April 17th, 2014 by Robin Dorman


 If you wish to know why there are disasters of armies and weapons in the world, listen to the piteous cries from the slaughterhouse at midnight. (Ancient Chinese verse)

Before rescue, they were condemned to a grim existence that narrowed and narrowed toward a torturous death—their agony, someone’s dinner. And then an elation-bringing moment: making it out of the dark continent of the dog meat markets in South Korea, beginning life anew. The simple elegance of being alive and free is now the fate of Nunnie, Somang, Gracie, and Hyung. Many hands contributed to a jubilant ending, suggesting how those who fight for the rights of animals every day are all intimately connected. They were just four dogs rescued from a multi-billion dollar industry, where millions of lives are snuffed out every year, but even in a small way, Nunnie, Somang, Gracie, and Hyung represent a beacon of hope in our fervent commitment to abolish the dog and cat meat trade, an industry of horror.

This is a story about shelters and homemade soup, dog taxis, medical records faxed and received, purchasing of crates, vaccinations and health certificates, airplane schedules, the generosity and concern of strangers, the unstinting and overflowing support, from South Korea to America, both the East and West Coasts. It is about a journey out of Seoul strewn with kindness and the preternatural delight of everyone who encountered the rescues upon their arrival in Los Angeles and then onto Boston and Baltimore. Like an act of deliverance out of a dark and deadly place, transfigured lives.

It began with the rescues: on a snowy night in January, Lola Webber of Change for Animals Foundation, South Korean activists BK Zang and Wendy Lee Williams, and I made our way to Moran Market, the largest distributor of dog meat in the country, and a seller of so-called dog elixirs or gaesoju. We first came upon a white apparition from out of nowhere, crossing our path, and we grabbed her, taking off to a local veterinary clinic, and bestowing upon her the name Nunnie (meaning “snow”). We drove her to Lisan shelter, where the huge-hearted Kang Kyongmi has been watching over her since that evening, working diligently to teach this beautiful Jindo a few good canine social skills she will need when she arrives soon from South Korea.

We returned around 2 o’clock in the morning to retrieve a dog we had spotted earlier in the evening, also, like Nunnie, mysteriously out of a cage. She was a motionless figure lying amid rubbish and beneath a rotating drum—during slaughter, dogs are thrown into a tub of boiling water, and then into a rotating drum for the removal of their fur, and finally blowtorched, often while still alive. We picked her up quickly and spirited her away to Seoul Animal Medical Center, a 24-hour referral hospital, thinking she wasn’t going to make it until we met Dr. Jeffrey Suh, the surgery team leader among a group of specialists. Although this older girl was, as Dr. Suh explained it, suffering from a fractured femur of the right hind limb, heartworm infection, mild dehydration, a mass on her mammary glands and on her vulvar area, endometrial hyperplasia on her uterus, weakened kidneys, and a cyst on her liver, her blood work was good, aside from malnutrition. She also had disc anomalies on multiple areas of her lower vertebrates but, again, there was no impeding her ability to walk. We named her Somang (meaning “wish”) and left her in the excellent hands of Dr. Suh. Falling under Somang’s dazzling spell, Dr. Suh allowed her to stay in the hospital for over two months until she was strong enough to withstand the flight abroad.

The following morning we drove down a narrow street in a residential neighborhood of Seoul where we spotted covered cages with dogs. It was a butcher shop, with plates of freshly killed dog meat right outside. We went to take a look inside and there were these beautiful Mastiff-looking “meat dogs,” the ones people say have no souls—the ones people assume are only bred for consumption and are somehow different from other dogs. One of the most treacherous myths in South Korea is that there exists two types of dogs—”meat dogs” and animal companions. Of course dogs are dogs, and the reality is that any dog, including animal companions, may end up in the dog meat trade, because there are no dogs bred specifically for the purpose of human consumption.

Here, in these revolting places of filth and torment, life is clung to, if only precariously, until violently pulled from the cage and slaughtered in front of one’s cage mates, in direct violation of Article 8 of the Animal Protection Act of 2007, which states, “An act of killing in a cruel way such as hanging” and “an act of killing in an open area such as on the street or in front of other animals of the same kind” are explicitly prohibited. We left with a dog we called Gracie, who shook with dread during the entire ride to the vet’s, and then we were off to Paju Shelter, a good distance from Seoul, where we were welcomed by director Sunyi Kim, a one-woman wonder, known never to sleep, who cares for around 300 dogs and 20 cats, and volunteer Suyeong Oh, a former banker. We soon heard that Sunyi made homemade soup for Gracie who reveled in her meals—the taste of freedom—and Suyeong’s friendly visits, where Gracie excitedly licked his fingers. The “meat dog” was now a universe away from the nightmare of the butcher shop.

