Skip to main content

The Culinary Potential of the Canine

Are we any closer to thinking clearly about dog meat?
Dog meat on sale at a market in Yulin, in southern China's Guangxi province. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Dog meat on sale at a market in Yulin, in southern China's Guangxi province. (Photo: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

February was a good month for South Korean canines. Humane Society International undertook a successful mission to rescue hundreds of dogs from a South Korean farm. About this effort, HSI employee Andrew Plumply wrote: "When we entered the facility, the suffering of these dogs and puppies was clear and overwhelming. They were huddled miserably in wire cages with no bedding or protection from the extreme cold temperatures.... Thankfully these dogs now have a chance at better lives in Canada and the United States." Most are being adopted into homes.

There's much to unpack in this remark. For one, Plumply's descriptions of the Korean dog farm echo the rhetoric applied to confined farm animals in the U.S.—namely chickens, veal calves, and pigs. The Humane Society of the United States' ongoing attempt to end the use of battery cages and gestation crates reflects the organization's constant lament that: "Factory farms cram egg-laying hens into cages so tiny they can't even spread their wings. Breeding pigs and veal calves are stuffed into cramped individual cages barely larger than their bodies. They can't walk or turn around."

The similarity in language used to describe dog, veal, and chicken facilities suggests that the HIS, the HSUS's global affiliate, sees all farmed animals on an equal moral plane (at least when it comes to their status as food). But this isn't necessarily the case. With dog meat, the HSI seems to oppose consumption per se, noting how it's "helping dog meat farmers transition to more humane ways of making a living." But when it comes to farm animals eaten by Western societies, they'll accept the consumption of those animals so long as the beasts are humanely raised.

"Most people care about animals and don't want them to be harmed. And yet most people eat animals—animals who, like dogs and cats, have feelings and lives that matter to them."

The organization's promotion of larger cages for chickens best exemplifies this distinction. By insisting on better housing, the HSUS is suggesting that the immediate goal isn't to end the consumption of chicken, but rather to make chicken lives a little less miserable. (Although, as my last column suggested, enhanced cages may not even do that.) This approach is fundamentally different from rescuing dogs from a meat farm, hauling them to safety, and adopting them out to loving families who presumably won't barbecue them.

To be fair to the HSUS, the distinction it draws between eating dogs and eating more conventional farm animals is reflected in Western society's consumer choices at large. This point was driven home in an especially compelling way last month when a video of a "seasonal restaurant" called La Table Suisse ("traditional Swiss dishes, newly interpreted") started circulating through social media. The advertisement looks pretty much like any other advertisement for a high-end restaurant, but with one exception—the chef of La Table Suisse, a lushly bearded Moritz Brunner, makes a big deal of serving gourmet dog and cat meat. In Switzerland, a country with otherwise admirable animal welfare laws, it's legal to do this, and there is still some dog breeding for meat.

Well, the reaction wasn't friendly. The restaurant's social media sites were swamped with fuming commentary and, of course, a petition was started to shut down the joint. But the ad—which tips its hand a bit when Brunner preaches "if people eat chickens and pigs it just doesn't make sense not to eat other animals"—turned out to be a hoax perpetuated by animal advocates. The organizations who made the fake ad—Beyond Carnism and the German Vegetarian Union—noted that their intention was to "raise awareness of the psychological disconnect when people eat meat."

"Most people care about animals and don't want them to be harmed," says Melanie Joy, the director of Beyond Carnism. "And yet most people eat animals—animals who, like dogs and cats, have feelings and lives that matter to them."

Given the elevation of food discussions in the last couple of decades—or at least given the need we feel to be consistent in our food choices—it makes perfect sense to push consumers to think straight about the animals we eat. A couple of insightful books—including Joy's Why We Love Dogs, Eat Pigs, and Wear Cows and Hal Herzog's Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat—have furthered this effort. But it's hard not to wonder, provided how another dominant theme in our ongoing food discussion is centered on reducing waste and eating "snout to tail," exactly how this plea for consistency, if followed, would actually turn out.

A recent article highlighting the horrible fate of dogs confined in "no kill" shelters is worth juxtaposing against the La Table Suisse hoax. The author, Sabine Heinlein, argues that many sheltered animals are better off receiving a quick death rather than a long life of suffering in an underfunded shelter, jammed in a cage most of the day and prone to all manner of disease. If enough people believe Heinlein to be correct, it does not seem like a large leap—again, considering that there's already an imperative to reduce waste and that 2.5 million sheltered dogs and cats are euthanized every year—to think that culinary adventurers would, in the spirit of the much-beloved Anthony Bourdain, be willing to work a little American dog meat into their diet.

That's not the direction that I think we should go. But at the least, if we did, the move would be consistent with what the message that the fictional La Table Suisse is delivering. As one real Swiss dog eater put it to the Daily Mail: "Meat is meat." Tellingly, he wouldn't give his name.