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Posted : 2010-04-01 19:31
Updated : 2010-04-01 19:31

A Dog’s Life (1)

By Mathias Specht

When I received a kitten for my birthday during my time at Yonsei University some years ago, I was already expecting a few problems, mainly because of my occasional travels. What I had not braced myself for, however, was the small odyssey that followed as I was forced to move from one place to another in search of a pet-friendly apartment. But how could finding such a place possibly be so difficult in a city as enormous as Seoul?

I guess the easiest explanation is that domestic animals are simply not as much a part of life here as they are in the West, where growing up, virtually every family in our neighborhood kept at least one. And while over the last few years cats have seemed to have gained in popularity, mainly because of a veritable ``cat boom," following a trend of sharing cute amateur cat pictures over Korean blogs, dogs still seem to be the most common pets.

At least the fact that even smaller supermarkets carry dog food, whereas products for cats have to be bought at larger shops or specialty stores supports this opinion. Living in Korea, dogs basically face one of two possible existences. Either, they are pampered little creatures, carried in handbags to beauty salon appointments ― ``Paris Hilton-style" ― or, in case they are bigger and/or live in less urban areas, they not unlikely will find themselves outside, tied to a pole with a 2-ft. iron chain, eating leftovers or garbage.

Essentially though, the largest difference between pets here and in the West, is how their owners view them. To my impression, Koreans see them less as family members, with their own interests and right to happiness and fulfilling lives, and more as property with the purpose of entertaining and pleasing its owner.

The perception of them by people other than their owners is usually even worse: Dogs are filthy, provoke allergies and are noisy. Consequently, it is next to impossible to walk dogs outside where other people are, whether in the city, at a public park, or even when hiking in the mountains. Not surprisingly, acceptance on the subway or in restaurants is practically zero.

In fact, I think in my entire time living in Korea, I have not seen more than maybe a handful of dogs being walked on a leash. Not only does that strike me as against the nature of a dog, it is also quite different from Western countries such as France, where every family seems to take their dog out in the evenings or on the weekend. Even in many restaurants and the countless roadside cafes, dogs can be found resting under the tables next to their owners, often drinking from a bowl supplied free of charge by the waiter.

As a result, the vast majority of pet dogs in Korea have to complete their toilet business indoors ― a detail I found rather surprising, when it first occurred to me. But I have to admit that it was rather charming to see my friend's dog, after using the toilet, turn the bathroom mat to indicate that there was some cleaning up to be done inside.

But no discussion about dogs in Korea would be complete without mentioning this one facet, which has brought the country a lot of negative press and urges itself prominently into the spotlight of public attention at least once per year ― during the hottest days of summer. Following Korean tradition, people enjoy a range of special dishes on these days called ``boyangshik," which are believed to restore energy that has been drained by the excessive summer heat.

While there are different choices, such as cold noodles or chicken soup with ginseng, the most infamous one is ``boshintang," a stew which uses dog meat as its main ingredient. But even outside summer, boshintang is readily available in countless specialty restaurants all over the country.

Although according to meat vendors and restaurants, the dogs that are used for boshintang are especially farm-raised for the purpose of human consumption, at least according to various activist groups, their origin often seems rather obscure. Considering how limited government regulations of the industry are, it is does not seem too far-fetched to assume that some are stray dogs, or perhaps taken from their owners and those that were indeed raised for consumption do not come from a living environment that would qualify as a ``farm" in the Western sense of the word.

Also, despite what many Koreans try to convince foreigners of, it really isn't the case that just one special breed, a sort of "food dog" would be used for boshintang. The strategy behind this argumentation is clearly to create an artificial distance between the dogs that are killed and eaten here and those that foreigners might love and cherish at home, but neither is this accurate nor would it be particularly convincing.

Even if it were true that only one dog breed had been arbitrarily selected and deemed for consumption in Korea, this would still be nothing more than a random distinction, neither justifying treating them differently nor making the practice as a whole anymore appropriate.

This is the first installment of a two-part article. The writer is an MBA graduate from Yonsei University and founder of the Korean company Stelence International. He is currently writing a book about Korea and can be reached at mathias@stelence.com.

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