Tom Ochs, teaching English in Korea, while searching for his birth family, learned about the rescues and, specifically, Gracie and another dog with whom she huddled together, and was desperate to return to get the friend left behind. He went to find her and was shocked to see fifteen dogs stuffed into a cage meant for half that many. He was able to get Gracie’s friend out and to a vet’s. Tom drove the very traumatized dog, who had a soul-piercing sadness about her, to Paju Shelter. She was given the name Hyung.

After reading stories on her FB page that friends posted about these dogs being recently rescued in South Korea needing homes in the States, Ginny Chappell of Rescue Dogs Rock Animal Rescue (RDRAR), of Gloucester County, New Jersey, sprang into action. There were foster homes lined up for all three (Regina Douglas for Somang, Phyllis Troia and Richard Wickenden for Gracie, and Kathy Kares for Hyung), and Ginny would make the plane reservations to the East Coast, once the dogs were ready to leave Los Angeles.

Tom, Wendy Lee Williams, and Team Inch leader, Louise Patterson, a business professor at Kyung Hee University, orchestrated the navigation through the intricate maze of health certificates, translations, medical records, the proper crates, transport to the airport, airline tickets for Somang, Gracie, and Hyung to leave the country, among a thousands details. Team Inch acts as the go-between for dogs who need rescuing in South Korea and matching them with rescue organizations in North America. Tom was the first-rate director, assigning tasks, and Louise was the veteran and had all the great connections and knew everything one had to know, including a contact at the exceptional and generous Thai Air Airlines. Volunteers Moira Corrigan, Annie Swift, and BK Zang put in time, as did Dr. Suh, preparing Somang for the flight. By the time she was ready to leave, Dr. Suh said, “It was a joy to have Somang here with us. Many of the staff said that she was even starting to look like me.”

The next few weeks were thronged with activity and a daily exchange of information among all of us. Rabies forms and health certificates needed to be in English and ready within ten days of the flight as well as proof of vaccines; the shelters had to measure and weigh the dogs for the correct size crates, which needed to be purchased; all paperwork faxed to the airlines; making a reservation for three in cargo and using Thai Air, the only airline that allows three dogs in cargo; picking the three dogs up from faraway Paju Shelter and coordinating with Dr. Suh’s hospital, and transporting them to the airport; filling out an indemnity form; Tom deciding to fly with the dogs to Los Angeles, and then booking a flight to Minnesota once they were settled. The dogs were finally leaving Korea on April 5th, touching down early evening at Los Angeles International Airport, LAX, approximately fourteen hours later, and after a week’s rest, heading east. Passports ready! Somang, Hyung, and Gracie, international canines of the world!

My sister-in-law, Dara Dworman, fabulously talented graphic designer, who lives in LA with my brother, Jeff Dorman, one of the best audio-visual system integrators around, their dog Roxie, and two cats, Cosmos and Oscar, spread the word to a wide circle of animal lovers asking to foster the dogs for their short stay, and, within minutes—a couple who had five dogs, including a Korean Jindo—Karyn Wagner, a costume designer for films, and Robert Bramwell, a film editor, said absolutely, yes! They would love to have Somang for a few days and would pick her up at LAX. Dara and Jeff were also going to greet the dogs and get Hyung and Gracie to their next destination.

The morning of the dogs’ arrival, I had the opportunity to speak with Lisa Levinson, of LA, an IDA board member, founder of Vegan Spirituality and a licensed Pilates for Buff Bones instructor, who immediately offered her support, as one of the fosters I lined up had fallen through and she began enlisting help through her vast vegan network. In a moment of beautiful serendipity, Lisa also happened to mention an opening exhibit, “We Animals,” on Saturday night, at the National Museum of Animals & Society, featuring photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur’s photographs of animals in captivity, who, coincidentally, documented the dog meat trade in Vietnam, so we pondered getting the dogs to appear at the opening. I provided some material for the press release, which Museum Director Carolyn Merino Mullin put together, and Lisa, who, in Philadelphia, co-founded and directed Public Eye: Artists for Animals, teaching compassion for animals through the arts, sent to press.

At the airport, Tom, Dara, Jeff, Karyn, and Robert experienced the indelible thrill of seeing the dogs after their interminable journey in the air. “Gracie was the first one to appear,” Dara said. “I opened her crate and tried to ease her out. She was having none of it. But after a few minutes, I managed to sweet-talk her out, and onto the sidewalk in front of the terminal. Her legs and nose were flying in all different directions! She explored the area with gusto, diving behind some bushes for a good sniff. She seemed no worse for wear. Hyung, meanwhile, was silent and stoic in her crate. She allowed me to pet her, but refused to come out, and we opted not to push the situation, instead loading her, crate and all, into the car for our trip to the museum.” Older and in more delicate health, Somang, who emerged out of her crate right away, was taken to a groomer for a nice bath.

