This interview was conducted by J Chung, and was published on KCRUSH America on July 29th. It has been edited from the original for brevity.
I sat down with So-youn Park, animal rights activist and founder of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE,) an animal rights organization based in Seoul, South Korea.
Ms Park has dedicated most of her life by rescuing animals from horrific environments, and I wanted to learn more about CARE, how we can co-exist with the animals, and how we can prevent cruelty to animals and so much more. I also wanted to clear up some of the misunderstandings that have been circulating about Ms. Park and CARE recently.
Ms. Park, please introduce yourself, and tell us how you became an animal rights activist.
Since I was into animals from as early as I can remember, my mother used to wake me up in the morning every time animals appeared on TV. I was fascinated with all kinds of animals. They looked so different from us and had their own amazing and lovable qualities.
Most kids love animals, at times imbuing them with human-like characters. I was no different. But, when my mother asked me what I wanted to eat, and I would always say “meat!” I loved eating meat from an early age. I never thought the animals I loved and the meat were one and the same.
Things changed in elementary school and my mother began taking me to school in the morning past the butcher’s where we usually bought our meat. We usually went there in the evenings, but on those mornings, I saw men unloading large chunks of something from a van in front of the butcher’s shop, which they then hung from the ceiling of the shop. Looking closer look, I could see legs still attached to the chunks. I was so shocked at the sight, and when I asked my mother what they were, she said, “They’re pieces of the meat that you like so much!” I collapsed to the ground and cried my eyes out. It was as if I had killed my own friends and eaten them.
That was an awakening. I could never forget that shock, and at that moment I made a promise to help my animal friends when I grew up. From that day on I could not consume meat; I would even get sick at the smell. I told my older sister, and we both became vegetarians. We were told off at the table because we refused to eat meat, and we would cry and sometimes eat just rice. This repeated day after day until my mother finally gave up and began cooking two separate meals–one with meat and one without. My mother took the trouble all those years, because we would have gone without food otherwise.
In my early twenties, I realized that hardly anyone in South Korea cared about animal welfare and rights. When we visited relatives in the countryside, we saw cattle with their noses pierced, and during the winter, there would be icicles hanging from their bellies. In Seoul, where we lived, neighbors would leave their dogs alone for days until their return, and those dogs would often starve. I would secretly take them rice from home to feed them. So I became involved in the animal rights movement, first volunteering, and later starting my own organization.
Could you tell us what CARE does?
CARE’s primary purpose is the improvement and strengthening of animal protection laws in South Korea. Since 2006, we have been behind most of the amendments and revisions in the laws. This has been achieved typically by the investigation of incidents of animal abuse, rescuing the animals involved, and campaigning to bring it to the attention of the public and our government.
We work on various animal rights issues, but one we are very deeply engaged in is the banning of dog slaughter in this country. CARE rescues the most animals in Korea, and that includes animals that exist in blind spots not covered by animal abuse laws. Consequently, this means that sometimes unhealthy animals with no hope for adoption, or animals with violence issues, are rescued. We wish that all of these animals could be given a chance for new lives, but it is simply impossible to do so. This is why we euthanized some of these animals.1
CARE did not go out of its way to publicize these tragic realities, but in early January, 2019, the person in charge of the euthanization talked to the press about it. And this is what has been, for the last few months, disparaged and misrepresented as if we had slaughtered those animals. For two months, every newspaper in Korea talked about it, and CARE is still suffering the consequences of these distorted representations of the facts. I am personally facing police investigation regarding this issue, and must endure wild rumors and suppositions.
It’s an unfortunate fact that it sometimes takes a tragic event for people to take notice. We have thrown a light upon these poor animals, so cruelly abused under the realities of this country, and have helped make things better for animals in a realistic and rational way by making a change to the system.
What are the main reasons for opposing dog meat consumption? And tell us more about your future plans for this issue.
We are against dog meat because all animals feel pain. The pain and suffering of a lot of animals is directly linked to humans. We are obligated to lighten that pain and suffering, even if we start with one kind of animal. If we look upon dogs—humanity’s oldest companion and the most common household pet—as meat, how can we ignore that and relieve the pain and suffering of other animals?
There are 10 million pets in Korea, and pet culture is growing. However, it is also the only country with dog farms, and one of the few democracies in the world that still eat dog meat. It is also the only country with animal protection laws as well as dog slaughtering. The actions of dog farms and slaughterers, though illegal, are protected in the name of livelihood, and the enormous pain of the slaughtered dogs is neglected.
