SEOUL, Oct. 30 (Korea Bizwire) – In a matter of days, dogs have seen a complete turnaround in fortunes caused by the Choi Si-won pet dog scandal, in which the K-pop idol-cum actor’s French bulldog bit a restaurateur, leading to her death, though the exact cause is still under debate.
Once perhaps better known for eating dogs than adopting them, there are now over 1 million dogs kept as pets in this country of 50 million according to published figures. The rapid expansion of the pet dog population is visible on any one of Seoul’s many walkways and trails, where every other pedestrian seems to be walking a different breed. Where once people were at worst indifferent and at best pleased to see an adorable dog ambling by, leashed or unleashed, the biting incident has created a palpably different atmosphere, for both dogs and owners alike.
One of the key points that angered the public about Choi’s dog was the fact that it was not leashed when it assaulted its victim. As has been previously reported, leashing dogs when out in public is required by law, and violations can be punished by fines of up to 500,000 won.
The public consternation has apparently spooked a fair number to purchase leashes as E-commerce company Gmarket announced on October 24 that sales had risen significantly in the wake of the scandal. Reported by SisaJournal-E, sales of leashes and retractable leashes on October 21 and 22 were both 37 percent higher than the week before. Furthermore, sales of muzzles, an additional safety precaution required for breeds classified as potentially dangerous, went through the roof at Gmarket’s competitor Wemakeprice from October 20 through 22, recording a 115 percent increase over sales the week before.
Visits to veterinary clinics by owners seeking rabies inoculations for their pets are also noticeably on the rise. One veterinarian running her own clinic in Seoul remarked that there was an uptick in the number of concerned owners, an unusual occurrence for a procedure administered to as few as two dogs per day. The vet mentioned that she had even received phone calls from pet owners of dogs yet to be inoculated, asking about availability, and that the revelation that the victim of Choi’s French bulldog had died of blood poisoning may have encouraged formerly reluctant owners to get their pet inoculated.
The widespread fear of dogs that has permeated society has now been labeled “dog phobia” by various news establishments. The manifestations of such fear are diverse; from crossing to the other side of the road when a dog is seen approaching to refusing to patronize businesses that allow dogs on the premises. A reporter for Seoul Shinmun interviewed a shopper with a pet dog on October 24 at shopping complex Starfield Hanam, who observed that “there are drastically fewer pet dogs and their owners than normal” and “it most likely is because of the dog bite scandal”.
In this increasingly unfriendly world for man’s best friend, the government is piling on, announcing plans to institute a cash reward system for those reporting dog owners whose pets are not sufficiently constrained when in public. Though this has brought forth its own problem, namely the feasibility of the initiative, it has also given rise to another term, “gaeparazzi”, a portmanteau consisting of the Korean word for dog, pronounced “gaeh”, and “paparazzi”. The bizarre mix of celebrity-chasing photographers and the government encouraging citizens to report dogs without leashes for civic rewards may be a perfect demonstration of the uncharted waters South Korean society finds itself in.
Though dog owners are keeping their heads down throughout the aftermath of the scandal, getting inoculations and buying leashes where necessary, discontented murmurs can be heard when blocking out the general panic. One pedestrian walking a poodle near Yangjae Citizens’ Park on a Sunday afternoon expressed displeasure at the public’s attitude, saying, “Because of just this one incident, I feel as though people are now treating all dog owners as potential ill-doers.” Another dog owner nearby shared in the frustration, mentioning that some strangers go as far as to confront owners and berate them, angrily saying things along the lines of, “Don’t you even read the news? Don’t you know a dog killed a person?” The owner added that walking a dog has become more challenging, as by-passers shoot fearful looks, and the overall atmosphere is not as congenial as in the past.
With stricter regulations for pet dogs on the horizon, it is a foregone conclusion that changes are coming. As citizens lament the lack of “petiquette” among a few, dog owners as a whole may have no choice but to adapt to a more rigid, heavily-enforced set of guidelines. The relationship between dogs and South Koreans has never been straightforward, and only time will tell whether their relationship with man’s best friend can fully overcome its current troubles.