Photos by Four Paws
When veterinarian Katherine Polak, DVM, MPH, MS, DACVPM, DABVP, went to Bangkok to help stray dogs after flooding, she didn’t think she’d still be there nearly a decade later. But once there, she saw a tremendous opportunity in animal welfare.
“What keeps me in Asia is the exciting progress. The love people have for their pets is universal,” she shares.
Dr. Polak’s focus on shelter medicine came after a stint in an Iowan-based shelter.
“When in veterinary school, I did some work with a local shelter and was shocked at the euthanasia rate,” she continues. “That’s when I decided to go into shelter medicine.”
Now, Dr. Polak is a pioneering force in ending the Southeast Asian dog and cat meat trade.
“When I arrived, I didn’t know anything about the dog and cat meat trade. I kind of feel I went from double-boarded veterinarian specialist to ‘dog meat lady,’” she jokes.
Dr. Polak also teaches a course at The University of Florida on international shelter medicine, which is part of an online certificate program open to anyone in animal welfare, not only veterinarians.
“I think a lot of veterinarians aren’t aware of the challenges facing animals abroad. Spay/neuter is often pursued as a knee-jerk reaction to stray animal overpopulation,” she continues, “but that’s only part of the solution. We have to also focus on changing human behavior.”
In addition, Dr. Polak is currently the Head of Stray Animal Care, Southeast Asia of FOUR PAWS, an international animal welfare organization in 15 countries. In her role with FOUR PAWS, her team focuses on local partnerships to build knowledge and skills. For example, FOUR PAWS established a Southeast Asian Partnership Program with local charities throughout the region, providing funding and training.
“In much of the region, local veterinary training is poor. Curriculums focus mostly on livestock, like cows, for example. Local vets may not have much experience with dogs and cats,” she says.
As a result of recognizing this need, FOUR PAWS helps with veterinary training through their partner programs in countries such as Cambodia, Indonesia and Vietnam. The FOUR PAWS team works with local organizations to help them develop their veterinary skills and animal welfare capabilities in order to build skills and have agency.
“Pre-pandemic, I frequently traveled across Southeast Asia, facilitating trainings and workshops. Whenever possible, I want to be on the ground supporting our teams and partners. It’s much different now with the pandemic,” Dr. Polak continues. “While we can’t travel much, our local teams are addressing animals in need. The animal welfare need has never been greater due to the pandemic. Some programs focus on feeding stray animals in places such as Bali. We just launched a mobile vet ambulance in India. And we have a ‘Cats Matter’ program in Vietnam that focuses on cat rescue.”
When she discovered the cat meat trade in Vietnam, Dr. Polak started working to save those animals and end this practice. FOUR PAWS uncovered an entire economic system that ran deep…
“A big part of the work I do is to try to end the dog and cat meat trade. Literally, millions of dogs and cats are stolen, trafficked, and killed every year for meat,” Dr. Polak continues. “Pet owners were calling, saying their animals were stolen or poisoned. We launched a campaign internationally to stop the trade and support governments. We asked, ‘How can we address these issues in a supportive way?’ And what we discovered was astounding.
“We started investigating. We knew dogs were going missing. We knew there were some dog meat restaurants. But we had no idea of the scale. The restaurants would tell us about their suppliers. The suppliers told us about the slaughterhouses, and they told us about the holding pens. There were nationwide networks in Cambodia and Vietnam. Some of the trucks transporting animals to slaughter had up to 1,000 dogs. Five million dogs a year in Vietnam go missing. We were floored,” she shares.
As the team started working out the sources and what to do next, they received another call…
“Last June, we got a call from the Siem Reap Provincial Department of Agriculture. A year before, they had passed a ban on the dog meat trade after we presented our investigation findings to them,” Dr. Polak continues. “They were shocked and hadn’t realized the extent of the trade. On this Sunday morning, the local police intercepted a truck with 61 dogs going to a slaughterhouse. They called us for help, and we had to find a property and quickly create a temporary shelter for the dogs.”
