SEOUL: “Up to five dogs stuffed into tiny cages, floors covered in filth, drugs and needles everywhere, and dead bodies in the freezer” – this was the horrific scene that greeted charity workers and rescuers as they entered an illegal bichon frise and poodle breeding facility in Jinan-gun, North Jeolla province, on May 2.
“It was like a living hell,” said Kim Hye-ran, a representative from the Better Tomorrow Rescue, a small volunteer-run shelter and one of the organisations involved in the joint rescue operation, in an email interview with The Korea Herald.
Many of the dogs were in poor health and bore the scars of abuse or ad hoc surgery, likely without the use of anesthetics, according to TBT Rescue.
“We had expected to find around 40 dogs, but in the end, we rescued 131,” Kim said, noting that TBT Rescue was able to take in a total of 21 dogs, many of whom were pregnant, and one of whom has since died.
Established in 2021, the group has rescued a total of 262 dogs to date. While the illegal puppy mill in Jinan-gun is an appallingly terrible case, it is not an isolated one.
According to Kim, there are 2,177 registered breeding facilities operating in Korea.
“Of course, it is impossible to know the number of facilities operating on an illegal basis,” she said, adding that the conditions of the so-called legal breeders are often just as inadequate.
Every year, over 460,000 dogs are produced by breeding facilities, she added, citing estimates from the Korea Rural Economic Institute, a government-funded think tank.
Pet shop culture
These breeding facilities exist because of the culture of buying pets from pet stores and online outlets, which are almost exclusively supplied by puppy mills, according to TBT Rescue.
Data from the Korea Agency of Education, Promotion and Information Service in Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (EPIS) shows that nearly one in five pet owners in South Korea buys their pets from a pet store.
The agency’s 2022 survey showed 21.9% of 1,272 respondents acquired their pets from a pet store, up 3.3% from 2020.
In comparison, only 5.6% of respondents said they adopted their pets from a shelter or animal charity, up from 1.8% in 2020, with 5.8% having adopted pets from government-run shelters, up from 3% in 2020.
The same survey also suggested that those who had bought their pets from pet stores lived mainly in cities – with Ulsan and Sejong recording the highest rates of 42.1% and 40%, respectively, while Seoul saw the lowest rate with 19.5%.
While the number of people choosing to adopt is slowly growing, many potential dog owners still flock to pet stores and online outlets, Kim said. When asked about the reasons they chose to buy their pets, the most common answer among respondents (27%) was “because they could check out the animal they wanted in person,” followed by “because they could trust the adoption process” with 17.3%, and “because it was convenient” with 14%, according to the EPIS survey.
Compared to the comparatively long and complicated process of adoption, buying a dog from a pet store or an online outlet is easy, like buying a new dress or shoes. “But people don’t realise that the cute, fluffy dogs they see in pet stores are the products of a painful and cruel past,” Kim said.
According to TBT Rescue, dogs trapped in puppy mills live through years of mistreatment, in which they are forced to breed and live amid their own waste. They are often beaten and abused, and, when they are no longer able to breed or get sick, they are euthanised or thrown out to the streets to fend for themselves.
Puppies produced in these facilities are taken to pet stores, where they are cleaned up and all signs of their background erased.
If they are not sold, however, they are returned to the breeding facilities and forced to breed, which leads to a never ending cycle of abuse, according to Kim.
Adopt, don’t shop
TBT Rescue is working to raise awareness about the benefits of adopting a dog of any age, size and breed, rather than selecting an expensive and often unhealthy breed from a pet shop.
The small charity also works to find permanent homes for abused and abandoned dogs, taking in dogs in need and nursing them back to health before putting them up for adoption.
TBT Rescue facilitates international adoptions as well, mainly to the US. But it is difficult to do this without support, Kim said.
“Rescuing even one dog costs anywhere between one million won (RM3,500) to 10 million won (RM35,000), and we just don’t have enough funding or volunteers,” she said, expressing regret that the charity is unable to save every dog that needs their help.
There is a growing trend of adoption among the younger generation, who are becoming more aware of the damage pet shops and puppy mills cause, the activist explained.
Over 80% of TBT Rescue’s dogs were rehomed by people in their 20s and 30s, “who tend to be less discriminatory when it comes to breed or age,” she said.
“I understand that people want to raise dogs from when they are puppies, but I want to emphasise that age doesn’t matter. Any dog can become a beloved member of your family,” she said, imploring people to “open their eyes to the abuse these dogs face, to avoid pet shops and instead adopt animals from charities like (TBT Rescue).” — The Korea Herald/ANN