Dog licensing unleashes debate

Vets, pet owners criticize the effectiveness, expense of new system
주사 바늘이… 애완견 마이크로 칩 삽입하려 동물병원 갔다가 헉!

Jan 10,2013

On a cold winter evening in 2009, I decided to brighten my loneliness by getting myself a month-old puppy. Ashley - my furry daughter - and we instantly became so attached to each other. Like a devoted mother, I am always willing to do what’s best for her, and she pleases me with her unconditional loyalty - although she bites me when I bother her while she’s eating.

So when I heard the news late last year that the Korean government will require all dogs to be registered, I was more than happy to comply. It sounded like the government was finally showing concern toward animals.

I began searching online about how to make my furry daughter a legal dog in Seoul. But the more I read news articles and posts on the Internet about how to register Ashley, the more I got confused. Some said it was mandatory to insert a microchip inside your dog’s body; others said it differed by district. Perplexed about what to do, I gradually forgot about the whole registration system for dogs until last month, when I read several more articles about the change that was to take effect on Jan. 1. I was surprised to find out that no one, not even my veterinarian, had reminded me of the new regulation that could cost me 1 million won ($942) if Ashley was not registered.

After researching the procedure and calling the Jung district office, I found out that the new registration system obliges all owners to register their dogs at their city or district offices by visiting designated animal hospitals. I had three options: microchip, electronic tag on her collar or regular name tag for 20,000 won, 15,000 won and 10,000 won, respectively.

So finally on Monday, I took Ashley to a vet to give her a shot to insert the microchip, which an official at the Animal Protection Department of the Seoul city government recommended as “the best choice.”

Top: The needle of a syringe used to inject a microchip in the back of a dog’s neck has a diameter of 4 millimeters (0.15 inch). Above: An electronic tag that attaches to a dog’s collar costs 15,000 won (14 dollar). The collar must be purchased separately. By Park Sang-moon
However, after checking Ashley’s condition, the vet told me it is not recommended for her to get the shot. He said the needle of the syringe is “quite thick” and may give Ashley an infection. She has been suffering from dermatomycosis and had three operations, including one to remove her right ear due to infection. But when he said “quite thick,” I didn’t know that it was about 0.4 centimeters (0.15 inch) in diameter.

So I decided to give her an electronic tag. Upon reading it through a scanner, the registration number of my dog will show up, which protects my contact information from being exposed as it would on a regular name tag. But when the vet showed me the ugly pendant-like electronic tag, I shivered and thought for a second that microchip option might be worth the risk of infection. Plus, the electronic tag didn’t come with a collar.

The only remaining option was giving her a regular name tag and the vet told me that it was not included in the 10,000 won registration fee. I would have to buy one and write down her registration number and my contact information when registering at the district office.

Ashley and I returned home without a registration number that day.

According to the Animal, Plant and Fisheries Quarantine and Inspection Agency, which is run by the Ministry of Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, this new registration system is part of the revised Animal Protection Law. The new system, which started with dogs 3 months and older, obliges all owners to register their dogs by choosing one of the three options. Those who violate the law will be fined up to 1 million won. The law excludes dog owners who live in towns with less than 100,000 population, The agency also said the measure, which came after an ordinance on the protection of abandoned animals was made public on Sept. 28 in line with the revision of the Animal Protection Law of August 2011, was implemented to discourage people from abandoning pets and to ease the process of returning them if they are lost.

Ashley gets her condition checked at the Pet’s Be Animal Hospital in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul, on Monday to see if injecting a microchip for the new registration system is safe. By Park Sang-moon

In 2008, Seongnam in Gyeonggi, where the Moran Market is located, the “go-to” place for dog meat, was the first city to implement the system. Although meat merchants say the dogs they sell are raised for consumption and they’ve never been pets, animal rights groups argue that “based on numerous trips to the market, all breeds of dogs, including pets, were found living in cages in unimaginable conditions.”

