog meat’s unique flavour, not everyone supports indulging in it. In April of last year, 25 pet owners and their dogs gathered in Phnom Penh’s Dragon Park to raise awareness of the dog-meat trade but were immediately dispersed by police. The majority of participants were foreigners, but a handful of Cambodians were involved, too.
Om Phanit has a dog store facing the canal in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Trabek district. He bought the shop from its original owner more than a decade ago after spending his adolescence envying the man for spending his days surrounded by dogs.
“I am closer to dogs [than people], so I decided to buy it from him,” said Phanit, who never eats dog meat. “When I see people eating dog, I don’t stay with them, I run away. If I’m tricked into eating it, I can feel it.”
Even in rural Takeo, not everyone can stomach the idea of curried, grilled or fried canine.
“I can’t sell dog meat because the way they kill them is so cruel. Sometimes they put them in a plastic bag and push them underwater, sometimes they use a hammer,” Eng Kien said at the foot of Phnom Chisor. “When I petted dogs, I found that they are so smart and we cannot eat them.”
But even if some object to the way dog meat is produced, or even the mere fact of it, those that choose to make their living selling it are unlikely to be short of customers any time soon.
The owner of a Stung Meanchey district restaurant, who asked to remain anonymous, said on Tuesday that she does a roaring trade. “I can sell three dogs in one day,” she said, adding that Saturdays were particularly busy. “It’s more delicious than beef and it costs 8,000 riel (about $2) per plate. It’s about 60,000 riel (about $15) per kilogram, and one dog can be between 15 to 20 kilograms.”
The following day, Kandal dog meat vendor Minh Thoeun said that while she averaged sales of one dog a day, she can sell up to 10 dogs worth of meat on Sundays, when garment workers at nearby factories have their one day off.