We don’t hope for an overnight change of national awareness, but with continued pressure—both domestic and international—on the government, it will have to make decisions.
Are there any special episodes you recall the most, regarding rescued animals?
A dog that we rescued last year, called Gang-gun, is especially weighing on my mind. Fire had spread to a dog farm in the countryside, and all the dogs were burned to death except this guy, who had survived with burn wounds to almost the whole of his body. He was found, dying from burns and hunger after being abandoned for a whole month, and taken to the local shelter and left there. When CARE heard about him, we took him in as an emergency case, provided veterinary treatment, and he is now in our shelter. He needed plastic surgery because his ears had shriveled and eyelids had burned away. He has slowly opened up to people and is happy now, but is still waiting for adoption. We are hoping for an overseas adoption for him.
I also remember Tori well, the rescue dog adopted by our current president, Moon Jae-in. Tori had been abandoned and was facing death for meat consumption. After being rescued and treated by CARE, he waited 2 years to be adopted due to prejudices against black dogs. After we told the story of Tori, President Moon adopted him, with a message that everyone, human or animal, must be freed from prejudice and discrimination.
Tell us about the procedures for adoption overseas.
We rescue dogs, cats, horses, oxen and cows, goats, deer, chickens, rabbits, and other animals. Adoption of these animals takes time, but the hardest problem is faced by dogs.
A lot of the dogs rescued by CARE are large mixed breed dogs, and very few people are willing to adopt them. Koreans still care a lot about purebreds, and the outward appearance of each breed is thought to be very important. And, as the main form of residence in Korea is the apartment, there are not enough houses with gardens that are suitable for bigger dogs. As much as we want them to be adopted, we cannot send them to people who would not treat them as loved members of their family, tie them up outside and feed them scraps and leftovers. Consequently, it is hard to find more adopters in this country, so we have been working hard at overseas adoption.
We publish profiles of dogs with their stories, pictures, movies and their state of health on our website, and overseas families apply to adopt them. Before transportation, the dogs are spayed and given general and rabies vaccinations, and undergo domestic quarantine procedures.
The dogs are accompanied on their flights abroad by volunteers, which saves on expensive transportation fees.It’s rewarding when loving dogs find good homes abroad, after having found it so hard to be adopted in Korea. Disabled dogs with no hope of adoption in Korea are often chosen by people in other countries. The realities of this country are sad, but that’s where education comes in. We must work at that too.
When do you feel the most rewarded?
I feel the most rewarded when CARE’s activities lead to changes in the law.
In 2003, we made dog meat festivals—such as are seen in China—illegal. There were plans to hold a dog meat festival in Seocheon, and to gradually expand it nationwide. We protested against this dog meat festival, and on the day before it was to start, all the equipment and publicity banners were removed and the whole thing was called off.
We ended the live burial of cattle and pigs, which was the convention when viruses such as foot-and-mouth disease struck. We did this by filming and exposing the atrocities.
In 2006 we rescued dogs from horrific conditions in Jangsu-dong, Incheon, despite facing charges of theft. That led to the first revision in the Animal Protection Act in 15 years. That was also when we achieved our first and only legal precedent of illegalizing and imposing a fine on dog slaughter for the purposes of meat consumption.
Share with us your future plans and hopes for animal rights organizations.
As I’ve stated before, there must be a public change of awareness about animal rights.
Originally, I had thought that what needed to change first was the awareness of the government, the legislators and executors of the law. However, due to the events at the beginning of this year, I now think education for animal rights activists must come first. The reason being that many in the animal rights field have idealistically moral attitudes and are unable to coutenance the ignore the harsh realities faced by animals in Korea. Unconditional opposition to euthanasia is one of the results of ignoring this reality. We see the need for proper awareness of, and continuing education about, the realities of animal rights and welfare in Korea.
There are also groups working for their own private interests and gain by using animals. We need to educate activists, donors, and sponsors to prevent such behavior.
We will continue to speak out unafraid against the government’s wrongful policies, which has led to the many successful results we have already had. We will work hard to make the bill to ban dog slaughter has recently been introduced pass within the year.
We will continue to act for the lessening of pain and suffering for animals, instead of working to enrich ourselves.
Thank you for your time. We wish you and CARE all the best!
1. It should be noted that Korean law does not allow euthanasia to be carried out by private organizations.