Not a nice way to say goodbyeA resident of Bucheon, Gyeonggi was passing a garbage collection site when he heard the whimpering of a dog. Inside a plastic garbage bag, he found a 1-year-old Spitz with legs and ribs intentionally broken.
The police were called, and they managed to track down the owner, who was sued by an animal rights group for violating the Animal Protection Act.
But many other pets meet their deaths daily, victims of cruel owners who tire of them and can’t be bothered to find new homes for them or have them put down with more mercy at a veterinarian.
Park Seong-gi, a street sweeper in Seocho District, southern Seoul, comes across at least one animal carcass during his daily work.
What kind of animals does he find? “All types,” says Park, “ranging from road kill to carcasses of pets thrown away on local mountains.”
Park has a routine for each carcass he finds. He places it in a cardboard box, brings it to the district’s street sweeper office, and wraps it in a plastic bag before placing it in a freezer. The freezer can hold up to 20 such carcasses at a time, until an animal care group comes to collect them.
“I used to think it spooky to have dead animals stored in our office freezer,” he said. “But now I just feel bad for them. For some reason, twice as many dead animals turn up on the streets during the summer than in any other season.”
The number of pets in Korean households broke the 10 million mark in 2015, according to the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency. Only 20.4 percent of Seoulites are in possession of a pet according to the Seoul Institute.
Every year, 150,000 pets meet their end, according to the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and Seoul Metropolitan Government. That translates into 410 dying every day.
But only 31,000 to 33,000 are incinerated at animal cremation centers registered with the ministry every year. The remaining 120,000 or so are either incinerated privately, buried in the mountains, or thrown away on city streets - sometimes in a trash bag, often not.
“It’s illegal to abandon a carcass on a mountain or on the streets,” said an official of the ministry. “But we don’t have the time or manpower to track down every violator.”
Pet owners face two legal options when a pet dies: to dispose of the carcass in a district-office-issued trash bag, or to incinerate it at animal cremation centers.
There are 24 animal crematoria registered with the ministry throughout the country. It costs 200,000 won ($176) to incinerate the carcass of a small animal and some 500,000 won or more for bigger animals. An animal funeral package including cremation or burial and a memorial tombstone costs some 1 million won.
Increasing the number of animal crematoria could help bring down the cost, but neighbors don’t like them.
A plan by the Changwon government to establish a public animal cremation center, the first to be established by the government in the country, was abandoned after residents vehemently opposed it.
“Many residents oppose the government using its funds to build crematoria for animals,” said an official of the Changwon city government.
Due to the high costs, many pet owners opt to throw out the carcasses in trash bags. And they’re not the only ones.
“Because of the costs involved in cremating animals, many care centers for abandoned pets also opt to just throw out the carcasses in trash bags,” said Park So-yeon, CEO of Care, an animal protection agency based in Seoul.
Animal care centers in Seoul last year cremated 3,770 animals, of which 2,330 were abandoned pets that had to be euthanized. According to the Animal and Plant Quarantine Agency, 82,100 animals were abandoned throughout the country in 2015. Some 72 percent of them were dogs, and the rest were cats and other animals such as rabbits, hamsters, hedgehogs and parakeets.
Burying a dead pet in one’s yard is also illegal, according to the Wastes Control Act.
“While it’s illegal to bury a dead animal in one’s front or back yard, authorities don’t go barging onto one’s property digging for evidence,” said an official of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Green Energy Division. “So it’s difficult to push for disciplinary actions against violators.”
The size of the fines charged encourages pet owners to abandon carcasses on the streets.
Anyone caught burying a pet on mountains face a 700,000 won ($611) fine while those who abandon them on the streets face 50,000 won fines. Those who throw away carcasses in generic trash bags face a 100,000 won fine.
The Seoul city government is surveying the public online and offline on the issue of establishing a public animal cremation and funeral center.
“We will release the result of the survey early next month and apply what the people want in city policies,” said Jun Hyo-kwan, director-general of the city’s Seoul Innovation Bureau.
Some pet owners in Seoul go the extra mile to give their pets a proper send off.
On June 24, Kim An-na, a 37-year-old resident of Seoul, brought the corpse of her beloved dachshund Shinbi to the mortician of an animal funeral center in Gwangju.
The mortician swabbed down the coat of the dog with alcohol before shrouding it. The dachshund was placed in a wooden casket.
Kim and her sister were given a moment to place their hands on the dog and say their farewells.
“Thank you Shinbi, our lives were made better because of you,” Kim said. “Don’t be sick in the afterlife, okay? I love you.”
Kim adopted Shinbi from an animal shelter seven years ago. Diagnosed earlier this month with myelomalacia, or softening of the spinal cord, Shinbi died on June 23. Its bones were processed into 200 keepsake “stones” for Kim’s family as a way to remember the pet.
Kim and her sister took the day off from work to attend Shinbi’s funeral. It cost 850,000 won.
“It’s costly, I know, but at least this way we can spend enough time to mourn the death,” Kim said. “We saved money we might have spent on dining out and used it for the funeral service.”
On the third and fourth floors of the animal crematorium in Gwangju are 50 slots for pet owners to memorialize their pets. They can leave their ashes and photos, letters, and their favorite objects.
Pet owners pay 400,000 won to 900,000 won for a space at the center for two years.
Ms. Kwon, 29, was gazing at a photo of Coco, her Maltese, who died two months ago. Coco was Kwon’s best friend for 21 years.
“I come here every weekend to see my Coco,” Kwon said. “I was depressed after losing Coco, and coming here helps me.”
Animal cemeteries and crematoria are more common outside of Korea. The United States has some 600 pet cemeteries, most of them run by individuals and private organizations, states and nongovernmental organizations or charities. In Japan, there are mobile crematoria, where a van equipped with a cremation oven pays a visit to the customer’s home.
“Animal funeral services need to expand and provide more varied services and options to customers,” said Cho Yoon-joo, a professor of veterinary science at Seojeong University in Gyeonggi. “This way they will be able to bring down the prices of these services.”
BY SEO JUN-SUK, LIM SUN-YOUNG [firstname.lastname@example.org]
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