Toronto couple saves Korean dogs before they're slaughtered for meat

Toronto-based EK Park started a rescue group that that finds dogs awaiting the butcher in South Korea and instead transports them to North America for adoption as pets.

EK Park is trying to change the culture around dogs in her homeland

A puppy looks out of a cage in South Korea. EK Park works to get puppies like this one to North America before they are butchered. (EK Park/FreeKoreanDogs.org)

Boshintang is a hearty Korean stew of green onions, perilla leaves, dandelions, root spices and meat, eaten primarily in the summer months.

It's the reason Torontonian EK Park frequently returns to her birthplace outside of Seoul, South Korea. Definitely not to eat the soup, but to stop it from being made. 

South Koreans put dog meat into soups like Boshintang, a longstanding cultural tradition especially during Bok Nal, a yearly event marking what Koreans believe to be the three hottest days of summer.

"I love the country of my birth, but I can't accept the cruelty toward dogs," she said from Dangjin, a city just south of Seoul.

"Korea is better than this. We must change our perception and replace cruelty with compassion for dogs in Korea. This is my mission."

Park started a rescue group that that finds dogs awaiting the butcher and transports them to North America for adoption as pets. The aim of her organization, Free Korean Dogs, is not to adopt out every dog meant for the meat trade in her homeland, but to change the Korean tradition of eating the animals.

She said there are around two million dogs sent to the butcher in South Korea every year.

Park has made many trips back and forth to South Korea, bringing home dogs and puppies and helping put them up for adoption all over Canada and the United States.

Horrified by traditions

Park moved to Toronto in 2002, but often goes back to her family home in the Chungnam farmlands, about a 90 minute train ride outside Seoul.

On a recent visit, she was driving through the countryside when she witnessed three men hanging a dog from a bridge. She was horrified.

She pulled over immediately.

As the dog howled in pain, Park ran to stop the men, screaming at them to let the animal go.

When one of the men turned around, she recognized him immediately. He was a family friend, a farmer she'd known since she was a little girl. He explained that when the dogs are in distress before slaughter, it improves the taste and nutritional benefit of the meat — one of many Korean food preparation superstitions that Park said has no basis in reality.

It then dawned on her that Koreans who eat dog are not evil, and that blaming them for what has been eaten for centuries was no way to fix the problem.

So she began her mission to persuade Koreans to stop eating dog with her documentary, Compassion Soup: The End of Dog Meat Trade In Korea, which she is currently filming in Dangjin.

Dogs vs. pigs

Among younger generations of South Koreans, dogs are primarily pets. But there are sections of the population who defend the practice of eating dog both as a culinary tradition and an aspect of Korean culture.

Many see it as the West pointing its finger at Korean traditions when there isn't much difference to eating a pig or a cow.

"One of the most common responses we get in the Korean community is, 'Well, as soon as you stop eating pigs we'll stop eating dogs,'" said Greg Mount, Park's husband and partner in charity and business — the two run a media production firm called Pasada Media in Toronto.

Mount said the dogs were essentially a starting point for eventually showing compassion for all animals.

This, he said, was a teaching of Buddhism called Mettā. Mount said a person must first love and show compassion for themselves, and then to people immediately surrounding them. The love and compassion starts proximally and moves outward, until eventually a person has love and compassion for all living things.

Mount said the love and compassion in Mettā starts with canines, and then will move to pigs, chickens and eventually all animals.

Park makes her pitch to her fellow Koreans by asking them a question.

"What type of person do you want to be? One who lives with compassion for all beings, or one who clings to old traditions that foster cruelty towards the innocent?" she said.

"I tell my friends and family in Korea that dogs are emotional beings that deserve our love and compassion."

Transporting dogs back to Canada

Anyone who travels to and from the Korean peninsula can volunteer for Free Korean Dogs, Mount said. There are two ways to bring a dog across the Pacific:

  • Carry the dog with you, for about $200 per dog.
  • Ship the dogs as freight, which can cost between $1,600 and $2,000 per dog.

Using donations, passengers coming to Canada from South Korea can fly with dogs. Free Korean Dogs will facilitate the journey such that the passenger doesn't have to interact with the dogs, if he or she doesn't want to.

Mount said he and Park shipped a mother and four puppies from South Korea this year as freight. "It would've been cheaper for me to fly there and bring them back," he said.

The couple is currently racing to finish the documentary and fly back as many dogs as possible before the summer, when Bok Nal comes and dog-eating season begins.

About the Author

Joshua Errett

Senior Producer, Features

Joshua Errett has been a reporter, editor and digital manager in Toronto since the early 2000s. He has been described as "a tornado of innovation, diligence and authenticity." Got a story idea? joshua.errett@cbc.ca