IKSAN, South Korea – A 2-year-old dachshund barked chained to its dingy, wooden house Tuesday, unaware of its fate as South Korea began slaughtering hundreds of dogs, cats and pigs in an effort to stem the spread of the deadly H5N1 strain of bird flu.
Indonesia also reported that a woman died of bird flu on Tuesday, raising the country's death toll to 57.
The dog's owner Im Soon-duck — like many villagers — was more concerned about losing her three pigs than the dog, which was a present from her daughter.
"Dogs are good for keeping us amused. But pigs — it costs us a lot to buy those pigs," said the 66-year-old Im, who lives next to a chicken farm where a second outbreak of bird flu was confirmed Tuesday, near the site of an outbreak last week in Iksan, about 155 miles south of Seoul.
"We people in rural areas depend on pigs and cows for our living," Im said.
The government is to compensate farmers for their lost livestock, but the exact amounts are not yet known.
Quarantine officials began the slaughter Tuesday even though international health experts have questioned killing non-poultry species to curtail bird flu's spread, saying there is no scientific evidence to suggest dogs, cats or pigs can pass the virus to humans.
Since ravaging Asia's poultry in late 2003, the H5N1 virus has killed at least 153 people worldwide. Infections among people have been traced to contact with infected birds, but experts fear the virus could mutate into a form that passes easily between humans, leading to a human pandemic.
South Korean officials insist the decision to slaughter dogs, cats and pigs was not unusual and that the step has been taken in other countries without public knowledge.
Park Kyung-hee, an official at Iksan City Hall, said 677 dogs — bred on farms for their meat — along with 300 pigs were to be slaughtered Tuesday, and said stray cats and mice also would be killed. Another city official said pet "dogs raised individually in houses will also be subject to slaughter." He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media.
A total of 236,000 poultry and some 6 million eggs will be destroyed by Thursday, the Agriculture Ministry has said.
The ministry plans to kill additional poultry within a 1,640-foot radius of the new outbreak site, about two miles from the initial outbreak location, but the numbers of affected animals was not yet known.
Animal rights activists criticized the government move, saying it had no scientific basis.
"The claim by the South Korean government that killing cats and dogs will prevent further spread of bird flu is unfounded and is a dangerous diversion of resources," said Dr. Michael Greger, director of public health and animal agriculture for The Humane Society of the United States and author of a book on bird flu.
"Indeed, no evidence exists to show cats or dogs play any role in the spread of this virus," Greger said.
Kum Sun-lan, spokesman for the Korea Animal Protection Society, agreed. "The government should know better about their course of action," he said. "It is unacceptable how they just move on with the extermination procedure without any reliable evidence for it."
Many villagers like Im — mostly elderly farmers — appeared nonchalant about the slaughtering of their dogs, who are usually kept outside in cages or chained.
Most of the dogs don't have names; Im couldn't remember the name her daughter in Seoul gave the dachshund.
Dogs bred for food are regularly slaughtered in South Korea, where dog meat is widely consumed, especially among middle-aged men who believe bosintang, or dog soup, is good for stamina and virility.
"I do feel bad that my dogs would have to be killed when they are not even sick," said Noh Jung-dae, a 63-year-old farmer who also lives next to the chicken farm that saw the latest outbreak. "But, if the government has to do it to prevent the disease, what can I do?"
Noh said he had planned to eat some of the six dogs he was raising.
The scene in the rural area is a far cry from posh neighborhoods of the capital, Seoul, where an increasing number of people keep cats and dogs as pets, often pampering them with fancy haircuts and expensive accessories. Pet shops are easy to spot in the city, where there are even coffee shops specially designed for pets and their owners.
In Iksan, some younger villagers raised concerns about the slaughter.
"It's just too cruel to indiscriminately kill other livestock when there is obviously no proof these animals can transmit the bird flu virus to humans," said 29-year-old Kim Sung-tae. "I have little puppies that are as small as my palm. How can they have the heart to kill those small things?"
In Indonesia, a woman died of bird flu Tuesday, raising the country's death toll to 57.
The 35-year-old woman had been treated for almost three weeks before dying in a hospital in the capital, Jakarta, said hospital spokesman Sardikin Giriputro. Health officials were still investigating the source of infection.
Indonesian Health Ministry tests earlier this month confirmed that the woman from the city of Tangerang, on the western outskirts of Jakarta, was H5N1 positive.