Other cities such as Incheon and Busan followed suit.

Under the law, owners must take their dogs to a designated animal hospital in their district to register.

According to the Animal, Plant and Fisheries Quarantine and Inspection Agency, 55,902 dogs were abandoned in 2011 and kept in shelters, which cost about 8.78 billion won. But experts say that because the number accounts only for abandoned dogs, the actual figure could be far higher.

“The animal registration system will reduce the number of abandoned animals by making owners more responsible for their pets,” said Kim Seon-gu, an official at the Animal Protection Department of the Seoul city government. “As a city that has the highest number of abandoned animals in the country, we will aim for no abandoned dogs.”

Because the new regulation is for a good cause, pet owners in the country began paying attention to giving their companions an identity, asking questions online about which method they should take to register their dogs.

However, although they acknowledge the government’s good intention, pet owners as well as veterinary professionals and animal protection activists began voicing concerns about inserting microchips. Some say they even doubt the program will be successful, that “such rushed implementation of a system that includes financial burdens on pet owners may even trigger those who are not as attached to their pet dogs to end up abandoning them.”

One netizen even wrote online on Jan. 3 that he doesn’t know “if he should abandon the dog or just keep it,” as his parents were strongly against raising a dog. He added that they will get angry upon hearing that the dog must be registered and it costs to do so.

Park Ae-kyung, vice president of the Korean Kennel Club, says she doesn’t understand why the government was rushing to implement the new system.

“We were the first ones to adopt the microchip for canines in Korea. The government wasn’t even aware of microchips back then. When the government announced that they will adopt it, we helped them in many ways,” said Park, insisting that the kennel club is not against the registration system as it is for a “good purpose.”

“However, pushing it ahead without taking into consideration of potential adverse effects was not advisable. Moreover, they failed to inform the public about such issues and did not make efforts to improve it. I don’t know why they were so urgent in implementing the system.”

Moreover, even before the system took effect, numerous pet owners and animal activists had been pointing out loopholes in the regulation.

Park So-yeon, head of Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (better known as CARE), an animal rights activist group, said, “Abandoning dogs can’t be stopped with the registration system as owners can always remove the microchip or name tags.” The objective of the system is in fact “useless,” she added.

So how safe is it to microchip your dog? While the government revealed studies that show inserting microchips in dogs is not dangerous, opposition groups also released other research that indicates it can be dangerous.

Research done by Katherine Albrecht of Harvard University shows that some pets injected with microchips have a very bad reaction and even develop tumors directly around the implanted chip. According to the Web site Animal Adverse Microchip Reactions (www.chipmenot.org), Albrecht writes that “it is not just a statistic when it is your pet that develops cancer from RFID types of chips.” The research also insists procedures such as MRIs can erase the information on the chip and added that microchips can also move and get lost inside the animal.

“I don’t think the benefit of microchipping my dog will outweigh the risks that it comes with. I heard it may kill my dog from infection and cause other adverse reactions, such as cancer. And plus, the chances of losing my dog are very low and the chance of me abandoning my dog is zero,” said Kim Hyeon-sook of Seoul, an owner of a 5-year-old Schnauzer named Cookie.

Moreover, dog owners argue they welcomed the idea at first, but now they are “not even so sure if their dogs really need identification numbers anymore.”

“First of all, all of this transition is a mess. Nothing has been clear or detailed enough for me to understand. I think the government is making a mistake in pushing ahead with it so soon,” said Song Min-soo of Seoul, who owns two bulldogs named Tinky and Winky. “Moreover, I heard so many people saying different things. Some say they have different laws in different cities and districts. Some say certain districts require all dogs to get microchipped while other districts do not. I mean, this is just a mess. I decided not to register my dogs. I don’t care now. I’ll just pay the fine if I get caught.”

Another eyebrow-raising point of the system for dog owners is whether the registration system, especially using electronic or regular name tags, will actually help reduce the number of abandoned and lost pets.

