What's wrong with eating dogs?

How you look at things.
Jan. 16 2002 6:56 PM

Wok the Dog

What's wrong with eating man's best friend?

Nine months ago, Frame Game grossed out its readers by tackling a mounting controversy in newspapers and state legislatures: the ethics of having sex with dogs. In that column, Frame Game asked "why, if it's wrong to rape animals, it's OK to kill them." Carnivores who ignored this question will now have to confront it. The biggest team sporting event on earth, soccer's World Cup, is coming to South Korea, where hot dogs and doggy bags are all too literal. Those of us who don't take our poodles with noodles will have to think about why, or whether, it's wrong to eat man's best friend.

Dogs ready for market
Dogs ready for market
William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In case you've been distracted by the war or the recession, here's where the dog fight stands. Dogs are eaten in parts of East and Southeast Asia. The South Korean dog meat industry reportedly involves about 1 million dogs, 6,000 restaurants, and 10 percent of the population. French actress-turned-activist Brigitte Bardot, backed by thousands of rabid European and American letter writers, has enlisted FIFA, the world soccer federation, to pressure South Korea to shut down the industry. South Korean lawmakers, angered by this pressure, are pushing to legalize the industry next month. The industry, armed with supportive research by a scholar known as "Dr. Dogmeat," plans to set up dog-meat stands near World Cup stadiums and advertise recipes on English-language Web sites.

On Jan. 14, animal rights activists muzzled the industry's PR campaign kickoff. On Jan. 19, Korean hackers plan to attack the Web sites of French and American media companies that have disparaged canine Seoul food. The controversy has even invaded New York, where lawmakers are considering whether to ban dog meat (which is legal in 44 states) amid reports that it's being sold there. Editorials have expressed disgust at the practice, and Korean-Americans are assuring the public that they, too, find it barbaric. Everybody wants to show that he's civilized by condemning the eating of dogs. There's only one problem: Nobody can explain why it's wrong. In fact, on closer examination, the arguments against dog-eating turn out to be creepier than dog-eating itself.

Let's start with the clearest complaint: the needlessly cruel methods—beating, strangling, boiling—by which many dogs are killed in Korea. To Frame Game, this is a no-brainer. These methods have to be stopped. At a minimum, they should be replaced with electrocution, which is far more humane. That's why South Korean lawmakers are proposing to legalize, license, and regulate the industry. But guess who's trying to stop them? The same attack-dog activists who complain about the cruelty of the old methods.

Grilled dog meat
Grilled dog meat

South Korea's Livestock Processing Act doesn't officially apply to dogs. The obvious solution is to classify dogs as livestock. But in 1999, legislators who tried to do that were thwarted by critics who warned that legalization would hurt the country's image. Now anti-dog-meat activists in Korea, Britain, Australia, and elsewhere are trying to block legalization again, arguing that "there is no recognized humane method of killing" dogs. As a spokesman for the Korea Animal Protection Society put it, "South Korean officials misunderstand the situation. They think it would be okay as long as dogs are not killed in a cruel manner." Given a choice between ending the cruelty and waging their all-out war till the last dog is hung, the activists choose the latter. FIFA, too, opposes legalization—at least until after the World Cup—and calls for a total end to dog-meat consumption.

To justify keeping the industry underground, unsafe, and inhumane, activists ought to have a pretty good reason why dog-eating—as opposed to the eating of other animals, which they tolerate—is too horrible to legalize. But what is that reason? Since dogs aren't smarter or more gentle than pigs, for example, anti-dog-meat activists argue that dogs are special because they're "pets" and "companion" animals. FIFA President Sepp Blatter calls them the "best friend of humankind." Dogs are "friends, not animals," Bardot told a Korean radio interviewer. "Cows are grown to be eaten, dogs are not. I accept that many people eat beef, but a cultured country does not allow its people to eat dogs."

Strip out Bardot's silly arrogance and her Korean colleagues' sentimentality, and their philosophy boils down to this: The value of an animal depends on how you treat it. If you befriend it, it's a friend. If you raise it for food, it's food. This relativism is more dangerous than the absolutism of vegetarians or even of thoughtful carnivores. You can abstain from meat because you believe that the mental capacity of animals is too close to that of humans. You can eat meat because you believe that it isn't. Either way, you're using a fixed standard. But if you refuse to eat only the meat of "companion" animals—chewing bacon, for example, while telling Koreans that they can't stew Dalmatians—you're saying that the morality of killing depends on habit or even whim.

The joke is on you because in Korea, until recently, dogs haven't been pets. Therefore, by the "companion" standard, it's OK to eat them. In fact, the "companion" standard is exactly what South Korean newspapers and government officials are using to justify an emerging system of dog Nazism. In the city, Koreans raise "pet dogs." In the country, they raise "meat dogs," also known as "junk dogs" and "lower-grade" dogs. But you don't become a "lower-grade" dog by flunking an IQ test. You're just born in the wrong place. Then you're slaughtered and fed to a man who thinks he's humane because he pampers a Golden Retriever that has half your brains. And Bardot, who says that cows can be butchered because they're "grown to be eaten," can't fault this arrangement.

If dog-eating isn't intrinsically wrong, why should South Koreans give it up? Because, Bardot told her radio interviewer, "Eating dog meat seriously hurts the image of your country." FIFA President Blatter likewise told South Korea that the practice was bad for its "international image." He urged the country "to show the world that it is sensitive to vociferous worldwide public opinion." But absent an underlying moral argument, appeals to "image" and "sensitivity" are as likely to disguise snobbery or evil as to promote good.

There's more than a whiff of cultural supremacy, if not racism, in French attacks on Korean dog-eating. When Bardot's radio interviewer told her that some Western visitors eat dog meat in Korea, she replied: "French people, German people, and Americans never eat dogs. If they did, it is most likely that South Koreans served them dog meat, saying it was either pork or beef." The French soccer team supports Bardot's campaign. A French state TV channel recently ridiculed Korean dog-eating in a piece full of distortions. Never mind that some Frenchmen eat horse meat or snails or that, according to a Seoul waitress, more than one staffer from the French Embassy has sated his canine tooth at her restaurant. Norwegians didn't stop eating reindeer during the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics. American restaurants didn't stop serving bull testicles during the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. No one forced Spain to outlaw cat stew during the 1982 World Cup, and no one is hounding Japan, the co-host of this year's World Cup, to shut down its sushi bars.

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