The images, filmed undercover by an Australian reporter, show the dogs and puppies crammed up against the bars of giant cages with so little room to move that many of them suffocate during the journey.
Health officials warn the illicit industry is contributing to the spread of diseases in the region. The World Health Organization has linked dog meat to outbreaks of trichinellosis, cholera, and rabies in Vietnam and Indonesia.
“This problem is rampant across South East Asia,” says Betsy Miranda, Asia coordinator for the Global Alliance for Rabies Control. “The risk that the animals are in poor health and not vaccinated is very high. If they move across borders they risk carrying the disease across large distances.”
In May, several high-profile animal welfare groups came together to form the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA), in an attempt to better monitor the illicit dog meat industry and lobby governments to crack down on the trade. The ACPA said they will work with authorities in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam to improve enforcement of regulations already in place and help raise awareness of the potential health risks.
Dog has been eaten for centuries across Asia; however, the meat, once eaten by poor families in rural areas, has become increasingly popular among diners in big cities including Hanoi and Saigon where a dog-meat dish can fetch as much as $60 dollars a portion.
As many as 5 million dogs are slaughtered for human consumption a year in Vietnam – almost double the number of stray cats and dogs euthanized each year in US animal shelters.
Multi-million dollar industry
Supplying dogs to feed growing demand in Vietnam has become a multimillion-dollar illegal trafficking industry.
In Thailand, where selling dogs for human consumption is illegal, canine meat smuggling syndicates round up stray and pet animals from the streets, trafficking as many as 1,000 dogs across the border in one night.
Activists accuse authorities in Thailand of doing little to stop the trade, which is often passed off as an unofficial way to deal with the growing number of stray dogs in the country. There’s an estimated 300,000 strays in the capital, Bangkok, alone. Programs to euthanize them in the past have met with strong opposition from members of the public who say killing the animals is cruel.
However, members of the ACPA say mounting evidence of the extreme levels of violence and suffering endured by dogs being smuggled for the meat trade is evidence that it’s a much worse solution for strays.
Disturbing images from the Australian documentary and other films made in recent years show footage of dogs being brutally bludgeoned with sticks before they are killed. Activists claim some meat traders encourage the practice because it’s rumored to make the meat taste better if the dog has suffered before it died.
"Some of the footage we receive is so horrific it's too strong even for the media to run,” says John Daley, from the Soi Dog Foundation in Bangkok, one of the organizations within the ACPA.
He’s lobbying to get the Thai authorities to push through a new animal cruelty bill, currently moving through Parliament. At the moment, those who are caught are prosecuted under animal transit laws, designed to ensure quarantine regulations are followed. The maximum sentence is six months or a small fine.
“[The smugglers] know they are getting away with it,” says Mr. Daley. “The people caught are the drivers or the traders but never the kingpins.”
Breakthrough for animal rights?
In Vietnam, the Ministry of Health has agreed to host a conference in August with the ACPA to bring regional governments together to discuss ways to end the dog meat trade. The meeting is being billed as a breakthrough for animal rights in Vietnam, which has a reputation for animal cruelty especially when it comes to dog meat production.
Dog meat traders in the country have argued against an outright ban, saying better regulation is all that’s needed. However, activists are pushing for the practice to be stopped completely. They claim dogs are much more intelligent than traditional meat sources like cow, sheep, and chicken, which means they suffer cruelty more acutely.