Animal Welfare Debate Is Alive and Well in Vietnam

05/04/2015 06:13 pm ET | Updated May 04, 2016

Coverage in the Vietnamese media makes one thing abundantly clear -- the general public in Vietnam is more engaged in animal welfare than ever before.

Many years ago when Animals Asia first began working here, there were few people willing to champion animal rights. Now it's difficult for people outside the area to imagine just what a hot topic it is.

Today, changes in animal welfare awareness play out publically across traditional and social media.

Earlier this year, the photo of a young girl crying next to a cooked dog went viral, with many citizens outraged by the assumption that the dog had previously been her companion. Her tear-stained face found itself featured in headline news as people wrote in with stories of how they'd been similarly devastated when family dogs had been slaughtered.

One typical response from reader Ngoc Linh was: "I remember my mother selling my dog to the neighbour for dog meat. I saw him drowned and cried for him to be saved. I'm still haunted. I love dogs and will never eat dog meat. The child in the picture is no different from me."

Vietnam's dog meat industry is a dark one, rife with cruelty and illegality as hundreds of dogs are snatched from streets or family gardens by roving bands of dog thieves. At a restaurant you might not be eating your own companion, but chances are you're eating someone else's. People are increasingly aware of this and calling for the authorities to take action.

Sadly, dog theft remains a misdemeanour in the country, a legal oversight which has caused deep social unrest. It's frankly astonishing to see the local populations in both Vietnam and China taking matters into their own hands when their dogs are stolen. Vigilante reprisals are now becoming commonplace in both countries when thieves are apprehended, and before the police can be called.

As the younger generation in both countries turns away from dog and cat consumption, media stories have begun to highlight the social disharmony wreaked by the industry, publishing stories that would have been unthinkable before.

While the authorities haven't found a solution to dog thieves, they too have taken action and enacted landmark legislation for the industry. A historic five-year ban on dogs being trafficked for meat between Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, has seen the number of dogs being trafficked dwindle to a few from half a million each year.

The Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA), comprising Animals Asia, Change for Animals Foundation, Humane Society International and Soi Dog, campaigned for the ban that was later strengthened when Vietnam's Department of Animal Health ordered provincial authorities to crack down on the illegal trafficking of dogs for human consumption over rabies concerns.

Similarly, who would have thought that the Prime Minister himself would come out in support of ending the Nem Thuong Pig slaughter Festival in Vietnam? Inevitably, this was as a result of festival news hitting the headlines in Vietnam day after day. Local people voiced their wish to see it end and, in doing so, joined thousands more internationally.

A newspaper polled reactions to the festival and found 79 percent were against it. While the festival hasn't been brought formally to a close, the writing is surely on the wall, with statements from the Prime Minister announcing that "old fashioned, superstitious and negative" festivals will end.

Perhaps the most positive sign of recent times was the announcement by the Quang Ninh provincial authorities that they will become bear bile farm-free by the end of June. At last the rescue of bears who have suffered the agony of bile extraction for years in that province can begin.

Clearly there's still a long way to go as fierce debate continues in Vietnam between those still steadfastly defending their right to engage in cultural beliefs, and those who defend the rights of the animals harmed and killed in violent celebrations. But in anyone's book, these are interesting times as these issues are publicly discussed for the first time, and not swept under the carpet by the authorities and media as so often happened in the past.

The debate remains largely well-informed and balanced. We have to remind ourselves that this is state-owned media, but no one appears to be attempting to limit the scope of the reporting. Long may it continue.