- Dog smuggling is booming in Thailand around the Mekong border region with Laos
- Thai authorities say the trade has been growing thanks to a strong market in Vietnam
- Animal welfare groups say operators often pick up strays off the street including pets
- Dog meat in Vietnam is regarded as an auspicious dish to eat around Chinese New Year
Chinese New Year is a dangerous time for pet dogs in Thailand.
Traditionally the time of peak demand for dog meat in Vietnam, the dog smugglers of the Mekong work deep into the night shipping thousands of animals -- sometimes dozens to a cage -- across the river border with Laos to be trucked on to the dinner tables of the nouveau riche in Hanoi.
"I'd say about 98% of them are domesticated -- a lot of them are stolen pets," says John Dalley of the Phuket-based Soi Dog Foundation. Soi is a Thai word meaning backstreet or alley.
"They've been trained and respond to commands, some of them are even still wearing collars," he says.
Gathering dogs for market was once simply a matter of exchanging plastic buckets for the many soi dogs that live around Thai towns and villages. But with demand soaring in the winter months -- dog meat is regarded as a "warming" food and one that is believed to confer good luck in Vietnam -- it's a sellers' market.
"The sheer number of dogs required means this method is no longer sustainable and rustlers will travel across most of Thailand in search of dogs," says Dalley. "Some are bought. Others are snatched from streets, temples, and even people's gardens."
The recent floods in Thailand have also been a boon for dognappers for whom lost and displaced dogs are an easy target. Some operators simply drive around in pickups collecting dogs as they spot them.
"One pickup truck stopped in September had 130 dogs in sacks piled in the back," says Dalley. "More than 30 of the dogs were already dead from suffocation."
The trade is illegal in Thailand and while authorities have made a number of raids involving thousands of dogs, the Thai Veterinary Medical Association estimates as many 500,000 dogs are sold across the Mekong every year.
This month, a Thai navy patrol rescued 800 dogs packed into 40 wire cages on a six-wheeled truck on the banks of the Mekong River in Nakhon Phanom province. Police said they made one arrest but the other smugglers disappeared into the night.
Mekong patrol unit leader Captain Thirakiart Thongaram told Thai media that more than 100 empty cages were found at the scene of the raid indicating that at least 2,000 dogs had already been shipped to Vietnam.
Once the dogs arrive in Vietnam -- if they haven't died of trauma, suffocation or starvation en route -- a painful death awaits them. Dog meat aficionados claim that stress hormones tenderize the strong-tasting meat, and killing methods range from beatings to being skinned alive.
The dogs, especially pedigree breeds, are sometimes shipped on from Vietnam to southern China where a prime animal will fetch a higher price.
"We know that St Bernard's are highly prized in southern China, but you can see all types of pedigree animals in these captured Thai shipments -- poodles, shih tzus, you name it," says Dalley.
With market prices in Vietnam generally at between 500-1000 baht ($16-32) for a dog that can sometimes be picked up for the price of a plastic bucket or even less, Thailand's Livestock Development Department has a tough job regulating what has become a booming industry.
Dog traders -- who have mounted counter protests in Mekong region provinces where the trade flourishes -- claim there is no direct law against the practice. Smugglers are normally prosecuted under laws that prohibit the illegal trade and transportation of animals. While there are no direct animal cruelty laws in Thailand, prosecutors can charge smugglers with cruelty under Criminal Code laws.
The reality, however, is that smugglers often receive light sentences of just a few months in jail and that the thousands of impounded dogs that end up in quarantine centers sometimes find their way back onto the streets and in the dog meat circle again.
Soi Dog Foundation and the Thai Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals are currently working through the Department of Livestock Development to get an Animal Welfare Draft Law through the Thai Parliament.
"This is not about whether it is right or wrong to eat dog meat," Dalley says. "It is about an illegal trade worth millions of dollars per year organized by criminals.
"The way in which these dogs are transported and, if they survive, killed, is horrific."