This is the first of a series of articles on the puppy mill trade in South Korea. The next article will expose the breadth and scale of the international teacup puppy trade, which originates in South Korea, and its links with the finance industry.
Animal activists are outraged about the Korean government’s plan to expand the puppy and pet trade in a bid to boost the economy.
President Park Geun-hye said at the 10th official trade and investment meeting on July 4 that stripping red tape from the pet industry will encourage investment and make the pet industry grow more than three times by 2020.
Under the plan, the government will provide financial incentives to those who open new puppy mills or those who upgrade their facilities to meet its new guidelines.
The plan also includes licensing auction facilities to sell pets and allow registered pet stores to sell animals online.
AJ Garcia, president of the Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE), said the entire animal welfare community in Korea feels backstabbed by the government, which invited them to the national assembly three times over the past few months to discuss puppy mills and ways of reducing cruelty in the pet industry.
We really thought that puppy mill’s would be banned,” Garcia said.
“If not banned, there would be a lot more regulation. That’s what we were led to believe. We had the public on our side and wanted to use this momentum to discuss cruelty in the dog meat industry. So, everyone’s just as upset.”
There has been a growing call from animal activists and the public for the government to regulate the pet industry after a recent documentary exposed the severe cruelty involved in some puppy mills.
The documentary exposes the practice of prematurely delivering puppies via C-section – a method often used to ensure puppies are born as miniature “cup-size” dogs.
Animal welfare groups claim these premature C-sections are an industry standard often performed by unqualified people without aesthetics.
Most pet breeds in stores in Korea appear substantially smaller than they are in Australia, the U.S., and England with cup-size dogs in high demand.
It is an open secret that puppy mills intentionally malnourish puppies because of high demands of cup-size dogs.
Garcia, president of CARE, says that the government’s plan reveals their complete disregard for animal welfare.
“Any human being that watches footage from that expose and just watches those animals suffer – animals being artificially inseminated, spending their whole lives basically impregnated, giving birth, then impregnated, giving birth, stuck in a cage, 5-6 dogs in a cage in a tiny room – anyone who sees that, any human being with feelings knows that is wrong,” Garcia said.
The government said it will make a health checkup by a registered vet mandatory at licensed pet auction houses to end premature birthing of puppies and cruelty but activists seem to have little faith in the government.
There is already the animal welfare law which criminalizes the mistreatment of animals but arrests are extremely uncommon despite the cruelty being openly practiced.
The Korean judicial system also fails to meet community expectations when sentencing those who violate animal welfare regulations.
When a man was charged of killing 600 cats by boiling them alive, many activists expected him to receive a prison sentence. But he only got a 10 month suspended sentence and 80 hours community service.
CARE provided film evidence to police of a dog farm in Gwanjoo where dozens of dogs killed each other and the farmer left the dog carcasses in the cages to rot or be eaten.
The farmer was slapped with a fine of 250,000 won – hardly a deterrent from repeating the cruelty.
The government said fines will be increased for unregistered or abusive breeding facilities and penalties for abandoning pets will also be increased threefold to 3 million won.
However, activists are concerned with the lack of law enforcement at present.
The government’s own figures given to Reuters suggest that more than 80 percent of the 1,000 dog breeders are operating illegally.
There are already many pet stores selling puppies online.
An online pet store owner said pet shop owners support the government’s plan.
“It is important to remember that it takes a long time for a proposed bill to pass in parliament. But we would support such a bill because we also want to sell healthy and adorable puppies,” they said.
The lack of regulation in the past and the desire to expand the pet industry makes Lee Joong-ho, an animal activist, concerned.
“So far, the government has done absolutely nothing to regulate the industry,” Lee Joong-ho said.
“I am skeptical that the government will be able to regulate the industry after approving the online sale of dogs. I think the situation will only get worse.”
Government figures show that 82,000 pets were abandoned or lost in South Korea in 2015. More pets logically means more abandoned animals despite the plan to increase the fine for abandoning pets. Many animal welfare groups, including Dasom, have been calling for the online sales of pets to be banned for years.
“First of all, sales of puppies should be banned, not to mention online sales of pet dogs,” said Seo Sun-il, the head of Dasom.
Lee Ji-sook, the government official in charge of animal welfare, told The Korea Observer exclusively that they would proceed with the government’s plan despite the public criticism.
“It will be unlikely for us to change what we have already outlined,” she said.
“Given that we have already reported our plans to the President, it would be too late to make drastic changes.
However, we will seek ways to better improve animal welfare without having to make major adjustments.”
She added that details of the government’s plans will be made available in October this year along with a draft bill.
A positive side to the plan is that the government will have a list of puppy mills, pet retailers, and pet cafes if they get licensed.
The government expects proposed law amendments will grow the pet industry annual revenue from 1.8 trillion won ($1.56 billion) in 2015 to 5.8 trillion won by 2020.