Dog Barbeque aka The Complicated Ethics of Eating Your Best Friend

A tourist had asked where he could find a place that serves dishes containing dog meat, “I could eat dog, no problem”, he said, “how’s that any different than eating a cow?!”

A justified question.

We were sitting in Luang Namtha, Northern Laos, on the shore of the Nam Tha river.

I’m the co-owner of a small travel agency in Northern Laos. I come here often, but it wasn’t until last winter as I was taking a walk in a nearby mountain village and stopped to compliment a large dog for its pretty fur.

One of the locals replied, “Yes. A nice dog indeed — large. Lots of meat there.”

For years I had naively considered Laos to be one of the Asian countries where eating dogs is taboo. That same night I was informed that 300 meters or so from my office was a restaurant that only serves dog meat.

Eating certain meat products can be an adventure for many tourists. Barbequed crocodile in southern Thailand, roasted tarantulas in Cambodia, and drunken shrimp in China — which is really just live shrimp in strong alcohol. Truly the imagination behind Chinese food can test just about anyone’s ethical limits! Laotian grilled giant water beetles with papaya salad are, in fact, delicious!

The list goes on until we find ourselves at the table with treats made of dogs.

It’s up to each of us to decide how we feel about such a thing.

To me, the idea of eating dog meat sounds about as much fun as the thought of punching a defenseless kitten in the face — just barbaric and wrong.

What if I am being too subjective? Is it any different than eating chicken, cow, rabbit, or dog?

I mean, meat is meat, right?

I’m not looking for a long and complicated argument about whether we should kill animals for food — I am just trying to focus on the idea that, theoretically, “man’s best friend” is as good in a hot pot as cow, pork or chicken.

Dogs were the first animals that man domesticated. Archaeology shows that these animals were buried alongside humans 14,700 years ago, and many anthropologists say that dogs, or their ancestors, may have had close relations with humans as far back as 36,000 years. However, the physiological differences between wolves and dogs are difficult to tell from such old archeological evidence, so it’s hard to say whether we were co-existing with wolves back then or had already partnered up with the animal we now call the “dog” (Canis familiarise).

Either way, back in the hunter-gatherer times a dog’s role was to warn humans from nearby danger (tigers, panthers, all sorts of other nuisances) and one-day humankind evolved into knowing that dogs could be used in hunting other animals.

The early humans had a co-existence with dogs, who had developed from wolves (the closest relative to the modern dog is the grey wolf) and both hunted large animals such as bison.

By uniting our forces while hunting, we no longer had to waste as much energy catching our prey; that was done by our domesticated dogs, who were, in turn, spared from the most perilous aspect of chasing prey — having to kill the cornered animal. That part of the job was now done by humans, and both parties were able to enjoy the results.

What a win-win situation!

Anthropology professor Pay Shipman had a bold theory claiming that one of the reasons why neanderthals died out and modern humans didn’t, is that the humans had a good, strong ally: the dog.

“What difference does it make if I eat a chicken or a dog?” a young French lady asked me today, as I was discussing the idea of eating man’s best friend again.

“It seems to me that chickens haven’t had as big a role in our civilization as dogs have. Also, a chicken won’t ever look you in the eye and go defend you from angry panthers!” I snapped.

Speaking of eye contact — who hasn’t felt guilty when a dog stares you straight in the eye, looking sad and hungry, as you’ve just opened the fridge door?

Dogs are the only domesticated animals who use eye contact as a means of communication with humans. It’s a strategy they’ve developed over thousands of years of co-existing with us.

In 2015 Japanese scientists found that both species (humans and dogs) release oxytocin when they look into each other’s eyes. In layman’s terms, oxytocin is the happy hormone — the same that is released when a mother sees her newborn child. In the same experiment, the scientists were able to determine that the dog’s relative, the wolf, does not feel the same way when locking eyes with a human. (Even if the wolf is domesticated and is facing its human owner.)

Anthropologist Robert Losey studied 8000-year-old dog graves near Lake Baikal in Siberia.

He says: “Dogs were treated just the same as humans when they passed away. Carefully placed in a grave, some of them with decorational collars or spoons placed next to them. This shows a potential belief these people may have had that the dog also has a soul.”

Throughout history, archaeologists have discovered more about dogs than any other domesticated animal. From the moment we were able to identify a skeleton similar to that of a modern dog, we’ve also found many respectful burial sites for them.

The gravesites at Baikal also show us that the dog’s menu was very similar to the one the human’s menu at the time — they shared meals.

That doesn’t mean that we never ate them!

I am sure there were times in early human history where a dog was viewed as potential food.

Even in Europe, where, compared to many Asian and African nations, dog meat is taboo, there have been places and moments (that still occur) where dogs were acceptable meals. And I’m not just talking about World Wars and the famines, where anything was good to eat as long as it filled you up even just a little.

Some 19th-century French newspapers describe dog meat as ‘tasty and tender’.

Even in 1910, there were a couple of butcheries that sold dog meat.

Dogs have become food in all the major crises that have occurred in Germany.

Germans even jokingly call dog meat ‘blockade mutton’. Eating dogs became legally forbidden in Germany in 1986.

To my surprise, some Estonian papers wrote recently about how in the Appenzell and St. Gallen regions of Switzerland it is quite common to kill Rottweilers to consume their meat. Even if it’s legally forbidden to sell dog meat, farmers are free to ‘grow’ it for their own consumption.

Oh well…

Dogs have always been eaten and always will be eaten. The question is how widespread and publicly approved is such a practice?

It’s kind of like stupidity — it’s always been a part of humanity and always will be, even though many fight against it.

The first Asian country to legally forbid eating dog meat was Taiwan in 2017. Subjectively, I wish more countries would follow suit in the near future. It would be a dream to see the annual Chinese Yulin Dog Meat Festival — titled ‘The Worst Food Festival in the World’ — legally forbidden, but I don’t think my eyes will ever see the end of such a long-established (horrible) tradition.

So how about we think of these animals as our friends?

Meat is meat, but would you cook your neighbor Tom? No, you can’t, because “he’s human”.

He’s not comparable to a chicken.

It’s not a difficult thought to follow, right?

How much psychological help do people get from their canine pets? How many times have dogs saved us in history? How many have dogs lost their lives to save a human: bomb sniffers, K-9 units, rescue dogs, and so on?

A recent study from Japan refers to how dogs yawn along with their human friends because they empathize. Just think about it… The study tries to research why dogs often feel motivated to save a human life.

Here in Laos, where dogs are being eaten, there is a guesthouse in the mountains near Luang Prabang.

When a tourist visits they’re given a map of nearby hiking tracks and a dog named Buddy as a guide.

Buddy is a mutt of respectable age and thus a bit lazy — he’ll make sure you get back through the shortest route possible so he can take a nap.

I found Buddy and, after taking a walk with him, I am finally convinced: eating a dog is not the same as eating any other animal bred by humans. Eating a dog just sounds mindless, and… wrong.

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