Once at the National Museum of Animals & Society, the dogs were ushered upstairs to a quiet room away from the crowd, where individual visitors could welcome them. The doors to their crates were open and Gracie soon followed Carolyn Merino Mullin’s dog, adorable Bernie, around, kissing his ears. She was unfazed by strangers and, from all accounts, was the belle of the ball. She was feted, petted, photographed, and fed tasty treats. She was even unperturbed in the face of a television camera pointed in her face with its blinding hot lights. Meanwhile, Hyung preferred the protection of her crate, observing from a safe distance but allowing visitors to offer a hand. After an evening awash in celebration, Jeff and Dara brought Hyung and Gracie to their temporary foster residence in Beverly Hills, where Ellen Lavinthal, on the board of directors of the museum and president and founder of Animal Alliance, took them in. Ellen, one of the organizers of Fur Free West Hollywood campaign, and her daughter, Stella, whom Cesar Milan once called the “junior dog whisperer,” cared for them. They reported that Gracie and Hyung were eating up a storm and enjoying themselves, and that Hyung finally left her crate to sunbathe.

Somang, meanwhile, began staying in the garden with Karyn rather than hustling back into the kitchen to wait for breakfast. They’ll soon start gardening together. As Karyn describes it, she does a “lovely, talky thing when you get in and really rub her ears.” And the same dog who was so exhausted from her odyssey (the leg removed, the heartworm treatment, various other little ailments tended to, the unbearably long flight from Korea), and then this: “With a little help,” Kayrn said, “Somang made it down the spiral staircase to the front door, down the long driveway to the street and down half a block to the neighborhood tree, where all the dogs exchange peemail. Then back again all the way up! Frequent rests and a few helping lifts with her sling but we didn’t carry her any part of the way. This is really big news for all of us. The dogs Ernie and Dennis were very encouraging but, especially, Lilly (a fellow Jindo), who kind of paced along. Archie (from India) just wanted a good game of fetch.” Karyn wrote that she and Robert were having dinner and Robert launched once again into a diatribe against animal abusers. When he stopped to take a breath, Karyn asked if it that meant they were keeping Somang and, yes, indeed, the guardians of the home of the jettisoned are welcoming one more! That afternoon, Karyn lay down on the floor to be near her, and Somang laid her head on her paws and sighed deeply.

Travel day, Saturday, April 12th, Hyung and Gracie needed their U.S. health certificates to fly to the East Coast, and the highly regarded Dr. Armaiti May, LA’s vivacious vegan veterinarian, made a house call to Beverly Hills and checked out Hyung and Gracie, and went over all their South Korean medical records. Everything was in order and they were ready to fly. A few days earlier, Dr. May graciously sent e-mails to her animal-rights meet-up list asking for help transporting the dogs back to LAX.  What seemed like a moment later, I was flooded with texts and e-mails, and it was Shiva Wolfe Zane, her husband, and daughter who swung over to Beverly Hills at 5:30 on Saturday morning to get Hyung and Gracie to LAX, United/Continental, destination, Boston and Baltimore, respectively.

Kathy Kares, whose job is to support the Chief of Police, at the Bel Air Police Department, in Bel Air, Maryland, knew she was adopting Hyung the moment she saw her at the airport. Kathy’s ex-husband, Charlie, and his wife, Leslie, are all the best of friends and accompanied Kathy on the trip. After a warm, soapy bath, which sounded more like a spa massage, Hyung started to respond to Kathy’s soothing voice and body rubs. There was a palpable sigh of unalloyed happiness, and then Hyung had dinner. Two of Kathy’s cats Mei-Ling and Josie the kitten, both went right up to her, nose-to-nose, and Hyung’s ears perked up. Everyone seems smitten. Kathy wrote to say that she is officially adopting this angel, “the most beautiful dog she’s ever seen.” Luke the Lab and Binky the cat are also part of this remarkable family.

And then there is gorgeous Gracie, picked up at the airport by Phyllis Troia and her husband, Richard Wickenden, of Plymouth, Massachusetts. Phyllis, board certified in emergency and internal medicine, practiced emergency medicine for 15 years, and is now a healthcare administrator.  Richard, a former merchant marine officer, now provides services for large foreign ships, cruise ships, LNG tankers, and commercial vessels. Theirs is an active family of scuba divers, whitewater kayakers, hikers, and mountain bikers, and their dogs, Ellie, and Jamie, walk in the country for miles, swim, and chase balls. Since Gracie has arrived, Ellie and Jamie are honeymoon-in-love (Gracie does a play bow to them), and, according to Phyllis, Gracie has been smiling and very relaxed on her walks. She’s even learning stairs, which is remarkable, considering she could barely walk after her rescue. We imagined her past as going straight from a cage at a farm to the butcher shop. She’s also learning the deep pleasures of a good chew. Gracie got a nametag and a microchip, so it’s official. They all belong to each other. As Phyllis wrote about her former dogs Bear and Shannon, “We miss them terribly and talk about them every day. It was our honor to have been loved by them and our privilege to share our lives with them.” She also said that she can’t think of Bear and Shannon without remembering what Will Rogers had to say. “If there are no dogs in heaven, then when I die I want to go where the dogs went.”