American freestyle skier Gus Kenworthy will return home from Pyeongchang without a medal—but with a new Korean puppy.
Eating dog meat is widely practiced in several countries in Asia—China, Vietnam, Indonesia and the two Koreas.
But nowhere is the practice commercialized like it is in South Korea, where some 20,000 dog farms raise the animals for human consumption, according to the Humane Society International—often in foul conditions with the dogs fed scraps and wallowing in their feces.
Last year, about two million dogs were raised and killed in South Korea, the activist group says.
“What’s happening here is incredibly inhumane,” Kenworthy said Friday during a visit to a dog farm south of Seoul with the Humane Society, where he decided to adopt a dog. “I definitely think something has to be done about it.”
The Korean practice of eating dog meat has often been at the center of controversy here, especially around large international sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup.
This time around, there is a sense among activists that things are changing. Younger Koreans increasingly see dogs as companions rather than as dinner fare, and the number of dog-meat restaurants has fallen considerably.
One of Moon Jae-in’s first acts when he became South Korea’s president last year was to adopt a dog, named Tory, that was slated to be killed for meat. He has told animal rights activists that he believes the practice will end soon.
Lee Jeong-mi, a lawmaker with the minor left-leaning Justice Party, doesn’t just want to hope that the practice will end. Lee aims to draft a bill before the end of her legislative term in 2020 to force the gradual closure of dog-meat farms, which she describes as a critical step toward ending the practice of eating dog meat.
But opposition remains fierce in the dog-meat industry. A small group of farmers stormed a recent hearing at the National Assembly to discuss new anti-dog meat legislation.
They unfurled a banner reading “Dog Meat Soup Contains the Spirit of the Nation” and shouted slogans suggesting that the government was more concerned with dogs’ lives than their own livelihoods.
Defenders of the dog-meat farmers say that Koreans are able to separate the dual notions of some dogs being raised for companionship, while others are raised as meat.
“It’s not like we are eating special guide dogs, sniffer dogs or police dogs,” says Kim Sang-young, president of the Dog Meat Association. Kim said that clearer regulations on which dogs can be served as meat, and stricter guidelines on special dogs and pet dogs, can solve the problem.
Kim’s dog-meat group is working on a documentary film that portrays what it describes as the “reality of the dog meat business,” in hopes of entering it into an international film festival.
It isn’t clear how much of an impact outside pressure from athletes like Kenworthy has on the practice. Foreign activists trying to exert pressure on dog-meat farmers and diners has stirred up resentment from ordinary South Koreans.
Last week, Dutch speedskater Jan Blokhuijsen caused a furor after reportedly saying at the end of a press briefing in Pyeongchang that South Koreans should “treat dogs better in this country.”
After a virulent backlash from South Koreans, Mr. Blokhuijsen apologized, writing in a now-deleted tweet: “It was not my intention to insult you and your country. I care about the welfare of animals in general and I hope we can make this a better place for both of us.”
Kenworthy, in an interview Friday while visiting a dog-meat farm, condemned the living conditions even as he walked a fine line on the practice of eating dog meat itself.
“While I don’t believe in eating dog meat and I stand firmly against it, I can’t say what anyone else does,” he said. “But I can say this is not an okay condition for any animal to be raised.”
After the Sochi Olympics in 2014, where he won a silver medal, Kenworthy stayed behind for more than a month after the Winter Games to save five stray dogs.
An official from Humane Society International, which will help the athlete take the dog to the U.S., said the puppy appeared to be a husky mix.
Meagan Duhamel, a Canadian figure skater who won a goal medal in team figure skating and a bronze in pair skating in Pyeongchang, adopted a rescued dog when she visited South Korea last year.
“No animals deserve to be killed for food,” said Duhamel, who has been helping to put other interested Olympians who are looking to adopt Korean dogs.
To drum up awareness, the Humane Society is providing incentives to dog-meat farmers who are looking to get out of the industry.
In the case of one former dog meat farmer near the city of Wonju, Kim Young-hwan, 56 years old, a combination of push and pull factors convinced him to get out of the trade. Activists had begun filing complaints with the local government targeting the illegal construction of cages, the handling of excrement and noise in an attempt to put pressure on dog farmers.
Kim’s 12-year-old daughter also played a role: She loves dogs. “It’s better to change now for my daughter,” he said.