When Boomer, a medium-size mutt with brown fur and big eyes landed at Logan Airport in December, people smiled and poked their fingers through the front bars of his kennel. It was a far cry from the rusted rebar cage in rural Cambodia where he spent the last few years. During that time, many other dogs came and went, each keeping Boomer company for a short period until they were pulled out and killed in front of him.
Boomer — along with another dog — were the cage’s first occupants when farmer Kheav Chan moved to the Takeo region of Cambodia to open a restaurant that served the animals as food — usually roasted or served in soups and curries. Boomer and his companion were spared because Chan believed them to be good luck.
“‘If you help bring more dogs in, I will not kill you,'” Chan said he told the pair.
Fortunately for Boomer and the other dog, every time Chan’s supply of dogs dwindled, someone came along with more to sell him.
Boomer made it out of Cambodia because Chan got out of the dog meat business and started farming, as well as selling water. The switch was made possible by Four Paws International, a global animal welfare organization with offices in Boston that rescues dogs from the East Asian meat trade. Boomer was among several canines that were rescued as part of a pilot program for a Four Paws initiative that aims to help people who kill dogs find new ways to earn a living.
Cambodia consumes 3 million of the estimated 30 million dogs eaten each year in Asia, according to Four Paws. In some quarters there, dog meat is considered as a sort of pub food, often as an accompaniment to beer or rice wine. A study commissioned by Four Paws found more than 110 shops that served it in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.
But many Cambodians today connect the consumption of dogs to its decade-long military occupation by Vietnam, where the meat is a traditional food.
“Many of my neighbors criticized my business and would not talk to us,” said Chan, “But we are poor, so we have to struggle through this in order to live.”
Cambodians such as Chan are often drawn to the industry by economic hardship. Despite strong sustained growth in recent years, the country remains one of the poorest in Asia, with an average yearly household income of under $1,400 in 2017.
“Poor people are often low-skill,” Sothea Ek, a Cambodian consultant who handles the logistics of Four Paws’ local operations said, “so involvement in the dog meat trade doesn’t require any kind of skill, and they can earn the income to support a family.”
American veterinarian Katherine Polak, who heads Four Paws’ stray animal operations in Southeast Asia, works with the Cambodian government to discourage the trade, investigating slaughter operations and occasionally recovering stolen pets. But in November 2018, while looking into Chan’s rural slaughterhouse in the Takeo Region, about a two-hour drive from Phnom Penh, Polak realized there could be another way.
Chan’s operation was a disturbing scene. Dogs were tightly packed in a large cage under a leafless tree that had been killed by years of fertilization with dog blood and urine. The farm had its own built-in restaurant, and dogs were turned into meals on-demand — removed from the cage, stabbed in the neck or sometimes struck on the head.
“I really did not want to kill animals,” owner Kheav Chan said. “And nobody forced me to kill. But I...did not have a choice.”
Polak and her team were struck not just by Chan’s evident dislike of his profession — he was frequently in tears while discussing his business — but also his dire economic circumstances.
“We’re in the business of helping animals,” Polak said, “but in this case we really felt like it was hard for us to do that without offering that additional livelihood change.
When Four Paws suggested to Chan it help him find another line of work, he eagerly accepted. Ek worked alongside Chan to change his business.
“We didn’t dictate to him what he could or couldn’t do,” Polak said. “He knows his local community. He knows what his needs are.”
After months of bargaining over the terms, Chan identified a patch of land about two kilometers from his house that Four Paws would purchase for him as a place for a new business. The grassy field was well-suited to growing crops. But the biggest source of income was a well Four Paws drilled on the property. Cambodia frequently struggles with drought, making water a valuable — and sellable — resource.
Four Paws wanted to make sure that it wasn’t just creating an opening for another local to step in and set up another slaughterhouse to replace Chan’s. Despite believing Chan was sincere, the organization believed it was necessary to set up legal barriers to prevent him from returning to his old trade. It found an eager partner in the local government.
“They signed on to an MOU [memorandum of understanding] to take up policing this to make sure that he didn’t get involved anymore, and that there wasn’t another dog restaurant opening up in the area,” Polak said.
Polak said the dog traders — who rode around on motorbikes with cages strapped to the back, collecting dogs from the street — were driven out of business.
“They actually sold the cages on the back of their motorbikes for scrap metal and pursued other opportunities,” Polak said. “Because there wasn’t another slaughterhouse or restaurant that was going to pick up that demand.”
Boomer and five other dogs — Widget, Gabby, Maddie, Archie, and Hope — were flown to Boston in December and sent to a shelter in New Hampshire that will place them with foster homes.
“This is the first time these dogs have seen a bed, or a couch, or toys,” Polak said.