As they uncovered this vast network, it became clear that the underlying problem was an economic one. Only a tiny percentage of people in Southeast Asia support this trade, and of the people involved, very few wanted to participate. There’s a stigma associated with the dog and cat meat trade, and it’s not socially acceptable across the region.
“When we asked people if they wanted to do this, almost everyone would choose another opportunity. Yet, it’s a profitable business. These are rural communities. These people aren’t villains. They want to support their families,” she says.
Working with local leaders, FOUR PAWS has been able to help some of these families find other means of income: “Each one is different, but we meet with the family and understand what they’d like to do instead. In one situation, we helped the family transition to operating a second-hand motorcycle shop. Another one we helped them get land to grow vegetables and rice. We also installed a deep water well so they could sell water.
“When we did the official dog slaughterhouse closure and rescued the dogs on-site, the father cried and wished these dogs good luck. It was touching,” Dr. Polak shares.
“At the end of the day, it comes down to being a solid partner and providing support on the ground,” she continues. “Since 2019, we’ve had a lot of wins. We always start with asking, ‘What is the local impact?’ It turns out, all these governmental meetings, political lobbying, and grassroots efforts have worked. That makes us unique. We don’t just talk about the issue. Instead, we have on-the-ground vet teams, and we’re lending support to the governments. We also try to raise public awareness. Now, if you go to Vietnam, you’ll see billboards against the dog and cat meat trade.”
Dr. Polak says the dog and cat meat trade has other ramifications, too: “We also work closely with the tourism industry as the dog and cat meat trade is not good for either international reputation or tourism. In Vietnam, we are working with authorities in Hoi An, which is a famous UNESCO heritage site, to help make it the first dog and cat meat-free city in Vietnam.”
It’s a huge win to close dog meat facilities. Yet, that creates a new problem…
“What do you do with 2,000, 3,000, or 4,000 dogs when you’ve rescued them? The existing shelters are at capacity. We could do more rescue if we knew we could get them to new homes,” she states.
At the time of this writing, the CDC’s dog entry suspension is still in effect, banning the importation of animals from what it deems countries where rabies is a risk.
“There was no warning,” Dr. Polak says. “At the time, I was in L.A. to oversee the arrival of dogs rescued from the dog meat trade in Cambodia. We had 15 dogs and nine cats going to L.A. for adoption. It’s not that easy to import dogs into the U.S. You need permits and people to oversee the transportation. When animals make it through the import process but they’re sick or the paperwork isn’t right, the importer has to be responsible. Before the CDC ban, some rescue groups relied heavily on international adoptions for rehoming (up to 50%) of their dogs. The ban has had a major impact on their work abroad.”
In addition, the ban has led to decreased adoptions and shelter overcrowding, which also impacts the ability to conduct other lifesaving efforts like spay/neuter. One way to reduce the number of stray animals is through free or low-cost sterilization clinics in communities that need it most. But what happens to that community when the veterinarians leave? When you work with local organizations and teach them, they can take ownership.
Before her work at FOUR PAWS, Dr. Polak was the Medical Director of Soi Dog Foundation in Bangkok: “We launched a massive spay/neuter program. At the time, 600,000 dogs were roaming in Bangkok. We trained Thai vet teams on how to run a mobile spay/neuter clinic. Within a few months, we had four to six mobile teams sterilizing up to 5,000 dogs a month,” she shares.
As you can see, Dr. Polak’s work has made a profound impact. She’s received multiple awards, including the 2021 Humanitarian Alumni of the Year from Iowa State University, 2020 American Humane Veterinarian of the Year and 2019 Association of Shelter Veterinarian’s Veterinarian of the Year. She also sits on numerous veterinary and animal welfare boards, and is the author and co-editor of Field Manual for Small Animal Medicine, a textbook to facilitate veterinary practices in rural and underserved communities. +
For more information on FOUR PAWS, visit www.four-paws.org