Why a dog meat seller switched to serving vegan menu, and Cambodia’s fight to curb slaughter of dogs for food
Eating dog meat is popular in Buddhist Cambodia, but animal rights activists are trying to change this. One couple was persuaded to drastically change their business
Chom Mong breaks into a smile as he picks up his four-month-old brown and white puppy, Gigi. He gives her a gentle cuddle as she licks his face affectionately. It’s hard to believe that, until earlier this year, Chom Mong ran a dog meat restaurant in the Cambodian capital.
In 2015, desperate to make money to support their two young children, who live with their grandparents in the southwestern province of Prey Veng, the 38-year-old and his wife opened a dog meat restaurant in the Pochentong area of Phnom Penh, close to the airport.
Attracted to the business by the money he saw other dog meat sellers making, he opened a restaurant to cater to the many Cambodian customers who flock to a particular stretch of street in the evenings. However, Chom Mong says he found dealing in dog meat unsettling.
“I sold it, but I had the feeling I was doing something wrong,” says Chom Mong, who had previously worked as a chef and a construction worker.
In Buddhism, Cambodia’s state religion, dog is considered one of 10 forbidden meats, with bad luck said to fall on those who consume it. “Selling dog meat didn’t seem normal, but it was an easy way to earn money,” Chom Mong says.
In March, with help from Marc Ching, of the Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation, and Cambodian-based animal rights advocate Dr Lucy Haurisa, Chom Mong and his wife, Syna, 35, took a drastic decision. They closed their dog meat restaurant on the outskirts of the city and opened Sabay Vegilicious, a vegan restaurant, in a prime central spot – which was a financially risky move.
“It was a big leap,” says Chom Mong, who says dishes made with dog meat can fetch much higher prices than those that use other meats, such as chicken or pork – and vegan dishes. “But I feel much happier in my mind and want to show others what is possible,” he says.
The dog meat trade is well documented in countries such as China (where 20 per cent of people eat dog, according to the World Dog Alliance), South Korea (where 60 per cent of the population regularly eat the animal, it says), and Vietnam (where dog is consumed by 80 per cent of people, the alliance says). But relatively little research has been carried out in Cambodia, where dog and cat meat is openly consumed.
Katherine Polak, Four Paws International’s Southeast Asia head of stray animal care, estimates that up to one million dogs are slaughtered every year in the kingdom.
“A unique feature of Cambodia is that many believe the dog meat trade doesn’t exist there. The housing of dogs for slaughter is more discreet than in other countries, such as Indonesia, where dogs are displayed in cages openly at markets,” she says.
At dusk, a street next to the Olympic Stadium in Phnom Penh flickers to life as street restaurants open their shutters. Signs in Khmer reading “Delicious dog meat” hang outside, and barbecue grills full of dog parts are fired up. A dog’s head often hangs outside such restaurants. It’s a sight that is common across the country, from rural provinces to the tourist hub of Siem Reap.
Tina Sen, 32, hails from Koh Kong province in southwest Cambodia. He moved to the capital four years ago to work in construction and says he often gathers with friends at weekends for an evening of eating dog and swigging beer or rice wine.
“We like to eat dog,” he says, adding that his preference is to eat it curried or barbecued. “Sometimes we eat cat too, but we prefer the dog meat. It is tastier and better for you.”
Like many Cambodians, Tina Sen believes eating dog brings a swathe of health benefits, from boosting virility to keeping the body warm during Cambodia’s “cold season” of December and January – especially if the dog is black.
Activists are quick to point out there is little difference between the dog trade and other meat industries. However, there are concerns about the lack of regulation in Cambodia. Unlike in South Korea, where it is believed up to two million dogs live on meat farms at any one time, in Cambodia it’s a different story.
“Most of the animals come from the streets, or are stolen,” says Yulia Khouri, founder of Animal Mama Veterinary Hospital & Pet Wellness Centre, which works with dogs rescued from the meat trade.
Tina Sen says grabbing strays off the street is not a practice he has ever engaged in, but admits a handful of his friends regularly take to Phnom Penh’s streets after dark on their motorbikes, armed with a snare on a pole to catch dogs.
Snatching dogs is a lucrative business, netting up to US$50 for a single animal. Tina Sen also recalls families in the village he grew up in regularly selling dogs that had “gone crazy” to traders or other families to eat. “This happens a lot,” the father-of-two says.
Lee Fox-Smith, who has been documenting Cambodia’s dog meat industry and is preparing to write a book on his findings, says it is also common for poverty-stricken families to trade their dog for household items.
“People sell their dogs for pots and pans because they are poor,” Fox-Smith says.
The lack of quality control over the supply of dog meat, with caught strays on the menu, raises a number of health concerns, Khouri says.
Cambodia has one of the highest rates of rabies in Southeast Asia, with data from the country’s Institut Pasteur revealing that there are about 800 deaths a year from the deadly disease – a figure that is believed to be the tip of the iceberg.
“This is a huge problem,” says Khouri, who is lobbying for rabies vaccination, and spaying and neutering programmes, to be rolled out across the country. “As well as rabies, many of these dogs have other diseases.”
In February, a man died and another was left in critical condition after eating dog meat at a village stall in the southern city of Kampot. In December 2015, six men died of food poisoning and almost 60 fell ill after eating barbecued dog meat in eastern Kratie province.
Another concern is the treatment of the dogs. Martina Mayr, founder and director of Animal Rescue Cambodia, says those who eat the meat believe it is better when imbued with adrenaline.
“You get that through fear, pain and a lot of violence. There are reports of animals being boiled alive, skinned alive and tortured. It’s really horrendous,” says Mayr, whose charity also sees thefts of cats from pagodas, where Cambodians often dump unwanted litters of kittens and puppies.
While filming in slaughterhouses, Fox-Lee has witnessed dogs being drowned in cages before being placed in boiling water and then skinned. Some restaurants keep a handful of dogs in pits or cages at the back of the premises and use hammers and metal poles to kill the animals.
Khouri says most of the cruelty stems from a lack of knowledge and desperation. “These people are often portrayed as demons,” she says. “They’re not monsters; they’re poor families trying to survive.”
With this in mind, animal rights organisations operating across Cambodia are taking up the challenge to educate rural Cambodians and work with dog meat restaurants and slaughterhouses to improve the industry. Sterilisation and rabies vaccination programmes are also being carried out. However, it’s not on a scale needed to meet the deadline set to eradicate rabies by 2020 as part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Rabies Elimination Strategy.
“Combating this trade will require a multifaceted approach of supporting local communities, finding alternative livelihoods for those involved with the trade, and improving education and knowledge,” says Polak, of Four Paws International.
This is something Chom Mong hopes he can achieve through his Sabay Vegilicious restaurant. “It was not easy, but we are much happier with ourselves now, and we hope others can do the same,” he says.