Margaret makes a new friend (May 2000).
(Please read this before you copy our photos or text.)

OK, let's deal with the unpleasant and unavoidable right up front. Yes, some Koreans do eat dog meat. I've also run across reports that cats are sometimes turned into "health tonics," but with no real evidence, I can't swear it's true.

I've read a few people who seem to think that using dogs as food started during and after the Korean war, when there just wasn't much of anything to eat. But from what I can tell, the practice goes back many centuries. It came to Korea from China.

Eating dog has been technically illegal in Korea since 1991. But the law isn't very broad, and it's mostly been enforced only for the sake of appearances. When Korea is for some reason unusually visible internationally, the government tries to keep a lid on the bowser stew, so to speak. For example, when the Olympics were held in Korea, the government used the law to push boshintang (dog meat stew) restaurants off the main streets and into the back alleys of Seoul. They made another fuss ahead of the World Cup Soccer match in the spring of 2002.

But the bow-wow eateries are still here, and if you're so inclined, a little searching through the alleyways of any major Korean city will turn up restaurants which offer dog stew (originally called Kae Jang Kuk, now commonly known as Boshintang or Satcholtang). Just look for the sign with a picture of a dog on it.

One reason dog meat is still popular, even with the disapproval of pretty much the entire western world, is that Koreans are sold on its alleged health benefits. Legal or not, doctors sometimes actually prescribe dog meat for serious diseases, and for recovery from surgery.

The idea that dog meat is healthy goes back many years and again it probably came from China. Dogs don't perspire, so dog meat is supposed to help you resist Korea's thick, steamy summer heat. Men go for dog meat because it supposedly cures impotence and, uh, builds, uh, stamina. Whatever that means. ;-)

Korean law and other nations may frown on dog meat, but that hasn't hurt its popularity. A few years ago it worked its way up from fourth to third place (but then fell back to fourth place as Koreans started eating more chicken). By some estimates, Koreans eat about 3 million dogs a year. And it's sure not losing ground. As of 2005, nearly 10,000 restaurants offered dog meat (usually as stew), up from about 6,000 ten years ago.

Because dog mean is (theoretically) illegal, there are still no regulations on dog meat production. At least in some folks' minds, this raises some questions about the alleged health of the stuff. So Korean lawmakers have proposed that the goverment just admit that dog meat is part of the culture, and classify dogs as livestock so they can set standards for production sanitation. There's also talk of regulating the conditions under which dogs are raised and slaughtered. Those conditions are a real sore point for animal activists worldwide, who say the dogs are often beaten to death. (Koreans claim that the dogs are now usually slaughtered by electrocution, which they claim is more humane.)

Koreans know perfectly well that, regardless of how the dogs are slaughtered, much of the world disapproves of the very idea. If you can bring yourself to discuss this with your Korean friends or students, you're apt to get some strong reactions. Some of them will be defensive, some defiant, some apologetic. Some (particularly women) will tell you that they eat dog meat only under a doctor's orders. Others (particularly men) will brag about how often they eat it and how healthy it makes them.

Since most western food animals aren't usually kept as pets (rabbits being one possible exception), you might be surprised to know that Koreans do live with dogs and love them. Mostly they prefer small, pedigreed dogs. They equate pedigree with intelligence, which doesn't match my experience with dogs, but what do I know?

Large mutts are not so lucky. The dark-colored ones are typically assigned to guard duty and seldom get to live inside. Light-colored large dogs often end up in the stew pot.

You'd think cats would be perfect pets for such a crowded country, but they were slow to catch on. Older Koreans still believe they transmit disease, and have strong superstitions about them. (It's the eyes.)

However, these attitudes are changing in younger people. Already in 2001, a character in Jeong Jae-eun's film Take Care of My Cat adopts a kitten over her grandmother's protests that "cats are too sneaky to keep at home." Ji-young replies, "Who believes in that stuff these days?"

Fewer Koreans, it seems. During Margaret's first months in Korea she saw only a few cats, and not many being kept as pets. After Margaret adopted Nabi, she had to fill his box with sand from Kyongpo Beach because she couldn't buy kitty litter in any Kangnung store. At the other end of the alimentary canal, she could only find one pet shop that sold Purina Cat Chow. It cost her about US$5 for a box that's around a buck and a half in the US.

But every time we go back to Korea for a visit, we see more cats and more cat accessories offered for sale. When we were there in 2004, we even found cat food and kitty litter at the E-Mart (photo). But the selection was still limited -- cats got about as much shelf space as ferrets. And the prices were still high. The bag of Cat Chow you see here was priced at 7300 won (US$7) and the jug of Tidy Cat was 13000 won (US$13).

By 2014, though, quite a few pet shops had windows well-stocked with cat toys, and Korea had gone in for cat cafes. Cat cafes give you more options for your fur-fix when you're missing your feline friend back home, but don't want the extra responsibility -- and possible landlord hassles -- of adopting one.

So Korean cats may still have some way to go before they catch up to their canine cousins, but they're definitely making progress.

Even today, Korea still has that pet-dog / food-dog split. But who knows? Maybe in another couple of decades, as the new generation becomes Korea's mainstream, boshintang will be just another tradition more honored in the talking than in the eating. Until then, if you're inclined to look down on Korea for eating dogs, just keep in mind that Hindus don't think too highly of America's (and Europe's) beef consumption.

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