Paul Littlefair of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (a charity based in the United Kingdom) is diplomatic when he talks about Korean shelters. In terms of catching, rehoming and adoption, “some places are not doing as well as others.” There’s a need for standards, best practices and good training materials. He’s concerned about dogs being caged long-term, saying simple changes to a dog room can make dogs calmer and reduce barking. A quieter environment would also reduce stress for caregivers and make the building more inviting to the public.

It’s May 2011, and we’re sitting around a table in one of the government buildings in Gwacheon. Before Korea’s Animal Protection Act was amended in June, I contacted the Ministry for Food, Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries for an official comment about the proposed changes. It was part of a course assignment, and most of my questions (specifically, why MIFAFF was proposing certain changes to the legislation but opposing stronger changes that could affect animals raised for slaughter) went unanswered. But thanks to a kind co-worker who made a phone call for me, I have permission to observe this meeting between Littlefair and two MIFAFF officials.

The officials decline permission to record the conversation, so I put away my voice recorder. To my surprise, the meeting has nothing to do with the proposed legislation: there’s no mention of laws at all, or of the animals who were buried alive by the millions during the previous winter’s outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease and avian influenza. Littlefair is in town to raise a totally different subject: homeless animals in Korea, and an upcoming workshop to improve conditions in shelters. He’s not here to conduct an investigation or “expose anything,” he emphasizes.

By that I imagine Littlefair means poor conditions and low adoption rates in Korean pounds. He’s already been in touch with Korea’s Animal, Plant and Fisheries Quarantine and Inspection Agency and with a veterinarian in Gwangju who is working on a set of guidelines for municipal shelters. The agency and vet are supportive, Littlefair says. He needs “buy-in” from MIFAFF and wants to make sure the RSPCA’s objectives don’t clash with Korea’s.
I lean forward and catch a glimpse of the glossy materials in Littlefair’s hands. It’s the logos that get my attention: the RSPCA must have worked with several other organizations to produce the information.

When I see the logos I think: big, wealthy, conservative. I also notice the name Asilomar, which I remember from Nathan Winograd’s 2007 book Redemption: the myth of pet overpopulation and the no kill revolution in America.

Winograd is a former attorney who worked with Richard Avanzino in the 1990s to change the way the San Francisco SPCA operated: the organization launched a foster program and a trap-neuter-return program (for stray cats), made the shelter more inviting to adopters and more comfortable for animals, offered low-cost sterilization services, and succeeded in putting an end to the killing of healthy animals—not only in that shelter, but in the surrounding community. Winograd later took over the management of a small rural animal control shelter in upstate New York, and this time he put an end to the killing of treatable animals too.

Winograd’s outspoken criticism of the status quo, and especially of big animal welfare organizations, has earned him enemies. But he’s also inspired a social movement—one that rejects what he calls tired clichés about “pet overpopulation” and lays the blame on mismanagement instead. Asilomar, California, is where a few of the targets of Winograd’s criticism met in 2004 to develop their own plan to end the killing: he devotes a chapter to the resulting “Asilomar Accords” in Redemption, and it’s not flattering. The title of the chapter is “Backlash.”

None of this means the RSPCA shelter workshop won’t be beneficial or informative, and I want to go. I want all the rescuers and shelter owners I know to have access to the information too. They need all the help they can get. My notes from the meeting suggest the workshop is for both private shelters and municipally funded animal control centers, but I find out later it’s limited to pounds.

After the meeting I call Littlefair and he is helpful. We discuss the legislation, the live burials, why even the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) couldn’t do more than issue a strongly worded letter in response. Then I ask his opinion of Nathan Winograd’s philosophy and at first he doesn’t seem to recognize the name. I start to explain Winograd’s accomplishments at the Tompkins County SPCA (the animal control shelter Winograd rehabilitated in upstate New York) and Littlefair does know who I’m talking about—but before long he has to leave for another meeting. I mean to call back but get sidetracked, so we never get a chance to talk about Redemption or whether Winograd’s approach could work in Korea.

The next time I see Littlefair it’s September and I’ve travelled to Gwangju on the KTX to follow up on my earlier research. My writing course is finished but the resulting article was never published; I’m here at the Kim Dae-jung Convention Centre because the issue interests me—both as a writer and as an animal person.

The conference runs all day but only one lecture is in English: Littlefair’s “Enforcing Animal Protection Law.” Two vets spoke in the morning before I got there, and a lawyer will address the group after I leave.

The Korea Animal Rights Association, a no-kill group that organizes monthly volunteer days at struggling private shelters, put the conference together. A poster on the wall tells me the sponsors were MIFAFF and an organization that deals with “agricultural human resources.” When I look around I see many young faces—during the break, I find out a few are vet students. Others, apparently, want to be volunteer animal welfare inspectors.

Littlefair’s presentation starts with historical information about the RSPCA and the 19th-century British animal protection movement: we learn when Britain’s first animal welfare law was passed (1822), when the SPCA was founded (1824), and when Queen Victoria allowed the organization to add an R to its name (1840). On the screen we see a portrait of Queen Victoria, black-and-white photographs of early 20th-century RSPCA officers, dog fighting scenes, and a dog dressed up in a funny outfit.

The dog in the funny outfit is a contemporary image—the point is that keeping animals for companionship is a form of “animal use” like vivisection and raising animals for slaughter. The picture seems to be from Asia, not the United Kingdom, and is part of a discussion about attitudes toward animal use. Littlefair says these range from an egalitarian view (“we’re animals too”) to an anything-goes ethic (“we can do what we like to animals”). He situates his own organization “somewhere in the middle” of what he calls these two “extremes.”

Littlefair introduces the concept of “animal welfare” by talking about different kinds of animals and their differing needs—fish, ants, hamsters, dogs. He shows diagrams of different animals’ brains and asks the audience how “we” know whether a being has feelings. Pictures of scales illustrate the concept: in each “animal use” situation, we must weigh the benefits to humans against the suffering of other animals.

One of his examples is a pig farming operation that uses automated feeders. The feeders sprinkle food all over the barn so the pigs have to look for it, making their lives a little less dull. Littlefair says matter of factly that the RSPCA couldn’t ask the pig industry to switch systems if it weren’t economically viable. There’s no time to raise questions—but it occurs to me that if these pigs had lived in Korea during the foot-and-mouth epidemic, they could have been buried alive along with their conventionally raised cousins.

There are times when I have to put my notebook down and remind myself why I’m there: not as a protestor or discussant but to observe, record and inform others about the event.

When discussing the different “uses” of other animals, when talking about the dog’s funny outfit, Littlefair never mentions where the dog came from. Was the dog from a pet shop? Was he or she rescued? Does it matter, or are animal shelters just one more animal use industry—like the automated pig farm? For an organization that runs shelters, it’s a strange omission.

Written by Eileen Cahill.

Continue reading Part Two of this article, RSPCA in Korea: the coffee is always waiting.