BANGKOK – Dog leather … it’s soft, fine-textured and readily distinguishable from other leathers due to its foul smell and scars, says Chanin Chitkomut, who encountered the product several years ago.
“If you’re not an expert, you might mistake it for sheep hide,” said Mr Chanin, who was raised in the leather industry since.
The president of the Thai Footwear Association said the strong odour makes dog skin a less attractive option for factories to manufacture as golf gloves and drums, but the shortage of cowhide had prompted some shoe-makers to use it as linings to lower costs.
Illegal live dog exports to countries such as Vietnam has long existed here. But recent, increased pressure on smugglers has forced them to change their tactics and, in doing so, they have expanded their trade to include slaughtering, skinning and tanning the animals.
THE DOG SMUGGLING TRADE
Thai police only started to make a serious effort in the crackdown a year ago, when Pol Sub Lt Lamai Sakonpitak, a police sub-inspector, was asked to be part of a unit to suppress smuggling and the trade in animal parts.
In January, the team of seven, headed by Pol Maj Gen Surapol Pinijchop, successfully raided a tannery where butchers were caught among piles of dog carcasses and skin. Pol Sub Lt Lamai said the leather would be sent to a dealer in the south of Thailand in shipments of 400-500 pieces, and then shipped to China and Japan.
Police attempted to raid a second tannery in Sakon Nakhon, owned by a Bangkok native, but the place had been closed down.
Pol Sub Lt Lamai said police had seen a decline in live dog smuggling. In the past, smugglers would transport the dogs to forests and load them on trucks in the early hours of the morning. They would then be transported to Vietnam through Laos.
“But since October last year, the situation has changed and traders have been slaughtering dogs in forests, where the meat is dried and sold in Sakon Nakhon’s Ta Rae district and the skin sent to tanneries,” he told Spectrum.
John Dalley, co-founder and vice-president of the Soi Dog Foundation, the largest not-for-profit organisation dealing with stray dogs and cats throughout Southeast Asia, said large-scale transport had not been happening for several months, as the police had taken more interest in it now.
“In mid-2011, the trade was very open. No one bothered to stop any trucks,” Mr Dalley said.
But the main reason, he believes, is the conferences that animal rights groups have had with government representatives from Thailand, Vietnam and Laos within the past year whereby the Vietnamese government ratified an agreement to stop the importation of live dogs into Vietnam.
The purpose was to implement a ban on the mass transportation of live dogs from Thailand and other Asean countries into Vietnam based on the call for action to eliminate rabies by 2020. “When you’re transporting 2,000 dogs in huge trucks, some dogs escape from one cage to another and spread rabies,” Mr Dalley said.
Thailand has a large dog population, and unwanted dogs can be purchased very cheaply.
“They are then sold to criminal dealers in Thailand. They in turn sell them to Vietnam and the money goes up and up. Poor people in Isan when the rice is growing, can earn income by collecting dogs and selling them,” Mr Dalley said. “It’s gone on for years and plenty of money can be made out of it.”
But Mr Dalley warned that the vast majority are stolen pet dogs, as they are generally healthier and in a good condition. Pet dogs are far more prized than strays, causing them to fetch a higher price both for meat and skin.
“Genuine stray dogs are too difficult to catch and they do not come near people. Dog snatchers are not going to waste time on dogs like that,” he said.
He said many of the animals died in circumstances of unspeakable cruelty, with some being flayed alive.
“I have heard that skinning is easier when alive though can find no evidence to support that,” he said. “There is also a belief that if the dog suffers pain then the adrenalin produced improves the meat. Again [there is] no scientific evidence to uphold this.”
Mr Dalley said the skin was often exported to Japan, China and Taiwan for use in the construction of musical instruments such as drums and traditional guitars, but that it also sometimes ended up in pet stores in the form of rawhide bones, a popular chew treat for pet dogs.
In 2011, the Thai Veterinary Medical Association estimated that half a million Thai dogs were involved in the dog meat and skin trade. Although the industry is centred in Sakon Nakhon, it is widespread in Northeast Thailand.
The dogs, which are rounded up from all over the country, are transported to Sakon Nakhon’s Ta Rae district and slaughtered there or transported live over to Vietnam.
“We hear more that dogs are killed locally close to where they are picked up, put into ice bins and transported that way, because it’s obviously harder to stop a truck loaded with ice bins than live dogs,” Mr Dalley said.
WHERE THE LAW STANDS
Unlike in Vietnam, where the consumption of dog meat is legal, Thailand has several laws to deal with the dog meat and skin trade.
A police officer can legally stop any vehicle transporting dogs and ask to see a trade, transportation and vaccination permit. If none is present, the offender can be charged with violating laws for animal cruelty, the transmission of rabies and contagious diseases as well as the transportation and trade of animals without permission.
If the vehicle was found near a border, the act violates a customs regulation pertaining to the export of live animals.
Between August 2011 and September 2013, the police arrested 49 offenders and took possession of 10,463 dogs in 10 northeastern provinces. But very few of the offenders were imprisoned, a situation that offers little deterrent.
“If penalties were increased and the courts impose a penalty, particularly on repeat offenders, then certainly it will be a deterrent,” Mr Dalley said. But he acknowledged that part of the problem was due to corruption, which is widespread throughout the region. Mr Dalley said he knew of a tannery operator who described the exported skin as something else and paid customs additional money.
Chaichan Laohasiripanya, secretary-general of the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (TSPCA), said activists were pushing for animal cruelty legislation that would raise the maximum penalty to 20,000 baht from the current 1,000 baht, and the prison sentence from one month to one year.
In 2012, 12,000 signatures were collected and submitted to parliament, which passed the first reading in October that year and the second reading in November last year. A third reading was not conducted due to the dissolution of parliament in December. Mr Chaichan said once a government was installed, the process of passing the legislation should not take long as parliament had already ruled on the issue.
