Special Report: The Dog Meat Mafia

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The World

[Editor's note: The Dog Meat Mafia is a four-part special report on Southeast Asia's booming dog meat trade — a crime-ridden, multi-million dollar industry that stretches from upcountry Thailand, through Laos and into Vietnam. The series examines the economic, cultural and illicit aspects of the controversial business, and features an On Location video that illustrates how it works.]

TA RAE, Thailand — Behind this dirt-floor stall, beyond the tables splayed with ropes of jerky, a butcher prepares the day’s catch.

The animal is rigored stiff on the cutting board, its four legs pointed skyward like an upended footstool. In view of passing traffic, the butcher goes to work, sinking his cleaver into its side and paring off belly meat in neat flanks.

(Read More: China's latest craze: dyeing pets to look like other wild animals

Soon, his work is arranged inside a glass display case packed with ice. Condensation beads on the ribs, thighs, hearts and livers – as well as one skinny tail, boiled bald but for a few stubborn hairs.

“Delicious!” calls out a vendor in upcountry Thai dialect. Her cryptic menu, tacked to a post, uses only the non-specific Thai word for “meat.” But she is happy to reveal her butchery’s secret.

“It’s all dog meat,” she says. “From those dogs that just roam around.”

(Photos: Images from the underground dog meat trade)

Within Thailand, this no-stoplight town known as Ta Rae evokes free-range dog meat the way Memphis conjures thoughts of hickory-smoked ribs.

The village does not showcase its signature industry, which relies on bribery and crime. Nor does it openly embrace dog eating, regarded by mainstream Thai society as hickish and uncivilized. The local dog meat vendors operate on a dusty side street, outside the town’s sanctioned outdoor market.

But the village’s discretion is for naught: Ta Rae is regionally known as a nerve center in Southeast Asia’s stray dog meat trade. Here, Northeast Thailand’s seemingly infinite supply of wild dogs are corralled, graded, crammed into wire cages and prepped for export. The destination: Vietnam, where demand for grilled dog sells for triple the price of pork.

“This town of Ta Rae, if we had no business of dog meat, we could not survive,” says Rev. Somkiat Pholchangwang, who runs the town’s largest Catholic cathedral.

Settled in the 1880s by Christians fleeing persecution, and later by Vietnamese refugees, Ta Rae villagers are almost entirely Catholic — a rare faith in deeply Buddhist Thailand. Somkiat is priest to many dog-trafficking parishioners. He claims that most are loath to eat dog.

“It’s like eating your friend,” he says. “But we tolerate those who do eat it. And we tolerate it for export.”

For decades, enterprising Thais have grown wealthy gathering society’s canine pests by the tens of thousands and selling them to Vietnamese distributors for about $10 per head. Intelligence gathered from police, traffickers and local politicians suggests that at least 30,000 strays are now smuggled through illegal river borders each month.

Demand appears to be rising, a trend that one study from Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University attributes to a more vibrant Vietnamese economy. Hanoi’s leftover Thai dogs were once re-sold in China, according to researcher Thanyathip Sipana, but now Vietnamese consumption leaves little for the Chinese.

In a region where many turn to the rice paddies for work, dog collecting is a tempting alternative.

Just outside town, chain-link fencing and barbed wire encircle a dog gathering way station. Metal cages litter the grassy lawn. Dozens of dogs pace inside a chicken-wire kennel. A hulking black dog named Pepsi – a prisoner-turned-pet – keeps watch by the gate.

“It’s a lucrative business,” says Wit, the boss of a dog collecting crew. Though he would not offer his real name – he said speaking to journalists would bring harsh retribution from his higher-ups — the 33-year-old agreed to a few photos of his dog pen and a breakdown of the trade’s day-to-day mechanics.

In Wit's corner of Northeast Thailand, jade-green rice fields reach out to touch the horizon in each direction. A glut of wild strays roam this countryside, slinking through its villages and cities, feeding off field rats and loitering around farms.

Wit and his crew are dispatched to find those dogs, subdue them and truck them to an illegal Thai-Lao border crossing on the Mekong River.

“The money is good, but it’s a constant pain,” says Wit, face flushed pink from a mid-day drinking session. As he spoke, a dirty-blonde poodle mix — yet another of his canine pets — toddled out from the kitchen and flopped down on the doormat.

“We have to pay police to leave us alone. We sometimes shut down our operation if there’s too much scrutiny,” Wit says. “Neighbors sometimes complain about the smell.”

Each day, the dog collectors troll the region in pick-up trucks fitted with iron cages. They leave home base with small bills and plastic buckets — a gratuity for farmers who agree to turn over the strays who populate their fields.

Villagers know the trade as “Maa Grabong,” a pairing of the Thai words for “dog” and “canister.” Poor villagers will often exchange dogs for plastic basins, which are useful for household chores.

When collectors cruise through, broadcasting their services through a cheap megaphone, farmers see an opportunity to dispense with nuisance dogs: the kid biters and chicken eaters. A deal is struck and the mutts are tossed into cages by the scruff. Less cooperative dogs are yoked with a lasso fixed to a bamboo pole.

“This is a business from way back when,” says Nan Nantagalik, a 61-year-old grandmother and Ta Rae villager. “Country people need a way to get rid of dogs that chase their kids.”

The plumpest, healthiest strays are fast-tracked to Vietnam, where an especially desirable dog is said to fetch $60 in a Greater Hanoi meat market. But only low-grade dog meat remains in Thailand, where it’s often mashed to a pulp and dried into scarlet-colored ropes of jerky. The stuff is displayed everywhere at the Ta Rae butchery: on tables, in basins and strung from the roof like chewy wind chimes.

The dog wrangling, the town’s disrepute, the smuggling by moonlight — Wit says none of it gives him pause.

“I’ve never stopped to ask if this is wrong,” says Wit, his silver necklace reflecting the amber sun. “It’s a way of life, passed down from the older generations. This is what my family has taught me.”

Next in The Dog Meat Mafia: Corruption. Who runs Southeast Asia's dog meat crime syndicates, and how do they get away with it?

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