A dog's life

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A thriving canine meat industry means a brutal, unsafe existence for the consumer and the consumed

A man pumps water down a dog's throat to increase its weight before selling it near the An Lap Overpass in Ho Chi Minh City's Binh Tan District

At most times of the day, the An Lap Overpass in Binh Tan District looks like a place where pets, especially of the canine variety, are bought and sold.

The dogs traded here do not end up in homes, but in specialty food restaurants.

In Vietnam, where dog meat has long been considered as a tasty drinking food, a thriving, unregulated trade in the meat is only occasionally stymied by health raids.

Early this week, the Associated Press reported the closure of 60 dog restaurants and slaughterhouses around Hanoi. Reports said several of the facilities lacked proper health certificates for the animals. Others were selling meat that tested positive for cholera.

The facilities will re-open soon, officials said.

But a recent Thanh Nien undercover investigation into lesser-known dog markets in Ho Chi Minh City revealed more issues of concern than the trade's hygienic aspects. It discovered a cruel and dangerous economy.

Posing as a client looking to buy dog meat, the Thanh Nien reporter encountered Thang, a trader who buys dogs from suppliers and sells them to be slaughtered and sold to restaurants. Thang said he has used several tricks to outsmart buyers.

The trader said he used to toss cages filled with dogs into a canal in an effort to force the animals to drink as much water as possible before they were weighed for sale. Some dogs died in the process and slaughterhouse owners began to suspect wet dogs of being bloated, he said.

"We have found a new way by using a pipe to pump water directly to their stomach. Each dog can drink around two kilograms of water," he said. "It's an easy way to earn an extra VND50,000- VND70,000."

A plastic pipe is rammed down a dog's throat and attached to an upturned bottle. As the water flows into the dog's stomachs, the trader uses one hand to pin the dog's mouth against the cage. With the other, he keeps the water coming.

While dog-meat restaurants are more common in Vietnam's northern provinces, whole streets in HCMC are crowded with similar eateries. The popularity of dog meat rests on several beliefs including, as a 2000 article in the Bangkok Post mentioned, that it "boosts health," "increases longevity" and "increases body heat" in the winter months.

While the health benefits of dog meat can be debated, there is no doubt that the delicacy can also prove deadly.

Last year, a 48-year-old male construction worker was admitted to the intensive care unit of a Hanoi hospital. Video footage recorded at the time showed him sweating profusely, agitated and retching at the sight of water.

When doctors asked the man if he had been bitten by any animal, the patient answered no. However, two months earlier, he had taken home a dog that had been killed in a traffic accident. He butchered the dead animal and ate it, nose to tail, with a group of friends.

A saliva test showed him as positive for rabies. Six days later, he was taken home by his family to die.

The case study, authored by Dr. Heiman Wertheim and colleagues from the National Institute of Infectious and Tropical Diseases in Hanoi, indicated that the transmission could have been related to the butchering and/or eating of the dog meat.

In the comments section, the findings noted that a 2007 survey of a dog slaughterhouse revealed that "two out of ten sick dogs were positive for rabies." That same year, 40 percent of the hospital's rabies fatalities did not report animal bites or butchering of dog meat. They did, however, admit to eating dog meat, the study authors added.

"Dogs are the main reservoir for human rabies," the investigators wrote in their closing comments. "The raising, butchering, processing, and consumption of dogs should be regulated and controlled [ ... ] Unregulated raising and slaughtering of dogs should be rigorously discouraged through legislation and education."

The way that dogs are processed in Vietnam is not too different for the norm for other meat. "Vietnam does not have an actual meat processing industry with industrial slaughtering and processing at the moment," a livestock industry report produced by the Danish Embassy states. "Veterinary control and inspections are insufficient."

Vietnam is walking an odd limbo. Dog slaughterhouses remain legal in the country. Though there are no standards for the slaughtering and processing of the animals, the national rabies prevention program has included the vaccination of dog slaughterhouse workers.

Recent efforts to regulate the industry were struck down in February last year by animal rights activists who are hoping to ban dog meat outright.

"Even if you were to make regulations, you couldn't properly manage [dog slaughterhouses]," said Tuan Bendixsen, Vietnam Director of the Hong Kong-based International NGO Animals Asia Foundation (AAF). "Then there are the ethics behind it..."

Bendixsen stressed the importance of a nationwide dog vaccination program which, he says, is showing good results.

He further stressed the importance of border management: making sure that no dogs are imported into the country without proper health certificates.

Last year, the GlobalPost reported that "each month, regional syndicates collect roughly 30,000 free-roaming strays in Thailand for illegal export to Vietnam, where demand for dog meat runs high."

House of horrors

After speaking with Thang, the undercover Thanh Nien reporter followed two dog traders from the An Lap Overpass to an illegal slaughterhouse in Go Vap District's Ward 13. Local residents said the house on a small alley off Le Duc Tho Street is often bustling from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. Traders sell the dogs in the evening. The following morning, before sunrise, they are slaughtered and sold to buyers.

"The slaughterhouse peaks at around 4 a.m. in the morning with the cries of dogs being slaughtered," said a local resident wishing to remain anonymous. "We were annoyed at first. Now we've gotten used to it."

The slaughterhouse is a room of about 20 square meters. A large cage sits in the corner packed with live dogs.

During the slaughter, the dogs' throats are slashed. The bodies are thrown into boiling water and placed into a machine that strips off their fur. The carcasses are then singed on a dirty floor until the skin achieves a desired yellow hue. In the final step, the carcasses are butchered and stored in a heap, next to a toilet.

The owner of the slaughterhouse, known only as L., said he sells between 200-250 kilograms of meat every day to dog meat eateries in the area.

"I usually slaughter hundreds of dogs a day," L. said. "We're only doing a few dozen today because traders have a hard time getting them on rainy days."

Traders roam the streets of the city, buying and/or catching strays, a task made difficult during heavy downpours.

Grave risk

In May, the Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) warned that the current conditions under which dog meat is processed and distributed pose a grave risk to public health.

Irene Feng, who runs AAF's animal-therapy Doctor Dog program in China said there is no scientific evidence to support claims about the nutritional and medicinal benefits of dog meat. "In fact there are a number of diseases associated with the dog meat trade, such as cholera, rabies and trichinellosis, and all of these can be transmitted to humans. We also believe that in some areas, teams of dog killers use cyanide to poison the dogs before selling them to meat markets," she said.

She said dog farms provide optimal conditions for the spread of communicable diseases. The trade and movement of dogs over large distances also increased the risk of disease transmission, she added.

In February last year, AAF hailed the Vietnam Central Department of Animal Health's announcement that they would not enact legislation designed to regulate the processing of dog meat for human consumption.

"We're working with the dept. of animal health on an outright ban," Bendixsen said. "With the public behind us, we should be able to get it through."

In the meantime, dog meat lovers continue to fill restaurants in Hanoi and HCMC. It remains unclear where these people will go if AAF gets its way.

Until then, cholera

Hanoi health officials have stated that so far this year, 121 out of 200 reported cases of cholera in the capital are related to dog meat.

On July 10, the capital city's Health Department announced a dog meat sample had tested positive for cholera bacteria. Two days later, another sample tested positive.

Le Anh Tuan, the department director, said inspectors collected the dog meat samples at a slaughterhouse in Duc Giang Commune, Hoai Duc District. Slaughterhouses in this area often supply large quantities of meat to downtown Hanoi's dog meat restaurants and eateries.

The department has ordered dog slaughterhouses and traders to halt their work for two weeks  until health officials decontaminate the facilities.

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