White People Snuggling Puppies in Hot Countries and Other Non-Solutions to Animal Suffering in the Global South

White lady (the author) snuggling pig piggy son, Julian

Below is a list of some of the common, well-marketed, and media-friendly non-solutions to ending animal suffering in poor countries:

— Puppy snuggling.

— Doggie walking on beaches.

— Instagramable kitten kissing.

— Education programs by pretty, young white people to classes of non-white children to learn about aforementioned puppy snuggling and kitten kissing.

— Volun-tourism at animal rescues for twenty-something Westerners coming to Asia to “find themselves” and try to catch chlamydia on a drunk night in a beach bar.

I am guilty of all of these and more in a vain attempt to “save animals” in Vietnam, going so far as to open my own rescue organization in 2013 which continues to run my life to this day while reminding me of the futility of White Saviorism. I am not ashamed to say that I was a raging moron. Life lesson learned. Now in my middle-aged wisdom I get to call out people doing the same dumb shit. Adulting at its finest.

These above examples are all part of the asinine idea that the West has come to the East to civilize it through pet rescues while savage Vietnamese eat dogs. The backpacking, English-teaching world of twenty somethings that fly to Southeast Asia to find themselves and escape the rat race is not going to “civilize” Vietnam. It sure as hell is not going to make lasting changes to the lives of hundreds of millions of animals here. Vietnam civilized me when I moved there in 2012, not the other way around, and in the time I have lived there, I have seen atrocities towards animals done by every color, gender, and creed of human possible. The idea that stoned backpackers spending their nights diddling strangers in tiki bars and their days teaching Chinese kids English online are some kind of bright light of humanity fails to hold much logic. While I have very much been that drunk backpacker diddling strangers in bars with the asinine idea that I had the power to shift the consciousness of the Vietnamese people towards loving all animals, middle age and 9years of dealing with dumb fucks just like myself changed my views on what is possible when snuggling puppies abroad.

The White Savior (author) saving 3 cats from the cat meat trade

There is nothing better than being handed my ass with how wrong I have been and seeing the limitations of what I now know to be serious impediments to the impact I had hoped to make in Vietnam. I know how easy it is to fall prey to the White Man’s Burden mentality and to feel like there is some way to change an entire nation of total strangers speaking another language based on the fact that your country of origin has dogs that wear sweaters and you can easily spend $50 on a small bag of gourmet, organic, grain-free dog food if you so desire. We forget that the more “developed” a country, the higher the number of animals per capita are murdered annually. The 25 million animals killed every single day in the US should be more important indicator of our incompetence as animal caretakers than the variety of dog sweaters at our local pet shop.

When we judge the way that animals are treated in a country, we always ignore 90% of animals there. We ignore the feed lots, battery cages, and the oceans being raped for a meal easily replaced by plants. We avoid adding in the slaughterhouses scattered throughout the countryside hidden from the people who pick up a corpse wrapped in plastic at the supermarket without a thought for the screams that came from their meal. The Vietnamese consume less than one third of the animals that the average American does. This means a lot less murders per capita, yet none of these are counted when we uphold the belief that West knows Best in regards to caring for animals.

The reality is that we only know best how to produce murdered animals at an industrial scale, to legally condone the horrors of the production of animals used for profit, to effectively hide this process from the general public, and to sell hypocrisy at the highest levels of animal advocacy. Nearly all animal organizations promote saving dogs and cats and using all others for food, clothing, entertainment, and research in mass scale with the stamp of approval from the veterinary industry at large and the government agencies meant to protect animals. Yes, the West is Best. We are the best at selling comfortable lies to the public in exchange for profiting off the torture and murder of animals, the destruction to the environment, and the degradation of public health and global food security.

While it is always nice to have animals cared for and walked and snuggled, the Vietnamese do this, too, believe it or not. Do many also kick them, throw rocks at them, breed them, and eat them? Sure. Does that not happen in your country? I’ll bet it does. Where I went to high school in Alabama, they get their rocks off on shooting them, too. There they bond over ripping animals out of the sea by their faces, picking them off with shotguns from tree stands, and barbequing their corpses among friends and family while petting their sweater-clad poodles. Humans are awful to animals on every corner of this planet.

