(CNN)Untold millions will be cheering on Olympic athletes from around the world as they compete in Pyeongchang, South Korea. But while those athletes are skating and skiing and curling their way into Olympic history, not far away, something sinister is happening: Dogs are being slaughtered for their meat at more than 17,000 dog meat farms around that country, according to Humane Society International.
In the shadow of the Olympics, a brutal trade in dog meat
How do I know this? Because my dog, a golden retriever named Gatsby, was almost one of them. I began learning more after Gatsby was rescued from one of those farms. I adopted him two years ago.
In South Korea and elsewhere in Asia, farmers raise dogs to slaughter them for their meat.
Until the day they are killed, in some cases brutally, dogs farmed for meat are left alone in metal cages similar to chicken coops. They are given water just once a day and fed food scraps. They have no human contact, which dogs both need and crave. No love. No medical attention.
And it’s all legal.
In Asia, dog meat is part of the culture. It’s accepted and enjoyed by many. The Humane Society International says an estimated 30 million dogs are killed each year for their meat. In South Korea, HSI has now shut down 10 dog meat farms and rescued more than 1,200 dogs, HSI director of international media, Wendy Higgins, tells me. This is accomplished by persuading the farmers to agree to find a new way to make a living.
In December, our cameras were with a team from HSI at one of those rescues in Namyangju, about an hour outside the capital of Seoul. They rescued 170 dogs from that farm alone, including hounds, Chihuahuas and golden retrievers. In a strange and disturbing twist, the owner of that farm told us he has a dog for a pet, in addition to his so-called “meat dogs.”
“I love all animals. … I am raising an English bulldog. … He has so much character and is adorable. I’m going to take care of him until he passes away,” Kim Young Hwan told us.
During CNN’s visit to the farm, Nara Kim, who manages HSI’s campaign against dog meat farming in South Korea, told us she could hardly believe her eyes when she first visited a farm like the one in Namyangju.
“It was just shocking because the smell is really bad, and the conditions that dogs are in, it is just horrible. … The dogs were just so sweet. … They just want a connection. They just want some attention,” Kim said.
To avoid international criticism over the practice of killing dogs for human consumption, South Korean authorities shut down some dog meat markets in the lead-up to the Olympic Games. At market, dogs are often killed in public, either by hanging, beating or electrocution.
But shutting down the markets temporarily isn’t enough for thousands opposed to this practice. A petition at change.org calling for a boycott of the Winter Games over dog-eating practices has nearly half a million signatures.
And despite the partial market shutdown, government officials have told reporters that most restaurants in Pyeongchang County, where the Games are being held, are refusing to stop serving dog meat.
Some athletes competing at the Games are making their voices heard on this issue. Olympic figure skater Meagan Duhamel of Canada rescued her dog, Moo-tae, in 2017 from South Korea, and during these Winter Games, she hopes to rescue more.
She told me, “Any meat farming is wrong, whether it’s cows, pigs or dogs. Of course, in our culture in North America, slaughtering and eating dogs is so far from our reality. We see dogs as companions and man’s best friend. We can’t imagine anything bad happening to our beloved pets.”
She is right: It’s not commonly accepted in North America, though the slaughter of dogs and cats for their meat is still legal in 44 US states.
Duhamel hopes one day all the dog meat farms will be shut down for good, a monumental task. The Humane Society International also is hopeful.
Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy would also like to see the South Korean farms shuttered. He told me, “I’m going to focus on my sport, and while I’m there, I’d love to try and raise awareness for the dogs. … I would love to bring a dog back.”
In the United States, a bill introduced by Florida Rep. Alcee Hastings that now has 232 co-sponsors is making its way through Congress to stop the domestic dog and cat meat trade.
The bill, HR 1406, is known as the Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act, and it is gaining bipartisan support. It would amend the Animal Welfare Act to prevent people from knowingly slaughtering a dog or cat for human consumption. It also bans people from knowingly transporting, possessing, buying, selling or donating a dog or cat to be killed for human consumption.
Last July, Rebecca Glenn-Dinwoodie, a lawyer working with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, testified in a congressional briefing that the SPCA in Pennsylvania rescued more than 150 dogs from certain death at an unlicensed kennel. The kennel’s owner, she said “was quite forthcoming about their purpose: They were destined for the dinner table.”
I also testified on Capitol Hill about that bill and the dog meat trade in South Korea. I shared my dog Gatsby’s story with members of Congress, including Hastings.
I can’t imagine my sweet golden retriever pup being somebody’s dinner! As it was, it took him a while to feel safe in our home and to trust us, but the hard work has paid off. He’s brought me so much joy. I melt when I look at his big brown eyes.
The new owners of another sweet golden retriever named Sophia know just what I’m talking about. Sophia was trapped at that farm we visited outside Seoul until the Humane Society International rescued her. Now, she is happy in her new “forever home” outside Philadelphia. Free to run in a big backyard. Free to play with other dogs. Free to cuddle by the fireplace.
There’s a bright spot of hope in all of this: The leader of South Korea recently adopted a shelter dog rescued from a meat farm. President Moon Jae-in is now the proud owner of a 4-year-old mutt, the first “meat dog” to become a “first dog.”
One dog at a time …