Animal protection law gets long-awaited overhaul, but advocates worry about loopholes
Korea’s Animal Protection Act that was drawn up in 1991 has been long due for an overhaul. And finally, for the first time in 31 years, the law went through a complete revision. On April 26, the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs promulgated the revised law, which will take effect from April 27, 2023.
Jeong Bu-yoon, an operation director at Beagle Rescue Network that helped shut down a poorly managed private shelter called Aerinwon in Pocheon, Gyeonggi, in 2019, said the revision “may finally help improve the lives of the animals and punish pet owners and help eradicate poorly managed animal shelters like Aerinwon. Such a law should’ve been in place ages ago.”
There’s a reason for Jeong’s cold-hearted acknowledgment. To the eyes of animal rights advocates, rearing animals in unsanitary and unsafe environments is “a clear act of animal abuse.”
Under the revised Animal Protection Act, pet owners can now be punished if they do not “fulfill their rightful duty as a pet owner.” Owners must properly feed their pets, provide them with adequate places to live, and care for them when they are sick. Those who are found responsible for the deaths of their pets can face up to three years in prison or a maximum fine of 30 million won ($24,000). Previously, such acts of negligence were not subject to punishment as they were not deemed animal abuse.
Moreover, as private animal shelters were not under the government’s radar, there was no legal basis to regulate or manage such facilities, some of which operate in dire conditions. But under the revised bill, the government will have to screen owners as well as the status of the facilities before giving them the authorization to operate. Existing facilities will have to go through a screening process by next April. If they don’t meet certain standards, the shelters will have to shut down.
“As a person who led the shutdown of one of Korea’s worst private rescue dog shelters and has rescued dogs from illegal breeding facilities, such changes come as great news,” said Jeong. “The duties of a rightful pet owner being specified in the legislation and what constitutes as abuse is a big change.”
According to Jeong, when people think of animal abuse, they often picture brutal torture and the killing of cats and dogs. But animal abuse “is a lot more comprehensive and should be spelled out in the legislation,” he said.
“For poorly managed shelters or illegal breeding facilities, dogs get densely reared in small spaces. Many of them often die after getting bitten by other dogs or from contagious diseases,” said Jeong. “Aerinwon was one of those facilities. Now we have the legal basis to punish illegal breeders and animal hoarders.”
Aerinwon was established by a woman named Kong Kyung-hee about 25 years ago. It began with a good intention, like many private shelters. However, as the number of dogs increased rapidly and there was not enough funding to get dogs neutered or spayed, the number of animals living at the shelter multiplied rapidly, leading to as many as 3,000 dogs living at the shelter. Big dogs and small dogs were not separated, which led to many larger animals attacking smaller ones. New-born pups were dying due to malnutrition and infections. The dogs were not being fed properly and water bowls were occupied by rats. But Kong insisted that she loved her dogs and refused to hand over the shelter.
Beagle Rescue Network saw it as animal abuse.
“She wasn’t operating an animal rescue center. She was an animal hoarder,” Jeong said.
Regardless of the conditions at Kong's facilities, there were no legal grounds to press charges against her.
That was until Beagle Rescue Network found out that Kong was operating the shelter on unused land without the real owner’s permission. Jeong’s team talked to the landowner, informed him of the issue, and filed a suit against Kong for illegal occupation. They finally managed to oust her from managing Aerinwon. Beagle Rescue Network has been operating the shelter since 2019.
“Such shelters operating in poor conditions are a huge threat to animals’ health and welfare and a huge factor that contributes to the multiplying number of dogs in such animal shelters,” said Jeong.
“There are so many private animal shelters scattered across the country. It has been difficult for the government and animal rights activist groups like us to keep track of them because they didn’t have to report their businesses. Many of them are being operated in harsh environments. People have to recognize that this is also a serious form of animal abuse and the government must manage and supervise such facilities.”
Animal rights activist group Haenggang’s director Park Un-seon said it’s concerning how many existing animal shelters will be unable to meet the standards to receive the green light from the government and continue operating when the revised law takes effect from next April.
“There are about 100 private animal shelters in the country we are aware of,” said Park. “Most of them are operated by one manager in their 60s or 70s on a plot of land that’s been rented out. It will be impossible for such shelters to meet the government’s standards according to the revised Animal Protection Act. I believe about 80 percent of them will have to shut down. What will happen to the dogs there? During the year, animal rights activists should actively promote adoption of the dogs in such shelters. The government should also come up with a plan.”
