Saving the Lost Dogs of Vietnam

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Nobody in the village was prepared for murder. It happened quickly: just past the stroke of midnight, two bandits crept through the moonlit rice fields of Nhi Trung, a small village located in the central Vietnamese province of Quang Tri. They tiptoed along the mud paths and between the concrete farmhouses. Armed with homemade tasers, lassos, and burlap sacks, the marauding vagabonds scoured the darkness for signs of life.

They didn’t discover a helpless dog to bind and kidnap. Instead, the bandits were greeted by a cry to arms that spread like fire throughout the village. There was no time for escape. Several of the strongest farm boys laid the dog thieves out in a ditch. Viet Cong vets, young mothers, sons and daughters alike joined in on beatings that turned to bloodshed.

Nearly 700 miles away, writer Patrick Winn caught the headline in a Vietnamese newspaper. The young journalist had already made waves back home in the States, publishing freelance work for industry titans like the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, VICE, and The Atlantic. His growing concern for the lives of post-totalitarian Myanmar set his sights for Southeast Asia, and eventually awarded him the “poor man’s Pulitzer”–the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award—for his reporting in the area.

Now a senior Southeast Asia correspondent for the GlobalPost, Winn was stationed in Bangkok when he read the news about the double homicide in Central Vietnam.

“My job requires that I keep tabs on the regional press each day,” he tells BTR. While the sun sets over the Manhattan skyline, half a world away it’s only just beginning to rise over Winn’s apartment.

“I picked up the story while monitoring a Vietnamese newspaper,” he continues. “Though this phenomenon was largely unknown in the West, violent retaliation against dog thieves started flooding Vietnam’s domestic press more than a year ago.”

When police first arrived on the scene, only ten villagers were arrested. Before long, however, the entire community stepped forward to sign a mass confession that included more than 80 signatures.

That was the summer of 2012. The Nhi Trung killings sparked a revolution that served as a catalyst for nationwide strings of vigilante attacks. In the three years since, at least 20 dog thieves have been murdered at the hands of renegade village mobs. The exact number of total attacks and severe injuries are too numerous to count.

The image of a dog grilled over open flames will no doubt trigger an abhorrent, gut-wrenching reaction from Americans and Europeans. Vietnam, however, has never served as a safe haven for our domestic companions. Those who belong to the older generations cherish canines as a delicacy to wash down with a bottle of rice wine.

According to health officials in the country, Vietnam’s dog slaughterhouses are technically illegal and virtually unregulated. No permits are necessary. Once captured and subdued, dogs are sold for $20 a head and shipped to provinces across the country.

Still, dog thievery remains a somewhat recent phenomenon. The surge in pet theft largely stems from a rift in the country’s dog meat supply chain. The Asia Canine Protection Alliance, or ACPA, a humanitarian network containing the Humane Society and regional animal rights groups like the Soi Dog Foundation, reports that Vietnam consumes roughly five million dogs every year. Canines sourced from within the country are collected from Vietnamese farmers in the north—who often keep a few extra with the hopes of selling them for quick cash.

Dog meat being sold on the streets of Hanoi.

Until recently, however, the largest supply chain extended beyond the borders of Vietnam entirely.

When UK retiree John Dalley first caught wind of the dog trade in 2007, it was through a photograph that circled into his possession. The haunting image depicted a truck shipment moving through Laos. Over 1,000 dogs were packed into the back, squeezed into tiny steel cages that restricted their movement to the point of tangled and broken limbs. The dogs were from Thailand, en route to wholesale markets in Vietnam.

“I approached all of the large international charities, but none of them were interested at that time,” Dalley tells BTR.

The shocking number of Thai strays inspired Dalley and his wife Gill to found the Soi Dog Foundation in 2003. As a Buddhist country, Thailand offers no official policy for euthanasia. An estimated 640,000 dogs still live on the streets of Bangkok, hairless skeletal phantoms often festering with open sores.

Despite a series of devastating setbacks (Gill lost both of her legs from septicaemia contracted while rescuing a dog from a flooded water buffalo field in 2004), Soi Dog still managed to open numerous clinics around the country and provide low-cost sterilization practices for local vets. They’ve since become the largest animal welfare organization dealing with stray dogs and cats in all of Asia.

The Thai-Vietnamese dog meat trade, however, has proven to be their most formidable opponent yet. In 2011, roughly 500,000 dogs were exported illegally to Vietnam or killed locally for skins and local consumption in North East Thailand. Thai and Vietnamese authorities didn’t seem to mind.

