Banal cruelty

Every society and culture has different ideas about an animal’s purpose and treatment. In Viet Nam, a dog’s purpose can range from a treasured family member* to a source of meat. Eating dogs is slowly being unpopular, but there is still an average of 5 million dogs killed for their meat every year.** Dog meat is a more commonly eaten in the north, so I rarely see it here in the south. That isn’t to say that I haven’t seen dog carcasses in the markets; their fur burnt off, their blacked lips stretching their mouths into a permanent growl…

But this isn’t the cruelty I’m writing about. This is about the dogs that live, but are being left. Alone. All day. All night.

Dogs are pack animals; the entirety of their happiness hangs on being with others. When dogs are left by themselves they don’t think, “Terrific, now I can work on writing my novel…” No, their whole world stops when they are left. For them, being isolated is a punishment.

Below is a little Phú Quốc Ridgeback pup chained up on a Saigonese street. I don’t go near strange dogs, they tend to be a little on the bitey-side, but this one looks so dejected that I couldn’t walk past. I whistled at him. He flicked his ears, but otherwise didn’t move at all. I approached him slowly and carefully, holding my hand out for him to sniff. Nothing. A quick scratch behind the ears. Nothing still.

Whatever spirit this pup possessed, had since fled the foot long chain and left behind a sad, lonely little creature.

Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.
Phu Quoc Ridgeback pup, far from the island paradise that created it.

A little pup with an obvious eye infection and limp, chained up outside its house. It was panting and covered in its own saliva. I gave it some water in my bag, it was thirsty and drank more than I expected.

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This is an example of a guard dog chained to a front gate. I don’t think they deter thieves, as much as they make some noise if people come to the door. I see dogs left like this all the time outside homes and businesses.

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Tight chain. No water. No shelter.

These dogs are obviously given food and water, but in all my time in Sai Gon, I’ve only seen a handful of dogs being exercised on a leash. Most dogs walk around the streets by themselves or don’t walk at all. When I’ve asked, people say that they chain up their dogs so they don’t run onto the street or get snatched by dog thieves who sell them to the dog meat trade.

This is reasonable, I suppose. But just because you are protecting a dog from a potential, terrible situation doesn’t mean that you can’t provide adequate care and attention. To say that there are dogs that are treated worse does not mean that dogs shouldn’t be treated better. Being neglected is also harmful.

Pet shop
Pet shop

*There are some really terrific pet owners in Viet Nam look after their animals beautifully and provide them with food, water, shelter, leadership, exercise, grooming, training, veterinary care, companionship and protection. I also understand that not all owners live in ideal situations, but they still do the best they can for their animals. Looking after animals is a lifelong commitment, which can be difficult, time consuming and expensive. But it can also be one of the most rewarding and loving relationships you will experience.

**I understand that meat comes from living creatures that are slaughtered, but while there are regulations for slaughtering cattle, sheep and poultry, there are none for dogs. It is common for dogs to be bludgeoned, burned, hung, or stabbed to death; in full view of a cage of terrifying dogs waiting their turn. There are dozens of examples of it online if you don’t want to sleep peacefully again.

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The Phú Quốc Ridgeback

You’ll understand by now that this isn’t a travel blog, so I’ll only mention in passing that I visited Phú Quốc Island. It is Viet Nam’s largest island, located in the Gulf of Thailand, 12 kms south of Cambodia. You can actually see Cambodia from the island and believe me that the Cambodians are pretty upset about Viet Nam claiming it for themselves. Both countries have an historical claim to the island and surrounding waters, but Viet Nam won out in the end.

I mention Phú Quốc because it is where you’ll find the Phú Quốc Ridgeback Dog, the smallest of the Ridgeback Breeds; the Rhodesian Ridgeback being the largest, while the Thai Ridgeback is slightly smaller.

The French were the first to document this distinctive breed in the 1800s; all the Vietnamese people probably thought they were just swirly backed dogs that weren’t worth writing about. But because I like all the rare and unusual things that Viet Nam has to offer, I’m going to write down the little that I know about this unique Vietnamese canine.

Their distinctive coat occurred because one or a couple of dogs with the genetic mutation arrived on the island from Africa, Thailand or Australia and started to breed in glorious isolation. The small gene pool meant that the characteristic kept appearing in pups until it was common amongst most of the island’s dogs.

Playfully pulling a man's leg, not an outright savaging.
Playfully pulling a man’s leg, not an outright savaging.

Their fur grows in different directions along their body, mainly on their backs. One long strip of backwards growing fur along their spine is common, but swirls and whorls all over their bodies can occur. Their coats come in pure black, pure tan, black and tan and brindle.

Common fur pattern
Common fur pattern

They are a true island dog; they swim in the Ocean, catch fish, climb trees, sleep on the beaches, and are friendly to tourists (probably because they feed them). Some dogs are owned by locals, while others are owned by everyone and no-one, but all dogs roam free.

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Digging hole in the cool sand to sleep in is clever trick to avoid the heat, but there is no guarantee that your sister will leave you alone.

The breed is gaining some popularity on the Mainland; the Vietnamese Kennel Association is currently working on a breed standard and currently they have 700 pure bred dogs registered. I’m a bit sad about this. Viet Nam already kills hundreds of thousands of unwanted dogs every year and I don’t really think we should be breeding even more. I don’t think the World should breed as many pure-breed dogs as we do full-stop; besides being expensive, purebred dogs have more health problems due to genetic disorders and inbreeding. Unethical breeders choose appearance over health or temperament and overbreed dogs to the point of disfigurement. I’d encourage anyone looking to add a dog to their lives, to find one in a shelter.

All this aside, the Phú Quốc Ridgeback has been living on their island for hundreds of years, they suite their environment and they seem very contented with their lives there. Their lives in Sai Gon or the rest of the World would be very different.

The next generation
The next generation

Most of the dogs that live in Sai Gon are chained up their whole lives and it would be that much more sad for dogs that were meant to live in the sand and surf. Chained up Phú Quốc Ridgeback in Sai Gon

Well camouflaged
Well camouflaged

So now you know about one of the rarest dog breeds in the World; feel free to use this information to impress people at your next dinner party. Or never mention them to anyone, I don’t think the Phú Quốc Ridgebacks will mind.