By Chris Teale (Photo/Chris Teale)
While talking about the success of the Animal Welfare League of Alexandria taking in dogs rescued from a meat farm in South Korea in January 2015, AWLA executive director Megan Webb is joined by Minnow, a Sapsaree breed who struggled with serious leg issues and adult teeth that were powder-like as they developed due to nutrition deficiencies.
Fast forward a year and Minnow is set for adoption, having recovered and become a dog that loves being the center of attention. She is a real success story, and after AWLA saw several other pups from the farm go to happy homes, the organization decided to take in eight more late last year.
A total of 26 dogs arrived at Dulles Airport on December 14, having been rescued by Humane Society International from another dog meat farm. They were transported to the Washington Animal Rescue League for a health check, after which the eight destined for Alexandria were brought to the Vola Lawson Animal Shelter for further health and behavior evaluation.
The dogs are of a wide variety of breeds, including Shiba mixes, Beagle mixes, Tosa mixes and a Terrier, and arrived with a variety of medical and emotional issues after being bred and held in cages until only recently.
“When they come in, they’re very under-socialized, very frightened, really having to learn almost everything from scratch because most of them have just lived in a cage, haven’t even touched the ground and haven’t seen toys,” Webb said. “They haven’t had affection.”
Instead of paying meat farmers to no longer raise dogs, HSI focuses on educating them to cultivate new products, with the previous cohort’s former home now seeing a second life as a blueberry farm. When the dogs arrive at animal shelters across the country, the transition can be tough, so those looking after them take things slowly.
“The last few weeks have just been a lot of letting them relax and assimilate and not asking too much of them,” said Webb. “Some of them are much more ready to turn around and be social than others, so we don’t force them to be social. It’s just little by little. We wanted to deal with any medical issues, so we’ve been doing that.”
Dealing with those medical ailments means there is no definite timeline on when dogs will be available for adoption, although Webb said that the majority are in a position where they are either available or have already been snapped up by new owners. Testing a dog’s sociability is crucial for AWLA staff, as they ascertain how each individual will cope in new environments.
“We don’t want them to regress, so if we push them too hard and say, ‘Here you go, ready to go,’ and they’re surrounded by people and they’re taken to dog parks and it’s just too much, they can go backwards even further,” Webb said. “With the puppies, they’re coming up, they want attention. There’s no sense that they have any issues with that at all. Some of the adult dogs are sitting back, they really aren’t sure what’s going on, but we’re seeing progress.”
It is a strategy that worked well with the previous dogs from South Korea, who have all progressed thanks to the work of AWLA staff and their new owners.
“I think it’s really inspiring to see how resilient dogs can be and how the affection that these owners are providing has changed these dogs,” Webb said. “Really, you look at the pictures of where those dogs came from and it’s hard to think that they can be [such] well-adjusted dogs and so social.”
In addition to helping dogs from South Korea, Webb said AWLA’s participation in the HSI rescue program has helped increase awareness of dogs and other animals available for adoption in the community too. She noted that when the first cohort of dogs was announced, AWLA received phone calls from people interested in adopting from around 35 states, and while the shelter’s involvement will not be especially regular, it helps spread the word of AWLA’s mission.
“I think we’ve participated in a way that helped get the idea out there,” Webb said. “I think there’s way too many dogs to rescue ultimately, and to bring to the United States. This has been an opportunity to get the message out and to help educate people about this issue, but we always have to consider our animals here locally, and there are a lot of animals locally that need help.”
Like Webb, AWLA volunteer photographer Shelley Castle has been there every step of the way with both sets of South Korean dogs, and said it was heartening to see residents care so much.
“It was really interesting to see how the community here really got almost invested in the dogs themselves,” Castle said. “It was really discussed wide-range all through the community, so I always found it was interesting to have people ask about the Korean dogs. I couldn’t believe they were that famous.