Martyn Stewart had no intention of adopting a dog that day. Tasked with filming the horrific conditions at a South Korean dog farm alongside Humane Society International and Change for Animals Foundation, he was simply focused on the assignment at hand. As a sound recordist who has worked in the TV and film industry for many years and documented myriad examples of animal cruelty throughout the globe, Martyn has experienced his fair share of upsetting images and sounds. But this was his first trip to a dog farm, and although he planned to do as he always has on these kinds of assignments — do the job and deal with his emotions later — he wasn’t sure he was prepared for what he was about to witness.
As the third and largest dog farm HSI was closing down as part of its campaign to help South Korean dog farmers exit the trade and transition to more humane forms of farming, this particular operation was home to 103 canines. Most of the dogs were large Tosas, a Japanese Mastiff breed favored by the South Korean meat trade.
It is estimated that more than 2 million dogs are consumed in South Korea each year, supplied by hundreds, even thousands of farms (an official census of how many actually operate in the country has never been performed). Unlike countries including China, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia that rely on strays and stolen pets to supply their pet meat trades, Korea is the only Asian country that commercially farms dogs for consumption.
Life for dogs on a dog meat farm is a short, miserable existence characterized by deprivation and abuse. Similar to puppy mill dogs, these canines live in small, filthy cages with little or no protection from extreme weather. They are fed poor diets and denied exercise, companionship, veterinary care, and the chance to feel the ground beneath their feet. But unlike mill dogs, dog farm dogs have no chance of ending up in loving homes, only in live markets where they are brutally slaughtered.
As he followed the team of rescuers through the farm, Martyn was incredibly moved by the conditions of the dogs. Tears trickled down his face as he filmed the tragic scene before him — rows and rows of dogs and puppies barking, whining, jumping at the metal bars, some cowering in fear, a few wagging their tails. The smell of decaying food and excrement was overwhelming. It seemed unimaginable that any “human” could keep animals this way. And then he saw him — the dog who would change his life.
“I left the puppy enclosure and turned into a dark under-cover row of double-raised cages,” Martyn writes. “Here I found a dog completely huddled over, its spirit broken. He would not look up at me … he trembled in the darkness. I completely broke down and asked about the chances of taking him home with me. Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation was there with me and she told me my chances were probably 100 percent. I made up my mind right there that I would take this mentally and physically abused dog home with me. I decided to name him Pocket in honor of a friend’s son I’d met in Nepal.”
You can read more of Martyn’s touching, first-person account of his experience at the dog farm here.
Fast-forward almost two weeks later to the end of September. By then, all 103 dogs had been removed from the farm, checked over medically, and flown to San Francisco. There they were housed at a temporary shelter and assessed before being distributed among HSI emergency shelter partners throughout California and into Washington state, where they would be rehabilitated and adopted into loving homes. As it turned out, the shelter where Pocket and five other dogs would be sent was PAWS in Linwood, Washington, not far from Martyn’s home in Greater Seattle. To help with the effort, Martyn and his wife Noeleen drove down to Tacoma, met the HSI transport team, picked up Pocket and his canine comrades, and delivered them to PAWS.
Since dogs raised on meat farms are not well cared for and fed extremely low-quality diets, it was no surprise that Pocket was infected with parasites and terribly underweight. He developed kennel cough not long after arriving in Washington. But once he was treated, vaccinated, and neutered, the bewildered pup was ready to go home with the Stewarts, who were looking forward to nurturing and acquainting him with his new life.
“One of the most amazing sights was Pocket’s first walk on grass,” Martyn says. “He had never seen or smelled it, had never seen a bird or a squirrel, had never chewed a stick or interacted with another playful dog. Giving him his first squeaky toy was a joy to watch.”