John and Gill realized fear-mongering would be the only feasible tactic to influence the corrupted city officials. Using previously existing laws banning the movement of unvaccinated dogs, undercover agents were employed to uncover the traders’ routes and embarrass authorities into taking action.

Two years later, a conference held in Hanoi with government representatives from Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia reached an agreement. An international ban on the importation of these dogs was immediately put into effect—but not because of animal welfare issues.

“They agreed to place a ban on importing dogs for meat consumption, but only because of the threat of spreading rabies that the trade encourages,” explains Dalley.

Regardless of incentive, the legislation should have marked a considerable victory for both Soi Dog and all Southeast Asian canines. But in an unforeseen domino effect, the country’s ban on an international dog trade has placed more pressure than ever on securing meat for those in need. This stagnant desperation eventually spawned the recent wave of Vietnamese dog thievery.

A dog thief holds up his bounty.

Winn explains that painting a portrait of the “typical” dog thief involves the same primary strokes. Those bent out of shape by society’s pliers are more likely to operate outside of its margins; they’re usually uneducated and quick to fight. Operating as pairs, one usually drives a motorcycle while the other works a lasso. More recent developments include homemade tasers that are powered by the motorbike battery, shooting electrodes at mid-range targets.

“They’re generally just poor guys willing to risk social stigma and danger to make quick cash,” says Winn. “In the U.S., guys like this might sell weed or Vicodin. I don’t think dog snatchers intend to hurt people, but they end up fighting for their lives if discovered by irate dog owners.”

To put matters in perspective, bringing home $500 during a “typical” week of dog thievery is equal to three months of back-breaking labor under Hanoi’s minimum wage.

For some, stealing dogs for their meat isn’t enough. Kidnapping and holding them ransom for extorted sums of money can prove more lucrative for those willing to take the risk.

Of course, not just any person will pay an exorbitant sum to retrieve their dog. It’s not the farm owners from the north, but rather, a select yet growing community of Vietnamese pet owners who have been influenced by the Western notion of domestication.

Broadly speaking, Vietnam’s attitude towards eating dogs has shifted in the last decade.

“Vietnam is still an authoritarian state,” says Winn. “But the government can’t close the country off to the outside world—which sees eating dogs as deeply taboo. Young Vietnamese who want to be modern and hip realize that grilling up a dog clashes with their aspirational, cool image. The more globalization seeps in through the Internet—namely through Facebook—the more kids will realize that eating dogs is at odds with the global concept of ‘cool.’”

As a direct result, the public opinion in Vietnam’s dense urban environments has transformed from viewing dogs as vermin or meat into the notion of them as loving companions. There are currently 25 pet shops in Hanoi and over 60 in Ho Chi Minh City. And while Hanoi has always been infamous for its dog meat eateries, it’s now also home to three dog spas.

Domestic breeds are still shipped off to slaughterhouses, but “fancy” dog varieties—imports such as pugs, labradors, and huskies—are housed in pet shops that are often managed by negotiators willing to trade stolen pets for a price. Dog thieves who wish to avoid risking their lives stealing from villagers will instead turn to these more expensive breeds and make deals with the shop owners to extort money from eager-to-trust pet lovers.

Law enforcement continues to turn a blind shoulder, further hastening the violent retaliations of Vietnamese citizens who seek justice for their mistreated best friends.

“I’ve yet to see a major crackdown on dog thieves,” adds Winn. “Though I think such a crackdown would find plenty of public approval.”

Simply reporting on this story could have landed Winn in serious trouble with the Vietnamese police. Although he took plenty of care to ensure his crew was protected, the journalist says that “there were a few close calls” that he’s not at liberty to discuss publicly.

Until penalties are properly enforced, Dalley laments that this kind of thievery will continue to occur unchecked. Stealing anything below a value of two million dong (roughly $90 USD) is not treated as a criminal offense. Unfortunately, the value of most stolen dogs falls short of the mark.

While the villagers of Nhi Trung await their sentencing, more and more violent outbreaks continue to shake the countryside. Winn asserts that villages will feel more emboldened when they see that other villages are lightly punished for the same crime. He contends that these thefts and attacks won’t cease until the demand for dog meat recedes—which he argues could take another generation or two.

Dalley and his wife continue to support the peaceful efforts of the Soi Dog Foundation, yet John can’t help but side with the enraged and wounded dog lovers.

“Do I agree with what the vigilantes are doing in Vietnam?” he asks. “Yes. If the law does not protect you, then you have to take action yourself. If somebody tried to steal your dog and you knew the police would do nothing, what would you do?”

To help save the lives of endangered dogs in Southeast Asia, make a small donation today to the Soi Dog Foundation.

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