In the aftermath of the deplorable bomb terror at the Boston marathon this year, over one hundred casualties were fighting against the lingering fear of the catastrophe. And then there was a dog. Watching NBC nightly news, I was surprised by the image of a dog in the hospital walking around room to room, comforting patients; a scene highly unlikely to see in Korea. Even though I later found out that the dog was a part of therapy called “comfort dogs” or “therapy dogs,” namely, the dogs that were specially trained to provide emotional care and affection for the physically and/or psychologically wounded?still the alien idea of having a dog loose and about in a hospital was a fresh shock.
Flipping through a copy of the National Geographic the other day, a picture of a robust dog strolling along the beach playfully and freely with her human companion caught my eyes. It seemed extremely natural but at the same time absolutely foreign; maybe it was that I have never dared to think of bringing my beloved dogs to the beach. Besides, soon I was reminded of a disputable “dog beach” that initially opened on the east coast of Korea last summer. A number of dog lovers welcomed the advent of the beach with open arms but soon faced a strong backlash. The objectors rushed to the responsible government website to demand the cancellation of the scheduled opening on the ground that sea water contaminated with dogs’ hair and manure will eventually harm the “innocent” beachgoers swimming in the adjacent shore. The dog-friendly beach managed to hold the ground for a season with a fervent support from dog lovers; its further existence, however, remains to be seen.
Behind this somewhat conservative mindset toward dogs, which is arguably pervasive in Korea, there is a cultural background. Asians including the Koreans have shared a similar concept of dogs for decades: they are nothing more than a species of animals. For one, the dog-eating tradition, the very culture that most of Westerners find disgusting, obviously reflects the idea. For Asians who have had mainly vegetablebased diet, it seemed dogs were more of a source of protein ingestion like pigs and cows than a companion of emotional significance. As a matter of fact, the Korean history of treating dogs as friends and/or family is surprisingly short. It was not until achieving remarkable progress in economy that people could afford to raise and give love to pets. Moreover, not a few “dog-advocators” are raising their insisting voices that the dogeating custom is such an uncivilized, barbarous conduct that ought to be banished. Against the movement, the major part of our society still asserts “dogs are dogs, nothing more,” and criticizes their absence of legitimate ground for the opinion.
On the other side, seemingly dogs have been seen as companions by the Western people. Although they have been living on meat-based diet, it is crystal clear that dog’s flesh has not been an object of interest in that department. Rather, displaying humanity for the loyal and friendly animals has been emphasized. Their animal protection law reveals the apparent difference of mindset; punishment for animal cruelty is extremely severe compared to that of Korea. A woman in England, for example, who left her three dogs alone in an appalling condition where they could neither see nor move due to their long unkempt fur, was sentenced to four months of imprisonment and banned from keeping animals for life. In contrast, a demented woman in Korea who had been accused of abusing and throwing a kitten out of a tenth floor was fined no more than 500,000 won since Korea’s ridiculously weak animal protection law regards animals as an object, not a life.
Both Asians and Westerners somehow optimized their own customs of treating dogs in distinctive ways for culturally significant reasons. Dogs have been merely one kind of animals for Asians including Koreans; thus, sudden changes of dogs’ status seem too much for the society, whereas in Western culture dogs have been a friend and family that should be protected from inhumane treatment. There can be no doubt that culture cannot be evaluated to be superior or inferior; each culture represents regional, national, and ethnic identity. Apart from the matter of superiority, however, I believe the difference in cultures is worth exploring. Western’s humane dog-friendly culture amazed me.