As the proud parents of Bucket, a boisterous 8-month-old Golden Labrador Retriever, the Stewarts knew that adding another young dog to the household would be twice the work. But then, Pocket wasn’t any ordinary 7-to-9-month-old pup — he was a traumatized dog who had known nothing but deprivation and abuse. Helping him heal physically and emotionally was going to take time, love, and patience. But Martyn was undaunted; he was prepared to do whatever it took to help Pocket feel safe and loved. And initially, that meant giving up sleep.
“That first week, I was walking around like a zombie because Pocket was having nightmares and barking in his sleep — who knows what a meat dog dreams about?” he says. “I was lying on the floor with him, and I’d wake up feeling like someone had crushed me with a steamroller.”
Besides night terrors, Pocket had other obstacles to overcome, including deformed feet and weak lower front legs, caused by standing on wire flooring for his entire life. Since he’d never received any exercise and his muscles were terribly weak, Pocket had adapted by walking on his wrists.
“His front legs became lower, like he had on snowshoes or big flippers,” Martyn explains. “But now that he’s walking and putting on muscle, he’s starting to elevate his legs and using the pads on his feet, so they’re straightening up quite well.”
He continues, “He’s got lopsided ears because he’d been attacked by other dogs and the farmer had stitched him up with heavy string, like you’d see in a potato sack. So he’s got scarring all over his neck, and one ear is about two inches down from the other, giving him this floppy approach on his face. His hearing is okay; he’s just going to have these deformities as a memento of his early life.”
As those first days and weeks went by, Pocket’s new world began to unfold before him. Life is good when you’re a cherished family dog! Besides eating yummy, nutritious food, he was going for walks in the woods, playing with toys, meeting friendly dogs, riding in the car, sleeping in a warm bed, and, best of all, receiving tons of love. Whenever something unfamiliar became overwhelming or frightening for him, Pocket learned to look to his pack for safety and reassurance.
“Bucket is roughly the same age as Pocket, so I often look at the parallels between the two of them,” Martyn says. “We’ve had Bucket since he was 12 weeks old, and he’s had the chance to be a puppy, but Pocket had his puppyhood cruelly taken from him, so he’s having to catch up with everything. Bucket is like his therapy dog … he really looks to him for how to be a dog and help get him out of his (anxious) state of mind.”
Picturing Pocket loping after Bucket as they bound along a wooded trail, stopping to watch birds, chase squirrels, and take in all the fascinating sights, sounds, and interesting smells, it’s incredibly heartening to think of how far this very resilient dog has come in such a short period of time.
“He’s nervous and aware of everything going on around him, but watching him trying to compute it all into his little mind, I think he’s doing amazing,” says Martyn. “He doesn’t have the total confidence you’d expect from a dog, but I’d expect him to behave like he is after everything he’s been through.”
It takes a very special person to rehabilitate an animal from the pet meat trade. These creatures have been through a tremendous amount of stress and trauma, and have likely never known human kindness. With time, patience, and training, meat dogs can indeed become wonderful lifetime companions, but prospective adopters must be prepared for behavior, training, and health care challenges.
Meanwhile, Pocket has become a bit of a celebrity. Besides serving as one of the poster dogs for HSI’s anti-dog-meat campaign, he has his own Facebook page, Pocket for Change, in which he journals about his new life alongside beautiful photos and heartwarming videos, compliments of his talented dad.
By sharing his story and demonstrating to the world that meat dogs are just as loving and deserving of compassion as any pet dog, Martyn hopes that Pocket will not only help change the hearts and minds of people within dog-eating nations but also inspire others to join the movement to stop this inhumane trade.
“I hope that Pocket will shine a light on every dog in South Korea and the rest of the world, [and] show that there is always hope,” he says. “Like the starfishes washed up on the beach, if we can save one, we can save them all.”
If you’d like to support HSI and CFAF’s progressive effort to end South Korea’s dog meat trade and raise awareness among Koreans about the plight of meat dogs, please visit the Humane Society International website.
Read more about the dog meat trade:
About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, Lisa uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter.