As urban myths go, it’s a good one. A woman takes her pet dog to a Vietnamese restaurant and hands it to the amiable waiter to be fed kitchen scraps. But then with great fanfare a silver platter arrives and poor Foo-Foo has been roasted and served up as the main course.
Of course, the veracity of this modern fable is easy to dismiss, and your own “best friend” is very unlikely to be butchered at a Hanoi eatery. However, thousands of pet dogs are served up every year in Vietnam — victims of a cruel smuggling trade that four Southeast Asian nations have finally decided to stamp out.
A deal struck this week by Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Laos aims to halt the trafficking of dogs for meat. Most of the victims are well-groomed pets stolen in Thailand that are forced into abhorrently cramped cages and shipped over the Mekong River to Laos, and eventually to dinner tables in Vietnam. “Stray dogs are far too difficult to catch, even with hi-tech equipment,” John Dalley, founder of Phuket-based charity Soi Dog, tells TIME. “The vast majority of intercepted dogs we see are actually stolen pets — most have collars on and are very tame and friendly.”
But the spread of disease rather than organized crime or animal cruelty lies behind the new initiative. Vietnam has one of Asia’s worst rabies problems and dogs are the principle cause — one recent epidemic in a Hanoi suburb saw 117 people, including young children, bitten by rabid animals. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations aims for all member states to be rabies-free by 2020, a target that dog traffickers are putting at peril. “While stopping the dog meat trade will not in itself eliminate rabies, it certainly will never be eliminated while it’s going on,” adds Dalley.
The new program focuses on motivating law enforcement to tackle smuggling and includes a five-year ban on importing dogs into Vietnam. However, many remain wary as all countries in the region already prohibit the transport of dogs across borders without evidence of vaccination against rabies, health certificates, export licenses and being properly identified. “[The deal] is a great move forward but we need to obviously see that it’s enforced,” explains Dalley. “It will need strong action from the government and involve other agencies such as the border control and police.”
In addition, the colossal profits at stake make many doubtful that the scheme could ever be a complete success. Each pooch can fetch 5,000 to 7,000 baht ($155-215) and an estimated 5 million dogs are slaughtered annually, making dognapping a significant illicit industry. “We are still seeking solutions as the border between Thailand and other countries is long and difficult to manage, considering the illegal trade we are trying,” says Boonseub Chemchoig, Chief Inspector General for the Thai Ministry of Interior. Many fear that targeting smugglers will just force them to find new routes.
And no matter whether enforcement attempts succeed, a huge domestic slaughtering industry means that dogs will not be disappearing from Vietnamese menus any time soon. “I can’t imagine much will change either in terms of stopping the consumption of dog meat or curtailing illegal dog trafficking,” Mark Lowerson, who runs a popular Hanoi restaurant blog and street food tours, tells TIME. “The Vietnamese remain quite traditional and proud of their culinary traditions.” So while dogs in Thailand can perhaps rest that little bit easier, don’t expect to spot wagging tales in Vietnam any time soon.