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About this time last year, I was sitting in a musty hotel room in Northeast Thailand, a coil of dried dog meat resting on my lap.
Photojournalist Pailin Wedel and I had traveled from Bangkok to Sakhon Nakhon province, a known hub for dog meat traffickers (and agriculture, gorgeous vistas and, strangely, Catholicism.) It would end up being one of two week-long reporting jaunts for “The Dog Meat Mafia,” a three-part series that would take another year to complete.
We’d arrived without knowing much, but managed to locate a rather obvious butchery selling dog meat the first day. We were gently shooed away for taking photos, but not before buying a $3 bundle of jerky. That night at the hotel, we’d brought it inside to avoid stinking up the car.
I was bored. And curious. So even though that jerky was stiff as electrical wire, I grabbed one rope of jerky, stuck it between my teeth and pulled. Hard.
I won’t dramatize my decision to eat dog meat as some passage through a moral crossroads. Hardly. But, like most Americans, I have been socially wired to feel that eating a dog is somehow wrong. Beyond my curiosity about how the dog jerky would taste (beyond terrible) I wanted to see how my moral compass would react.
I came away from the whole experience wondering if, morally speaking, eating stray dogs is more humane than eating a industrially farmed sow.
Let me back up a bit. If you’ve read the “Dog Meat Mafia” series, you know that it spends little time dwelling on actually eating dogs. I realize a lot of readers were probably attracted to the “weirdness” of eating dog meat, but if I succeeded as a journalist, the piece is much more than an excuse to gawk at what a small group of Asians seek out for dinner. It’s really a story about entrepreneurship, the mechanics of low-level corruption and a little-explored corner of the food chain.
Back to the morality issue. A recent piece in the Wall Street Journal by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer suggests reinterpreting stray dogs as a eco-friendly, local-food alternative to other meats.
He imagines a place where stray dogs are allowed to breed before being killed – all to supply people with a cheap, sustainable lunch. We're comfortable shoving them in the euthanasia chamber, he argues, so why not just eat them? In fairness, the guy is vegetarian, so this is mostly intended to provoke thought.
But I wonder if Foer knows that, in a corner of Southeast Asia, this world already exists.
Besides the bribes and smuggling, which involves a low-grade criminality roughly on par with pot dealing, the knock on the Southeast Asian dog meat trade is the cruelty. The wrongness of cramming dogs into cages and shipping them – unfed – on a long route from Thailand to Vietnam.
That’s bad. But so too is the life of a U.S.-born farm animal that spends its entire life in a cage. The stray dog at least gets to freely prowl rice paddies and scarf field rats until it’s caught. Catching these stray dogs and knocking them silly is an ugly job, sure. But so is manning the bolt gun at a cattle farm.
All in all, I’m glad eating that dog jerky trigger a moral crisis, because it was about as palatable as a spiced Nike. I might have lost a bicuspid if I bit down any harder.
But what I decided was this: anyone who’s willing to overlook industrial farming practices for a pork chop – as I am – should find it hard to judge someone who wants to munch on some char-grilled stray dog ribs.
As always, feel free to weigh in with a comment.