Vietnamese dog owners say they're losing a war against the reckless thieves and illegal abattoirs that fuel the dog meat trade.
Some have suggested the government crack down hard against the fierce thieves by implementing criminal punishment for canine theft, but officials counter that Vietnam doesn't have enough jail cells to hold them all.
Three teenagers from Ho Chi Minh City outskirts died earlier this month while trying to stab a group of young dog thieves during a harrowing high-speed chase. The young vigilantes went down after the thieves shot them with a stun gun.
Stolen dogs are usually sold to restaurants for VND200,000 (US$$9.6) each. Because each crime represents a theft of less than VND2 million (the threshold for criminal charges in Vietnam), police can only fine the thieves.
For this reason, several communities plagued by these crimes opt to exact vigilante justice instead of handing them over to police.
A village in the north-central province of Quang Tri famously murdered dog thieves in 2012. When police arrested certain perpetrators, the entire community signed a mass confession for the crime. Last year, the same thing happened in the northern province of Hai Duong in May and in Thanh Hoa in June.
A crime without a punishment
“The victims of dog theft rarely report the crimes to the police,” said Phan Van Triet, the ranking police officer in Tan Thanh Dong Commune in HCMC’s Cu Chi District, where the three boys recently died.
Triet said he felt deeply frustrated last year, when his unit arrested six thieves with eight dogs and was forced to release them all with a cash fine.
“They’re robbers, not burglars,” said a man only identified as Tran Van H. from Cu Chi.
“They take dogs, cats, chicken and fight us by any means necessary; so they’re definitely robbers.”
Tran Van Mong, his neighbor, said certain dog thieves have become well-known in the neighborhood as they’re willing to face and challenge their victims to act.
Mong said his house lost a dog and a chicken this month. When he grabbed a stick and began to chase after the four thieves, they raised a stun gun and said: “We dare you.”
He didn't dare and let them go.
Another Cu Chi local says he's lost three dogs and two cats in the past two years, though he locked the animals up behind his front door.
“Dog and cat thieves are very brazen here; no one wants to mess with them as they all carry stun guns.”
Triet said the thieves act day and night and are even willing to fight the police.
The commune set up three roadblocks and assigned officers to man the posts all night. But the thieves rained iron ball bearings down on them with sling shots.
“Luckily they were wearing helmets and weren't injured,” Triet said.
Do Van Duong, a member of the parliamentary Justice Committee, said the penal code needs to be amended to prohibit dog theft.
| A DOG WORTH MORE THAN VND2 MIL
Nguyen Van Lang, vice chairman of the Vietnamese Dog Association, said dog theft and dog slaughtering persist because authorities consider the animal livestock.
“That’s not right.”
Lang has written op-eds about dogs dying for their owners, saving their owners by any means necessary, and not biting their owners as they butcher or sell them.
He said those are the reasons people have to change their perspectives on dog theft.
“It’s not fair to value a dog based on its weight. I once lost a dog and I offered VND10 million to anyone who could find it. Many dog lovers skip meals and cannot sleep when they lose their beloved pet.
“Dog theft needs to carry a heavier punishment,” he said.
“No matter how much money a thief can get for a stolen dog, they must be subject to criminal prosecution,” he said. “Only then can we address the public's frustration.”
Though a handful of legislators like Duong have been making similar statements for years, the matter was not raised during the recent month-long meeting of the National Assembly, Vietnam's legislature, and no concrete date has yet been established for such a discussion in the immediate.
Tran Van Do, vice presiding judge of the country’s supreme court, said: “There won’t be places to jail all the dog thieves.”
Do said a dog thief becomes a serious criminal once he picks up a weapon, or when commits multiple offenses—in which case, he said, police need to keep a more accurate and accessible criminal database so they can better-detect repeat-offenders.
Huynh The Ky, director of Ninh Thuan Province police, said the dog theft epidemic requires a comprehensive solution as it stems from multiple social problems like unemployment, gambling and drug addiction.
Several districts in the north-central province of Nghe An became dog theft hotspots prompting mobs of citizens to beat the drug-addicted thieves to death.
Nghi Long Commune in Nghi Loc District implemented a 10:30 p.m. curfew in 2010 to prevent dog thieves. Persons wishing to come or go beyond that hour had to contact the volunteer gatekeepers.
But, the problem persisted.
The commune police arrested several thieves and dog butchers last year, sending 26 youths including 19 drug addicts to rehab.
They have arrested two more dog thief rings during the first half of this year.
A dog theft “kingpin” was also arrested last September in Yen Thanh District.
Nguyen Canh Han, 58, ran the biggest dog meat wholesale shop in the district, supplying hundreds of kilos of dog meat to restaurants. Police say he trained local youths how to steal dogs and rented them equipment like motorbikes, bait and knives.
All dogs go to abattoirs
Dogs in a slaughterhouse in Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Hoai Nam
Vietnam's dog slaughterhouses are technically illegal and practically unregulated, health officials said.
Phan Xuan Thao, director of the HCMC Animal Health Department, said: “All dog slaughtering activities are conducted without a permit.”
Current regulations do not regulate dog slaughtering; there are no safety or quality controls on these facilities, Thao said, adding that it’s up to local officials to control the abattoirs as they see fit.
“Existing dog abattoirs can spread rabies,” he said.
Officials said the rabies virus can penetrate through cuts or scratches in butchers' hands.
Nguyen Tran Hien, director of the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, said a diarrhea outbreak that infected some 7,000 people in northern Vietnam in 2007 started in a slaughterhouse processing dogs smuggled in from Laos and Thailand.
Nguyen Thi Huynh Mai, deputy director of the HCMC food safety department, said diners eat dog without knowing if they're eating a sick dog or an animal addled by the strong poisons thieves used to fell them instantly.
Mai said official controls on dog slaughtering could discourage dog theft, by requiring abattoirs to buy dogs from legal sources.
At the moment, they remain an environmental and public health disaster.
Six abattoirs in HCMC's District 12 have significantly polluted nearby waterways.
Nguyen Quang Hai, a local, said they have been operating for more than ten years and “dump all their waste: dog fur and shit into the canals.”
Among the stinking buildings lies the abattoir that paid VND960,000 (US$45) for the three dogs brought in ten days ago by the kids who killed the three teenage vigilantes in Cu Chi District.
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