As the Winter Olympics approach this week, figure skater Meagan Duhamel still shudders to think the dog she rescued from South Korea might have ended up on someone’s dinner plate.
Duhamel, a Canadian, is a contender with Eric Radford in the pairs competition and heads to Pyeongchang in search of gold, as well as another dog that she can save from slaughter.
Eating dog meat is common and legal in Korea, as well as many parts of Asia, and is mainly eaten by older people. Dotted around the country are thousands of restaurants serving “gaegogi” dishes that, according to folklore, have strengthening and medicinal properties.
“It is just sad because when the world is watching the Olympics little is known or spoken about the (Korean dog meat trade),” Duhamel told USA TODAY Sports. ”There are hundreds of dog meat farms tucked away and nobody is talking about this. The buzz will be about the Olympics.”
According to The Associated Press, restaurants “nearly in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium” are still selling dog meat meals. According to the Humane Society International, around 2.5 million Korean dogs are killed for their meat each year.
The Korean government, realizing the issue is sensitive for foreigners, has offered money to restaurants if they stop serving dog meat during the Games and has requested that signs advertising the meals be covered up or removed.
“This is an Olympics story,” Marc Ching, a Bay Area activist who founded the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation, said. “I am half Korean. Koreans are very proud of hosting the Olympics. Why this has to be tied to the Olympics is that the government itself is actually paying to hide this from the world. Maybe if … they just said ‘this is part of our culture,’ it would be different.”
Animal rights activists claim that dogs, as well as cats, in the meat trade are subjected to horrific conditions and insist nothing is being done to end the practice. That is despite Korean President Moon Jae-in being a dog lover who recently adopted a pet saved from a dog meat farm. Campaigners are determined to use the Olympics to raise awareness and hope that support from athletes and international pressure may spark a change in legislation.
However, it is a difficult subject and, perhaps understandably, some athletes prefer not to speak out about something that is both culturally sensitive and controversial.
“Every country and every culture has different traditions and we are always respectful of those,” American ice dance skater Alex Shibutani said. “I can’t speak too much because I’m just not familiar with their culture.”
According to Ching, the issue is less about the consumption of dog meat, and more about the stomach-turning practices that are used to slaughter the animals.
“In Korea they usually put a noose around the dog’s neck and take them out back, hang them and beat them,” Ching said. “Another method is they just smash their head open. Sometimes they do electrocution. They shock them and burn them or de-fur them. With electrocution many times they are still alive. It is terrible.”
In many parts of Asia, dogs are often tortured and beaten before they are killed as it is believed that the adrenaline makes the meat more tender. Korean farmers defend their right to keep dogs packed in cages and to treat them as any other animal being raised for human consumption.
“How can we sell (them) when we’re training and communicating with them individually?” Kim Sang-young, president of the Korean Dog Farmers Association told the Hankyoreh news site. “They’re just livestock. We raise them with affection so they don’t suffer, but the purpose is different.”
On Monday, USA TODAY Sports sent a message requesting comment to the official press office email account of the Pyeongchang organizing committee and to Nancy Park, spokesperson and director of international media relations for the 2018 Olympic organizing committee.
USA TODAY Sports received a reply from the news desk of the organizing committee, with its "official statement on dog meat consumption."
The statement read: "We are aware of the international concern around the consumption of dog meat in Korea. This is a matter which the government should address. We hope that this issue will not impact on the delivery or reputation of the Games and the province and we will support the work of the province and government on this topic as needed. Also, dog meat will not be served at any Games venue.”
Pets stolen for meat
Nami Kim, a prominent campaigner based outside Seoul, has sent more than 1,200 rescued dogs to the United States through her Save Korean Dogs program. Several have been fostered by a family in Irvine, Calif., Lana Chung Peck, her husband Kevin and their two young children.
Chung Peck said that the mental scars of mistreatment run deep. When the dogs first arrive they are often unaccustomed to positive human interaction. That was the case with their current foster, a Jindo named Julie.
“She would be frightened of anything in front of her,” Chung Peck said. “Any human, any dog, any sudden movement.”
“At first the dogs who come are almost feral,” Kevin Peck added. “They don’t want to walk, don’t want to be touched. But within weeks they are almost like a puppy.”
Four years ago, dog protection became a major issue during the Winter Olympics, with the plight of the strays of Sochi touching the hearts of visitors. Gus Kenworthy, a slopestyle silver medalist in freestyle skiing, rescued several animals. So did members of the United States hockey team. Kenworthy did not respond to a request for comment for this story.
The Korean dog farming industry tries to draw a distinction between dogs as pets and dogs as food, but Ching says some dogs that end up in restaurants are stolen from family homes. Ching has rescued dogs from slaughterhouses and found microchips embedded in them.
He also highlighted the enduring popularity of “gaesoju,” a potion manufactured by boiling a dog whole, in a pot mixed with herbs. Ching says that because the dog’s intestines are not removed, fecal matter remains inside them. He and Nami Kim also say that dogs are kept in such poor conditions that many of them are dying and terribly sick.
“It takes a truly disgusting mind to treat dogs in this way,” renowned dog trainer and author Tamar Geller, who trained Oprah Winfrey’s pets, said. “Receiving such cruelty is not just a torture of a dog’s body but also its mental state. Some of these animals know nothing but fear from the start to the end of their lives.”
Olympics highlight issue
Internationally, the issue of Korean dog meat has not been widely publicized. The Olympics, however, has a habit of bringing things to the fore.
“It's an industry that – even in Korea – the vast majority of the population is against,” actress and animal rights campaigner Pamela Anderson said via email. “Removing the signs is great but I’d like to see them remove the restaurants altogether. If you’re visiting Korea for the Olympics, they do have some great vegan restaurants.”
Duhamel, meanwhile, is focused on trying to achieve her Olympic ambition but hopes that her stance will encourage more people to adopt. Olympic visitors may also be able to volunteer to transport dogs back to North America, such as Duhamel is doing with Toronto-based Free Korean Dogs.
At first she thought her current dog’s name Mootae, had some symbolic significance as he had been rescued by a Buddhist monk. In actual fact, Mootae just means “not big.”
The issue, for those who care about it, is anything but small. Duhamel is deeply conscious of Korea’s cultural differences, even though “it is so removed from our reality.”
But eventually the matter bothered her so much that she decided to take action. And whether she wins gold or not, she will be taking something precious back home.