Outside the many pet shops in Chungmuro, Seoul, bouncer-like staff stand eyeballing passersby, sometimes preventing them from taking photos. Their presence indicates that they are aware of the questionable wellbeing of the animals on display. Some of the small dogs are seen spinning in circles, while others yap frantically. Many are just sleeping. One passer-by exclaims, “They seem drugged.”
Inside the shops, young couples select their new cute puppies and fill out forms to complete the purchase. But there is no way of knowing whether these pets will become their true companions for life.
Walk down any Seoul street and you’re likely to come across a wide-array of four-legged animals sporting the latest fashion accessories and being treated like Barbie dolls. Often minute in size with bulging eyes, these dogs are carried around in handbags, sometimes pushed around in strollers, and given haircuts that are possibly more expensive than your own.
According to a 2015 Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs study, the share of South Korean households that own pets increased to nearly 22 percent, from less than 18 percent in 2012. And to go by a report from the National Tax Service (NTS), pet shops increased by some 80 percent, from 3,740 in 2014 to 6,739 in 2017. The number of animal hospitals also increased by 13.8 percent in the same period.
But the growth in demand is accompanied by a wider problem in South Korean society: humans who see pets as nothing more than cute toys, rather than as living companions that deserve care and respect.
Chungmuro and Dongdaemun are two areas of Seoul that are traditionally dedicated to the pet industry. There, so-called “pet alleys” are lined with shops that display tiny dogs in their windows.
When Korea Exposé went to inspect Chungmuro, the cute dogs inside the small transparent containers were noticeably distressed. Some medium-sized dogs were unable to take more than one step in either direction inside their enclosures.
Worse is the fate of pets that are purchased online, sometimes to deadly consequences.
Here’s how it works: You go online to pick your favorite pet, pay and get it shipped by a standard courier delivery service. During transit, the pet is subject to throwing, differences in temperature, and a combination of different smells and dust, experiencing confusion and stress. They sometimes arrive dead.
Courier services in South Korea are similar to the likes of DHL or FedEx, except they deliver goods domestically at a fraction of the price, often overnight.
Song Ji-sung, a manager at the policy team of Korean Animal Welfare Association (KAWA) told Korea Exposé that despite it being illegal to post a pet in a parcel, such practices were “rampant” in South Korea.
“There are many cases of pets being sent by regular courier. The problem is only beginning to reach the surface, and awareness of this problem is still in its infancy,” he said.
One of the problems is that customers want a quick, cheap and convenient service. According to Article 9 and 9-2 of the Animal Protection Act, animals in transit must be directly transferred from the seller to the purchaser, or delivered through a forwarding agent who provides adequate feed and water in a vehicle that “has a structure that can protect animals from injuries… to minimize suffering caused by a rapid change of body temperature or a difficulty in breathing.”
But employing an agent with a customized vehicle is costly, so sellers opt for regular courier services, which are less expensive but ill-equipped to handle animals. Some vendors also ship animals in the cargo trunks of long-distance buses. This, too, is in breach of law.
That is partly because of a flaw in the Animal Protection Act. As laid out in the enforcement rule of the same law, the protection applies specifically to six animals that are considers to be “companion animals”: dogs, cats, rabbits, parrots, guinea pigs and hamsters. Thus, while it’s explicitly forbidden to ship these six animals by courier or bus, some sellers seem to believe that the law does not apply to other animals such as birds, hedgehogs, amphibians and reptiles. And then there are sellers who simply flaunt the law and illegally ship even protected animals.
Korea Exposé contacted several online pet stores stores stocking hedgehogs: They all said they do not use couriers but admitted to using long-distance buses. Korea Exposé also found some websites that ship animals like mice and scorpions both by courier and by bus. One website specializing in reptiles clearly states that it uses regular courier services, and provides compensation if the animal arrives dead.
Song said, “Sending animals via courier is animal cruelty. Because the law on animal transport is not followed, there is no end to the number of deaths occurring inside the courier boxes.”
Dogs are a man’s best friend, or so it goes. So much so that some owners cannot help but take them along when they go shopping. One department store in Seoul even rents out strollers for dogs. But visit many of South Korea’s supermarkets and you might notice one peculiarity at the entrance: coin lockers for pet storage.
These small box-shaped spaces resemble conventional coin lockers, but allow for small pets to be stored unattended, as handbags or rucksacks would be. In 2015, local media MBC reported on the problem, providing a glimpse into the cramped conditions the animals must endure while waiting for their owners.
South Korea’s three main supermarket giants — Homeplus, E-mart and Lotte Mart — have either operated or still maintain such boxes.
A spokesperson for Homeplus told Korea Exposé that most of their stores are equipped with pet lockers. “Pets are not allowed inside the our stores for hygiene and safety reasons. When pet owners enter our stores, we redirect them to the lockers, or if available on site, to an animal clinic within the same building.” The problem is, according to the spokesperson, that some customers try to sneak their pets inside their bags, causing complaints from other shoppers.
Asked about animal welfare, the spokesperson, who did not wish to be named, said, “We strive to maintain cleanliness [inside the lockers] and provide things like litter pads. We do our best to ensure the animals are kept in the best conditions while providing the best customer experience as possible.”
An unnamed representative at E-mart said over phone that the company no longer uses such coin lockers, but did not explain why it had phased them out. Lotte Mart did not respond to calls or emails seeking comment by time of publication.
And like they do with fashion accessories, pet owners sometimes tire of their animals and casually throw them away. An estimated 90,000 animals were abandoned or went missing in 2016, up by 9.3 percent from the previous year, according to the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency. This number accounts only for animals rescued and sent to state-run shelters. Animal rights organization Care argues that “the actual number of abandoned animals is likely to be much higher.”
Leo Mendoza, an animal rescuer at the non-profit Busan Abandoned Pet Sanctuary told Korea Exposé that he believes one of the reasons pets, especially dogs, are thrown out is because as puppies grow, they require training and lose their ‘cute’ factor. People who “bought them as toys or impulse gifts lose their patience, and toss them out,” he said. “If you walk into any pound you will see large number of dogs with these parameters, including Cocker Spaniels, Poodles, and Maltese.”
Mendoza said that he believes that one of the differences between South Korea and Western countries is that South Korea doesn’t have a tradition of ‘raising’ dogs as pets. “Older generations have the idea that dogs simply get tied up outside, and don’t really interact with the family. Thus, younger people do not have that experience of having their parents get them a dog and pass on the responsibilities of caring for them.”
In January 2017 the Seoul Institute, a city-run policy think tank, reported that one out of every four pet owners in Seoul had no knowledge of how to raise animals. More alarmingly, some 43 percent of respondents to its survey said that they had felt an impulse to abandon their pets.
While South Korea’s pet industry sees a massive growth, without any change in and enforcement of law, as well as improvement in the attitudes of buyers and sellers both, more animals are bound to lead miserable lives, and face untimely death.
Cover image: Puppies displayed in glass containers at a pet shop in Chungmuro, Seoul. (Raphael Rashid/Korea Exposé)