By Patrick Winn, GlobalPost.com
There are no crowded dog pounds in this corner of northeast Thailand. No routine trips to the euthanasia chamber. No government-run cell bays full of thrown-away pets.
At the Nakhon Phanom animal shelter, there’s only Blackie and Brownie, two mutts roaming unchained in a fenced pen meant to hold hundreds of dogs. The dog shelters here are mostly empty.
Each month, regional syndicates collect roughly 30,000 free-roaming strays in Thailand for illegal export to Vietnam, where demand for dog meat runs high.
All that dog collecting spares provincial pounds many of the challenges faced by U.S. animal shelters. Police and politicians much prefer to let the free market dispense with society’s unwanted mutts.
“Yes, we could catch dogs. But then they’d become our burden,” says Maj. Gen. Panamporn Eithiprasert, the Nakhon Phanom province police chief. “If someone else collects them, isn’t that a good thing?”
According to broader Thai society, no. A survey last month by the Ipsos Asia-Pacific polling firm confirmed what most already know: 9 in 10 Thais kingdom-wide oppose eating dogs, regard the dog trade as cruel and believe it should be stopped.
But Nakhon Phanom province, tucked into a bend of the Mekong River in Thailand’s northeast, is nearer to Vietnam than Bangkok. And so are some of its mores.
Vietnamese have fled here since French invasion began in the 1860s. This is where Ho Chi Minh planned a resistance in the 1920s, where U.S.-built airbases flew into Northern Vietnam in the 1960s and where, until the 1970s, Vietnamese-backed Lao guerillas were creeping across the Mekong.
Even today, the influence is seen on street signs displayed in Vietnamese script and men farming rice in conical straw hats. To the dismay of Bangkok-based animal welfare groups, the Vietnamese also brought with them a tolerance for dog eaters.
“It’s not like we’re the ones eating it. It’s all exported to Vietnam,” says Wuthgrai Thongantang, a local FM radio disc jockey. “The collectors here, they can’t quit because it’s just too lucrative. They could go be merchants or rice farmers, but it doesn’t even compare.”
“We’re all Thai now,” he says, “but this is has been passed down through ancestors.”
But animal rights groups say the entire country is shamed by the trade’s barbarism.
Collectors sometimes subdue angry dogs by knocking them senseless with sticks. Traffickers cram dogs 10-deep into cages, seldom feeding them during long trips to Vietnam.
After the shipment arrives in Vietnam, butchers will often crack live dogs over the head to charge their blood with adrenaline. Some diners believe dogs killed while frightened offer health benefits, such as a super-charged libido.
“Why should Thai people be involved in a trade like this?” asks Roger Lohanan, chairman of the Bangkok-based Thai Animal Guardians Association. “This is a food for teenagers and drunks.”
“If we want to be civilized, food such as dog, cat, monkey should be out of our menu,” says Lohanan, who is half-Thai. “Not because it’s the Western way. Because it’s the right thing to do.”
For years, Lohanan’s group and others have lobbied police and parliament for crackdowns on dog syndicates. They have had little sway — and Blackie and Brownie are part of the reason why. Both were seized in an at-large police raid six years ago that seized 502 dogs.
Though that amounts to only half of the region’s nightly export, the captured animals strained shelters to the max. Because Buddhist-inclined shelters typically view euthanasia as a last resort, taking in dogs is a long-term commitment. The daily dog food costs alone can total more than $300 per day — decent pay for a month’s work in northeast Thailand.
“The court realizes crackdowns are a burden on everyone,” says one shelter authority. He requested anonymity after higher-ups reprimanded him for exposing dog meat syndicates to the Thai press. “I’d like to do patrols and checkpoints, but we don’t have the budget for it. Even if we did go out, villagers would just tip off the dog bosses that we’re coming.”
But while many in the region are sympathetic to the trade, consumption of dog meat remains taboo. The Ipsos poll found that, of the 1 in 10 Thais who admit to eating dog, 72 percent said eat it only three times per year or less.
Those with naughty curiosity are driven to semi-secret, no-name eateries.
Tassanee Hemha’s place is more hang-out than restaurant, a place where customers drink rice whiskey and eat dog ribs in the front yard. Her most expensive dish is the “large set” — $3 worth of thighs, ribs and other choice cuts.
“Most of my customers are teenagers and college students,” says the 48-year-old mom. “I get Vietnamese on holiday too. We communicate by pointing.”
After Tassanee arranges a few cuts over a wire grill and lights the charcoal beneath, the pinkness drains from each strip of meat. Soon, grease spits and hisses on the coals. The unvaccinated dog is only served once cinders fleck the skin.
The strips are then sliced up, tucked inside a pinch of leafy greens and dipped into a mild chili sauce. Raw chilies are nibbled for an added blast of heat.
But none of this entices the chef, whose nose crinkles slightly at the thought of eating dog. She will occasionally taste her cooking to gauge its flavor, she says, but that's it.
“Me, I never eat it,” she says. “I’m Thai. We don’t eat dogs.”
Start at the beginning of The Dog Meat Mafia.