Meanwhile, the lives of about 80 dogs in Beagle Rescue Network’s Pocheon Shelter, identified as “survivors of Aerinwon,” are left in limbo, once again.
The land owner of the shelter decided to no longer lease out the plot and asked the Pocheon shelter to vacate by the end of this month. Beagle Rescue Network managed to transfer hundreds of dogs to another shelter it operates in Boeun County, North Chungcheong, but that facility is now at capacity leaving 80 dogs with no where to go.
“It’s devastating,” said the manager at the Pocheon Shelter. “How about you adopt 10 dogs today and save their lives? Then we’ll only have 70 to worry about until May 31,” he added, half-jokingly to this reporter who visited the shelter last week.
It’s especially devastating as there may be ways for the government to support such troubled animal shelters — but not until the revision takes effect next year.
Since taking over Aerinwon in 2019, Beagle Rescue Network said it has not received a single penny from the local government. Jeong says it would be great if the remaining dogs find a new home, even if it’s temporary foster homes before it’s too late.
“For the welfare of the animals, we try to focus on decreasing the number of dogs in the shelter by placing them up for adoption or try very hard to find them foster homes,” said Jeong. “It’s important for such dogs that are born inside a facility and have never been outside to stay at temporary foster homes before they get adopted. Because they have hardly ever interacted with people and they have no experience with human beings or living as a house dog, it’s important that they have a lot of experience before getting adopted. That way, we can reduce the number of dogs getting returned because their adoptive families can’t handle them.”
Jeong said many of the dogs being looked after at Beagle Rescue Network find new homes overseas. Although the number has decreased in recent years due to Covid-19, Beagle Rescue Network managed to send 247 dogs overseas for adoption in 2021. One-hundred and seventeen were adopted within Korea.
“Because many dogs at our shelters are mixed breeds, there are more overseas adoptions,” said Jeong. “Sadly, Koreans tend to look for smaller, pure breeds even at rescue shelters. We hope these dogs find new homes before they get too old.”
Other animal rights activist groups welcomed the country’s first-ever overhaul of the Animal Protection Act but at the same time, said there’s “still a long way to go.”
“For example, the pet owner can have their pet back if they wish after a certain period of time apart, even after they are punished for animal abuse,” said Park from Haenggang. “Even under the revised law, we can’t prohibit those who have been charged with animal abuse from raising another animal. The level of punishment of animal abuse is also very light. I think we have to continue revising the law to make sure those who should be punished get punished properly.”
With the revision, pet shops will also have to report their businesses to the government and face inspections. While it's a step in the right direction, Park pointed out there’s a loophole.
“These days, there are so many pet shops that disguise themselves as animal shelters and ask potential pet owners for large sums of money, or so-called ‘adoption fees.’ They will certainly meet the standards as the environment will be clean and spacious. But the revised law won’t be able to prohibit those businesses.”
“As for private animal shelters, reporting is now mandatory and violations can be subject to criminal punishment,” said an official from the Korean Animal Welfare Association. “On the other hand, such pet shops operating animal shelters won’t be on the government's radar. It’s not fair.”
Jeong from Beagle Rescue Network said it’s impossible to shut down such pet shops and illegal dog farms as long as there are people willing to “purchase animals.”
“Many animal rights activists have been working for a long time to eradicate pet shops but fundamentally, people’s perception of ‘buying and selling life for money’ should change,” Jeong said.
Korea Animal Rights Advocates (Kara), also argued that the omission of provisions related to banning dog meat is another aspect where the new legislation is lacking.
“All the animal abuse punishment applies to pets and it does not apply to dogs that are bred for consumption,” said Kara in a statement released soon after the promulgation of the Animal Protection Act.
“Many people are not aware that Korea categorizes dogs into two, as pets and for consumption. Under the current law or even the revised law, we can’t do anything about abusive breeding and slaughtering of dogs categorized for consumption. We can’t punish the owners of dog farms that rear dogs for consumption even if they are feeding dogs food scraps.”
BY YIM SEUNG-HYE [firstname.lastname@example.org]