For Mr Chanin of the Thai Footwear Association, the use of dog hide is an alternative for the leather industry, as the skin is a by-product of its meat. “Everyone in the leather industry has had experience with dog hide,” he told Spectrum. “The manufacturers know [that they are being sent dog leather], but as long as the demand for dog meat exists, there will always be a supply of dog skin.”
Mr Chanin claimed that some of the leather is sent to factories in Bangkok, and offers would be made to leather-goods producers.
“Tanneries would approach shoe manufacturers and ask them [the shoe-makers] if they wanted to use dog leather as lining, due to the large amount of visible markings,” he said, adding that dog scrotums were soft and flexible, and were known to be highly prized for golf gloves. “But now, the tanneries are not as open as they used to be.”
According to the Thailand Textile Institute, the country exported US$724 million in leather goods last year, a 10.89% increase from the previous year. Major export markets include Hong Kong, Vietnam and China.
The Thai Tanning Industry Association said there were about 180 tanneries producing 15,000 tonnes of leather per year, or 15 million square feet per month, which could cover 300 football fields.
The association said 97% of hides came from cows and buffaloes, of which about 36% was from local slaughter.
Somkiaet Bongkotpannarai, a leather consultant at Sky Leather Co, denied that dog leather was used on a commercial scale.
“I have heard about this happening, but it’s nothing but a myth. What they are doing is only in special circumstances and for the lower market,” said Mr Somkiaet, who is also president of the Thai Leather Cluster. “Personally, I have never seen or touched dog skin.”
He also denied that there was a shortage of leather supplies, although last year domestic leather prices increased by 250% over 2011-12.
Although Pol Sub Lt Lamai said dog tanneries existed no more than a year ago, Mr Chanin said the practice had existed in Thailand for more than 40 years, and normal tanneries also treated dog skin on some occasions. However, it had not been popular because of the stronger than usual odour.
“Live dogs that can smell the odour from dog leather will start to bark and show signs of fear,” Mr Chanin said. “It’s like they know.”
WHAT COULD BE DONE
Watchdog Thailand and Soi Dog work hand in hand to stop the dog meat trade.
Soi Dog pays rewards to authorities and locals who provide information or are involved in successful arrests. It is currently financing the production and erection of hundreds of large banners offering rewards for information throughout the Northeast.
Dogs seized by police are evidence, and they are initially taken to Nakhon Phanom where they are treated, vaccinated and sterilised. Once released from the court’s jurisdiction they are then transferred to Soi Dog’s Buri Ram treatment facility.
Because dogs were not classified as livestock, the Livestock Development Department has no budget to care for them, said Mr Dalley.
“In 2011 and 2012, over 80% of dogs intercepted died within a few months of disease and starvation, which is why we intervened,” he said.
Soi Dog provides food and medication for all dogs rescued from the dog meat trade, with average spending of more than one million baht per month. To date, the organisation has invested about 12 million baht in its Buri Ram site, and there are plans for a hospital there. The Buri Ram facility has capacity for 3,500 dogs and additional shelters will eventually increase this to 5,000. More land is available if needed, though Soi Dog’s aim is to stop the business, not continually intercept dogs.
“Many people, particularly foreigners, ask why the dogs are not euthanised. As one noted Thai politician recently said to me, it is not acceptable in Thailand to humanely euthanise animals, though it is acceptable for them to die from starvation and disease in neglected shelters,” Mr Dalley said.
Local campaign group Watchdog Thailand said the root of the problem lied in the corruption of government agencies such as the army, marines and police.
While many dismiss the dog meat trade as a way to lower the population of stray dogs, Mr Chaichan said the best way to solve the problem was to get them castrated and vaccinated against rabies.
But he said solving the problem at its roots, such as through education, would provide benefits towards the larger population. Mr Chaichan’s organisation conducts regular talks with primary school students, teaching them that animals need five types of freedom: food, shelter, health, freedom from stress and fear, and the freedom to behave naturally.
“If any one of them is violated, [the act] is considered cruelty towards animals,” he said. “We need to reform our education system.”
A MATTER OF TASTE
With the growing pet culture, people are becoming more actively involved in trying to stop the dog meat industry. Bangkok has a large animal welfare movement, but villages in the Northeast portray a totally different image.
Dog meat was part of Kan Srisuk’s diet since he was a teenager in Surin’s Muang district. He estimates 20% of his home town consume dog meat, but figures are much higher in Sakon Nakhon, where the practice is more popular.
“I saw my friends eating [dogs], so I tried some myself. It is believed that black dogs can enhance strength,” said Mr Kan, who is now in his fifties.
Dog meat consumption is most popular in Sakon Nakhon, where Vietnamese, including those of Roman Catholic descent, migrated 130 years ago. It is also popular in Surin, Buri Ram, Si Sa Ket, Ubon Ratchathani, Sakon Nakhon, Yasothon and Roi Et provinces.
Dog meat would be sold at roadside stalls, identified by a butchered dog head hanging in front.
Asked about his opinion on those who consider dog-eaters odd, Mr Kan said it was a matter of perspective. “How can you prohibit it when dog-eaters view it as something normal? As long as the dogs are not stolen, I think it’s normal,” he said.
Selling dog meat is illegal, but Pol Sub Lt Lamai said it would be better to address the issue at its root, which is at the point of slaughter.
Like Mr Kan, the Soy brothers and sisters from Cambodia who now work at a construction site also got into the habit of eating dog meat as teenagers in Kampong Cham, which borders Vietnam. In both cases, the dogs were not raised for consumption, but rather provided for free by neighbours.
“It’s the most delicious meat of all and it’s so soft. I like dog curry,” said Soy Wan Ni.
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