Vietnam is a pretty awful place to be an animal of any kind in many ways, but so is most of the world. I fail to understand how an American, Brit, or German is going to have any ground to stand on in Vietnam when pointing fingers at the locals and then, as usual, still going out and stuffing corpses in their face. This is indicative of the welfarist ideology that has made all arguments against the Vietnamese invalid. When we perpetuate the nonsense that young, white people snuggling dogs in Vietnam is an answer to the problems animals face in here, we are selling lies to other young white people that these non-solutions are the standard for progress for animals that they can be a part of.

So what CAN be done for animals in Vietnam?

The answer is the same in every country, but must be interpreted through the cultural and political lens of the people who live there, not those who pop in and want to save puppies between hangovers and not-so-satisfying one night stands. The answer is a cultural shift to consider the lives of ALL animals valuable rather than picking and choosing which are cute enough to care about. The solution is to stand up for animals in both day-to-day life and in a legal framework through promoting an end to animal use. This means working towards veganic agriculture systems and away from animal agriculture. It includes shifting away from destroying the seas and towards farming them with seaweed. It means promoting vegan food and products so that these are accessible nationwide to all income levels. It means building up the capacity of the veterinary industry to provide adequate care for animals of ALL species while also ensuring that safe sterilization procedures be accessible to all pet owners. It means ending the promotion of purebred animals and production of farmed animals. It means ending the legal subsidies for animal agriculture and implementing enforceable legislation that actually protects every single species of animals from the inevitable cruelty that comes from human interaction. The reality is that societal values do not have to shift prior to legislative change, but in a country like Vietnam with such weak rule of law, the normative culture takes the place of law in regards to animals and we must consider this balance when seeking sustainable, systemic change.

Among the puppies that needed snuggling

The idea that these projects are best done solely by foreigners is as arrogantly ignorant as it gets. In fact, the idea that any of these changes can come from foreigners is a bit unrealistic. The projects that we are able to do as a foreign organization are limited to what the Vietnamese are willing to participate in and to carry on through their own projects. We have generally greater access to funding (though we rarely get it…) and that allows us to focus on more veterinary-based projects which can be quite expensive for locals to invest in. Our media platforms are all in English, so we have no real chance at social change and even if I did write everything in Vietnamese, my words are useless in Vietnam as an American. Government subsidies, legislation of any kind, and the enforcement of existing legislation is not ever going to be among the things we can affect. We see Vietnam as part of a global movement, but it is the Vietnamese who have the greatest impact on everything we hope to achieve.

The one thing we can achieve as foreigners is to stand up against the virulent racism that comes with being a foreigner in a dog meat country and working in rescue here. We can dispel the insanity that West knows Best and we can put an end to the baseless idea that dog meat is somehow much worse than what goes on in our own countries oceans away. We can put ourselves out there in the global movement for animal rights and stand up for ALL species and remind people that it is humanity we are fighting against, not one specific group of humans. There is no doubt we are limited in our reach that we would otherwise have in a country which we were born in. I have fought against that for years but have finally grown to accept our place in all this. While we do have pretty white people snuggling puppies at our shelter, we know it is not solving anything. The shelter itself solves almost nothing as it is other than saving a few dozen animals onsite, but there we are and will continue to be because once upon a time when I started this organization I was among the young white people who came to snuggle puppies and save them from the horrible dog meat trade.

I don’t miss the idealistic, and ethnocentric White Savior moron I used to be, but am grateful for 9 long years of hard wake up calls that taught me what an ass I was. I sure am enjoying my 40s and becoming outspoken in my diminishing faith in the long-held, yet misguided beliefs of what international development means in animal advocacy. I have gone from following the leaders in the international welfare world with every move when we first started the organization, to being completely ostracized by the animal advocacy community in the region for being outspoken against their outdated and ineffective strategies which are deeply racist and leave out every non-pet or endangered wildlife species. I am proud to be on the other end of it rather than continuing to believe in tactless and ineffective non-solutions. Hopefully we can move on in the coming years with practical work with concrete impact that addresses the big picture and the use of grassroots initiatives.

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Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist, pig snuggler, amateur vegan chef, and runner who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.

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Catherine Besch

Catherine Besch

Cat Besch is a ferocious animal activist, pig snuggler, amateur vegan chef, and runner who is the founder and director of Vietnam Animal Aid and Rescue-US.

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