The tag is, after all, just a chip and a pendent attached to the dog’s collar and it could be damaged or taken off.

“The chances are very low, but if I lose my dog and somebody finds her with an electronic name tag and, takes her to a nearby district office, it will certainly help me find her earlier. But what if someone who finds her decides to sell her or turn her over to merchants or restaurants for dog meat? They’ll just take off the name tag,” wrote Choi Byeong-cheol online, who said he owns a 10-year-old American cocker spaniel.

Another question is whether the dog owner’s contact information would be correct. People can easily change phone numbers and not get around to updating their personal records on the government system. Moreover, dog lovers who own more than one dog say they cannot ignore the financial burden.

An owner of three Pomeranians, Kim Jin-ah of Seoul says she has been burdened since last year following the government’s revised Animal Protection Law that added a 10 percent tax to medical charges of animals in an attempt to increase the responsibility of pet owners.

“It’s already burdensome and now I have to think about spending money on their registration. It’s hard to ignore the increasing financial burdens on pet owners,” said Kim. “I mean, the number of abandoned animals is increasing each year and it’s like the government is actually triggering people to abandon their pets if you can’t afford them.”

Baek Tae-yeon, an owner of four bichons and a Chihuahua, also said that the new registration system looks “as though it cares so much for animals on the outside, but it doesn’t.

“If they really care about the increasing number of abandoned dogs, they should come up with regulations to prohibit dog meat consumption or a proper law that will make it easier for pet owners to have more responsibility,” said Baek. “They are just collecting taxes, making it burdensome for pet owners, coming up with regulations that we find pointless to abide by.”

How the government would crack down on those who violate the new system is also not clear.

Bae Jin-seon, an official of the Animal Protection Department at the Seoul city government, said they’ll start imposing fines on those who do not register starting in June.

“It’s impossible to do a door-to-door inspection, but if a dog is found without a name tag that has a registration number on it while outdoors, the owner will be imposed with a fine of up to 1 million won,” said Bae.

When asked a question about how the inspectors will differentiate registered dogs from unregistered if the dogs are microchipped, Bae said that in addition to getting microchipped, all dogs must wear a regular name tag with a registration number.

An official from a district office who wanted to stay unidentified also admitted that “although the crackdown starts from second half of this year, we are not sure yet how we’ll conduct the regulation or how effective it will be at this point.”

One reason behind the lack of publicizing the new regulation is veterinarians. Large numbers of vets say they were dumbfounded by the government’s new regulation.

“It’s hard to understand what they are doing right now, whether they are really thinking about the animals or something else,” said Yeo Jung-jin, a vet at Pet’s Be Animal Hospital in Sinsa-dong, southern Seoul.

Taking these points on board, Bae from the Seoul city government says they, too, are having difficulty implementing and successfully settling the new regulation.

“We know that using name tags can be pointless once they are taken off or damaged. We also wanted to make it mandatory for all pets to insert a microchip, but upon strong opposition from animal activists we had no choice but to come up with the three options,” said Bae. “We hope this could contribute to decreasing the number of abandoned animals, which has become a social issue while burdening the government financially to handle those animals.”

According to Yeo from the animal hospital, none of the owners who regularly visits his clinic registered their dogs.

“Many of them came to ask questions, but when I showed them the needle, which is too thick, and the electronic pendant, which is too ‘ugly’ and ‘less effective,’ they just returned home,” said Yeo.

According to an official from the Animal, Plant and Fisheries Quarantine and Inspection Agency, 1,450 dogs have been registered throughout the country since Jan. 1. From the agency’s sample survey, it assumes about 4.4 million dogs are being raised nationwide.

Meanwhile, after working out the pros and cons, Ashley received an identification number yesterday. Now, she is also a registered Seoul city dog.

By Yim Seung-hye [sharon@joongang.co.kr]

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