PHNOM PENH: The butcher stands in blood as she hacks coarsely with a cleaver in the carcass of the small animal. Bones lay scattered on the concrete floor along with tufts of fur and piled up twisted bodies.
It is a grim site. But later on this night it will have been hosed down and seats and tables will be set up for customers with a hunger for dog.
The workers in these restaurants react angrily at attempts to speak with them or document their business, but the rising popularity of the dog meat trade in Cambodia is no secret.
The stigma and shadowy nature of the business is starting to move into the spotlight as a result of growing demand.
Throughout the capital Phnom Penh, increasingly on its outskirts, to the tourist centre of Siem Reap and in rural provinces across the country, dog restaurants are opening to meet a heightened craving for the meat.
While there is no official data, all those connected to the business - both for and against - told Channel NewsAsia that demand is expanding and the number of outlets is also growing.
Not known to be part of Cambodian culture, the embrace of dog meat has puzzled and angered activists but enriched those trying their hand at what remains a controversial business.
“Dog meat is like medicine. It tastes hot but it makes our body feel good. It is more delicious than pork," said one fan.
While there are reports of pets being snatched from their homes and villages - there are prevailing fears from restaurant owners of accusations that their meat is stolen - operators say they purchase the animals from rural families. Increasingly, they say they are forced to travel wider distances to maintain supply. In the meantime, activists are trying to disrupt the practice by understanding its inner workings and launching health and awareness campaigns.
Cambodia is just a bit-part player in a lucrative industry that stretches across Asia. It is estimated 30 million dogs across the region, including China and South Korea, are slaughtered each year, according to Humane Society International (HSI).
Impassioned campaigning has proven effective in limiting its utility in some countries, notably in Indonesia in recent months. But in Cambodia, little is documented about an overwhelmingly informal sector that poses both health and ethical questions.
‘MY FEELING IS NOT CALM’
Pheap has run a restaurant selling dog for 12 years. She has a loyal customer base and makes good profits from her small operation on a major road junction in Phnom Penh.
Unlike some other venues, dog carcasses are not visibly on display. However, inside Pheap’s house at the back of the restaurant is the evidence of animals being prepared to barbecue.
“Before there were not many people doing this business,” she said. “In the past, my parents sold only steamed rice and porridge.”
Now, there are more operators but the price has been soaring amid a resulting shortage of animals. Unlike other proteins, dog meat is not available in public markets and prices have doubled in the past five years, she says.
It is a situation HSI’s Kelly O’Meara says is “a major concern”.
“The means of which dogs are taken for this trade, the conditions the dogs are held and then transported and ultimately, slaughtered are dreadful. High stress in the dogs with severely crowded conditions, intense mistreatment and inhumane slaughter methods breeds disease,” she said.
Pheap admits she has become a more reluctant seller of late. While some believe in the medicinal qualities of eating dog, she is increasingly superstitious about the misfortunes that have befallen her while running this restaurant.
“I plan to stop soon,” she said. “I try to do a lot of things for my family’s happiness but whatever I do, the result is not as expected. So, I think it might be because of this business.
“I can say I am more successful in my business but it doesn’t make me happy. My feeling is not calm.”
While she does not eat the meat herself anymore, she sells 40 kilograms of it each day. “These are mostly local guests. They are mostly Cambodians, Vietnamese and sometimes, a few Chinese,” she said.
“Some important people also buy it. They send their bodyguards. It is very delicious. The skin is crispy and the claws and bones are all crispy.”
The meat is provided to restaurants by brokers, who have set up operations in various provinces throughout Cambodia. Industry operators and activists both say that no formal dog farms exist in the country and animals are purchased and captured in an ad hoc fashion.
One broker - who requested not to be named - explained that her husband goes on long quests around the country, often close to the Vietnamese border to find live dogs to be later butchered.
“My husband goes from house to house and sometimes people are in need so they sell their dogs,” she told Channel NewsAsia, claiming they pay US$2.25 per kilogram for the animals. She has been active in this business for two years and says whereas she used to sell 20-30 kilograms of meat at a time to restaurants, now the orders can be up to 50-60 kilograms.
