YANGPYEONG, South Korea (AP) — Nam Ki Sung has raised puppies on a small, rural farm for 15 years, delighting in their company, mourning their deaths and eking out a living. No more: He now has less than $60 in the bank, and struggles to feed his dogs.
Nam is one of many puppy farmers who face collapse amid public anger over recent allegations in media reports and by activists of widespread cruelty at dog farms across South Korea.
“It’s like standing on the edge of a cliff,” Nam, 74, said in an interview, sitting on a bed inside a revamped shipping container where he lives at the farm he has run for 15 years in the town of Yangpyeong, near Seoul. “We are under a death sentence.”
Prices have plummeted for puppies in large part because of the public outcry over a report by SBS TV in May that showed shocking scenes of abuse at two rural farms in South Korea. The SBS program, and other media reports that followed, has led to some rare soul-searching on dog welfare in a country where an estimated 2 million dogs are slaughtered every year for food.
On one side of the dispute are animal rights activists who say most dog farms in South Korea have problems with abuse. On the other are small farmers who say that while their facilities often do need improvements, they’re not as bad as what’s portrayed in recent media reports, which are based on the conditions at only a handful of farms.
During recent visits arranged by The Associated Press a day in advance, the dogs at two unregistered farms looked healthy and the facilities generally clean and well-run. In nearly a dozen interviews, farmers and pet shop owners said farms were mostly humane. Still, it’s impossible to verify those claims because activists say the government mostly fails to monitor dog farms, most of which are unregistered.
South Korea’s pet industry has blossomed in recent years — one in every five households has either a dog or a cat — even as many dog meat restaurants have closed. While restaurants still exist, younger people often stay away from a delicacy that’s seen as a holdover from a different era. But the country’s animal welfare system and public attitudes toward pets still lag far behind those in many Western countries.
The government estimates that about 1,000 farms have more than 20 dogs that are being raised for pets. Activist groups put the number at 3,000, and say they churn out more than 250,000 dogs annually.
Many South Koreans were appalled by the abuse revealed by the local media reports, some of it captured with hidden cameras: Dogs were confined in squalid, overcrowded wire cages; many were injured or sick, rarely released for exercise. Female dogs were caged until they no longer produced puppies, then slaughtered or sent to dog meat restaurants or stores selling traditional medicines made with dog meat.
A farmer without a veterinarian license talked in one scene about the cesarean sections she had just performed on female dogs that sprawled nearby, sluggish still with anesthesia.
Police later detained the woman for allegedly using veterinary anesthetic illegally, but she wasn’t charged with animal abuse because a local law allows farmers to medically treat their animals.
It’s hard to tell exactly how many farms have similar levels of abuse because there are few detailed studies on the issue and the worst farms don’t accept outside visitors, according to animal welfare groups.
Many farmers feel unfairly persecuted because of what they say are only a few bad farms.
“I’m enraged. Why should we be reviled because of them?” said Moon Young-joo, who breeds about 50 dogs in Umseong, south of Seoul.
An association of farmers, pet shops and auctions houses says the prices of dogs that used to sell at 200,000-300,000 won ($173-259) have plunged to 50,000-100,000 won ($43-86).
Some activists are skeptical of the small farmers’ indignation.
Kim Hyunji at the Seoul-based Korea Animal Rights Advocates said the farms visited by The Associated Press might have cleaned up their facilities in advance. She said a farm cannot be called humane until inspectors first examine whether the animals routinely get proper medical services and exercise.
The media reports led to protests by activists and an online campaign calling for the abolishment of what critics call “puppy mills.”
The Agriculture Ministry last month launched investigations of the country’s puppy farms and thousands of other places where dogs are raised for their meat. At dog meat farms, more serious abuses are believed to take place.
Hundreds of angry farmers recently rallied in Seoul, criticizing the media reports and demanding measures to save their endangered businesses.
“We’re now looked at as sub-human,” said Shim Young Soon, a farmer from Goyang, near Seoul, at the rally. “I worry that my dogs will attack and try to eat each other when I run out of money and can’t feed them properly.”
Nam said he only has 60,000 won ($52) left in his bank account; but he refuses to sell his newborn puppies at the new rock-bottom price because it would destroy his livelihood.
It is difficult for consumers here to determine where their puppies come from because most pet dogs bred at farms are first sent to auction houses before being sold to pet stores.
Amid the turmoil, the South Korean government recently unveiled measures to promote the pet business. The measures toughen penalties for abuse; give subsidies to farmers who follow government guidelines; and make it more difficult to open farms.
As his business collapses, Nam holds onto the final memory of a guard dog named Sunny.
“When she was breathing her last breath, I patted her and told her goodbye. She wagged her tail even though she was dying,” Nam said, tears flowing down his face. “I won’t forget her until I die.”
Follow correspondent Hyung-jin Kim at twitter.com/hyungjin1972