Despite the global COVID-19 pandemic, a new investigation in Hanoi, Vietnam by global animal welfare organisation FOUR PAWS discovered 80% of vendors at popular markets throughout the capital city are still selling dog and cat meat. The venues, which included primarily wet markets and communes, had between two to three outlets selling the meats. As previously uncovered by FOUR PAWS investigators, the pandemic has done little to deter the ongoing theft, sale and consumption of dogs and cats (many of them stolen pets), and the trade continues with its dangerous practices, despite government advice against doing so in light of COVID-19.
Signs have been posted at various vendors around the city explaining, ‘Due to COVID-19, we sell dog meat to go’. Delivery drivers were also spotted collecting orders for those staying home. One of the investigators was told by a vendor, “We have had no difficulty sourcing animals because of the pandemic. Pets are still being stolen regularly and sometimes sold by families who do not want them anymore.” And as demand continues, vendors appear even less concerned about keeping the details of their businesses behind closed doors, as investigators stumble upon piles of cat bones on a busy sidewalk.
Previous investigations conducted by FOUR PAWS and Change for Animals Foundation of the cat meat trade revealed a thriving, particularly brutal trade, one that tends to be more secretive and difficult to access. However, this time, the operations were in plain sight. Literally. Piles of cat bones were nonchalantly scattered on the pavement on a busy street in Hanoi, drying in the sun.
The bones are used to make balm, believed to help joint pain and infertility, and it is likely the pile represented over 100 cats. Unlike other local businesses, the cat meat trade has continued to thrive during the pandemic; just the previous day the vendor sold 40kg of cat meat. Says Katherine Polak, FOUR PAWS head of stray animal care in Southeast Asia: “While often overshadowed by the dog meat trade in the media, the cat meat trade is incredibly cruel and affects over one million cats each year in Vietnam. Given that cat meat, which goes by the name ‘little tiger’ often fetches a higher price and is seen as a more ‘exotic’ dish by some, it isn’t surprising that the pandemic and stay-at-home orders has given rise to an increase in cat meat eating, and subsequent sales .
What is surprising however, is the brazen approach to drying bones of stolen pets in the middle of a public sidewalk during a disease pandemic.” Whilst many of the restaurants are unable to offer dine-in options to their customers demand for home food deliveries is growing. Customers are being instructed to call an hour or two in advance to place their orders. Polak remarks that vendors explained, “we buy the cats from families who do not want them anymore.” But the majority of cats, up to one million or more, are actually stolen family pets.
Stolen, But Not Forgotten
One typically busy market stood out to our investigators, not for its bustling trade, but by what adorned its outside walls. From a distance, a variety of handmade fliers of different sizes and colors could be seen. On closer inspection, it became evident that these fliers were hung by devastated owners searching for their stolen pets.
Desperate to find their missing pets, many owners will visit live animal markets in hopes of finding their lost dog or cat to try to buy them back, before they are brutally killed for meat. FOUR PAWS has consistently reported the rampant and cruel theft of pets for the trade, highlighting the effect the trade has on families and animals like.
Keeping It in the Family
On Vietnamese social media, a story emerged recently causing public outrage among animal lovers. A mother and her 14-year-old daughter built a family business together stealing cats. In the Hoan Kiem District, home to the historic Old Quarter in Hanoi, the duo was spotted snatching cats with rope snares during lockdown. Polak explains, “During a national lockdown and social isolation, people need their animals more than ever. Providing emotional support, particularly for those isolating alone, the rampant theft of cats just exemplifies the degree of wanton disregard for the human-animal bond. Cat thieves brazenly defy government lockdown orders, taking away one of the most important emotional support mechanisms for many.” This mother and daughter duo are well known to local police in Hanoi and FOUR PAWS investigators report that both were taken to the police station on more than one occasion, but no action was taken against them despite outcries from the local community, and being caught red-handed with dozens of cat traps.
Unlike Vietnam’s dog meat trade that is neither explicitly illegal nor regulated, there is explicit legislation banning the hunting, slaughter and consumption of cats, following the issuance of a Directive by the Prime Minister in 1998. Every aspect of the trade from – sourcing, transportation, sale and slaughter – operate in breach of existing laws and regulations, potentially offering an opportunity for enforcement to protect cats from the trade. Unfortunately, local law enforcement does little to enforce this legislation. Polak concludes, “Sadly, during the recent investigation, restaurants reported that not only business are doing well, but many of the regular customers continued to be police.” Which might explain the lack of enforcement of this legislation.