She refutes that dogs are stolen or snatched in the process. “It is difficult but we honestly buy them.”
It is these types of operations that blogger activist Lee Fox-Smith is attempting to shut down. Along with fellow animal lover Dr Lucy Haurisa, he has been venturing throughout provincial areas to understand the business better and devise a plan to end it.
He says dog meat businesses are not hidden or secret and has gained access to several slaughterhouses and restaurant kitchens. Footage he has gathered shows live dogs bundled in wooden cages, left in the sun and deprived of water.
“We saw one slaughterhouse where they drown the dogs. The common narrative is that the dogs are tortured and while we only went to three slaughterhouses, we didn’t see any evidence of torture, in the sense of blowtorching them alive or boiling them alive,” he said.
While the conditions for living dogs were tough, the kitchens where animals were being killed on the spot, as required, were unpleasant.
“The state of these restaurants is disgusting. They’re riddled with disease,” he said.
“In Siem Reap, there were clubs used to kill the animals in a sack and you could tell because the animals on the barbecue had fractured skulls,” Dr Haurisa said.
“Once the dogs are dead, there was a huge pot of blood from several dogs killed before. There is no soap, no disinfectant and if there was a rabid dog you wouldn’t be able to tell. There was absolutely no control,” she added.
They admit that these hygiene levels are not much different from businesses selling beef or pork, but the niche nature of this industry means there is scope to take action. Cambodia has no national animal welfare laws.
“The difference for us with the dogs is that we can see a solution for it. We could actually intervene and stop it if we get enough support. But pigs and cows, good luck changing that now," Fox-Smith said.
Their objective is to map out supply routes and perform mass spay and neuter programs around particular slaughterhouses, isolating them and forcing operators to travel further to find dogs, delivering a blow to the economic viability of the business.
“Then find solutions to try and get these people into other lines of work. And then we can work on another product to reduce the demand through a public health campaign working with local monks, doctors and teachers,” he said.
“We’ve only scratched the surface of it all. We still need to map it all out.”
There is a natural temptation for them to want to rescue all of the dogs they see suffering. While this does occur, with varying success, in Cambodia - Dr Haurisa now has ‘Alex’, a rescue dog living with her in Phnom Penh - it is not necessarily a sustainable solution.
Organisations where such animals might end up, like Animal Mama Veterinary Hospital & Pet Wellness Centre, say they are better equipped to roll out comprehensive health and vaccination programs than contend with individual cases.
Not all dogs can be rehabilitated fully, says the centre’s founder Yulia Khouri, and many will never be suitable pets.
“Our mantra is not to go out on the street and look for animals. I can do that today and come back with 20. The idea here is, number one, neuter and spay, de-worming and vaccinations. This is the only way there can be population control,” she said.
“And massive deportations to other countries that already have big problems with too many dogs, I think is ridiculous.”
The economic potential of dog restaurants, amid a growing desire to eat the protein, is one of the attractions for restaurant owners. Dog meat is relatively expensive and profitable compared to beef and pork.
So, making the transition from selling dog meat to a strict vegan menu was a brave move for Dy Mong.
Now at the helm of Sabay Vegelicious, Mong and his wife Syna have completely transformed their business, with the support of Dr Haurisa and Marc Ching from Animal Hope and Wellness Foundation.
For years they had sold dog without questioning the source of the animals, their treatment or the health concerns associated. While their business, now relocated to a popular tourist area in Phnom Penh, is still yet to make as much money with its new-look cuisine, the couple are embracing the change.
“I am a bit happier than before because we think this business will progress in the future,” Mong said.
This is just one pilot project fighting to succeed in an industry with little government oversight and few rules, regulations or incentives for ethical behaviour.
But it is an enthusiastic change of attitude that those fighting to end dog slaughter can take some encouragement from.
Mong’s own dog - a puppy called Gigi - now greets customers in front of the restaurant. Its life could have been very different.
“I don’t think we should eat this animal,” he said. “Because it is clever like us, but it just can’t speak for itself.”