One of the best bits of news to begin 2024 was that South Korea’s parliament had voted to ban the production and sale of dog meat. The country’s national assembly voted overwhelmingly to ban the breeding, butchery, distribution and sale of dogs for their meat, in a decision hailed as a major victory by animal welfare organisations. The centuries-old tradition of eating dog meat, often served in a stew, was absurdly believed to reduce the effects of fatigue and heat exhaustion in the hot summer months. An estimated 1,150 dog breeding farms and 1,600 restaurants that serve dog meat, will now be forced to close and offered compensation by the South Korean government. The cruel and inhumane butchery of the dogs by hanging and electrocution has long provoked outrage internationally from animal lovers. Sadly, there are still 17 countries that eat dogs, including China, Vietnam and North Korea. It can only be hoped that they will follow South Korea’s example.

As a Member of the European Parliament, I spent nine years campaigning to ban the import, export and trade in cat and dog fur within the EU. A law was introduced on 1st January 2009 criminalising the trade in all 27 EU Member States, saving the lives of an estimated two million cats and dogs annually in China. The law persists in the UK after Brexit. I was alerted to the cruel trade by Humane Society International, one of the world’s largest animal protection organisations. They sent me a video which depicted in graphic detail the horrific slaughter of these animals, with cats strangled outside their cages as other cats looked on and dogs noosed with metal wires and then slashed across the groin until they bled to death as the wire noose cut into their throats. The cats and dogs were being skinned, often while still alive, for their fur.

Working with Humane Society International we gathered a range of items from shops and stores throughout Europe, all DNA tested to prove their origin, including a full-length fur coat purchased in Berlin made from the skins of 40 Alsatian puppies and a rug purchased in Copenhagen made from the skins of 6 Golden Retrievers. We found many souvenir shops in the EU selling cute little furry cats and dogs in wicker baskets. Unsuspecting cat and dog lovers were buying these items as toys for their children, without realising that real cats and dogs had been killed for their fur to make them. We also found cat and dog fur from China being used to trim parka hoods, and for ski boot and glove linings, as well as furry trims on women’s coats, sweaters, gloves and hats. Labels on these items seldom disclosed the origin of the fur. If the objects were labelled at all, they often carried confusing names such as Sobaki, Gae Wolf or Asian Jackal and other fictitious titles, aimed at baffling customers and disguising the true origin of the fur. Certainly, the labels never revealed the horrific truth that these things had been made from the skins of real cats and dogs.

My campaign quickly attracted celebrity support from Heather Mills-McCartney and her husband at that time Paul McCartney. Heather launched an on-line petition which soon gathered 250,000 signatures demanding an EU ban. This was one of hundreds of petitions cumulatively gathering more than one million signatures across Europe. Paul phoned the President of the European Commission pleading with him to introduce a ban. The McCartney’s were joined by Rick Wakeman, the keyboardist and musician formerly with the pop group Yes. Rick and Heather both came to Brussels to address press conferences in the European Parliament. Dennis Erdman (Director of ‘Sex in the City’) also travelled from California to Brussels to join the campaign. He persuaded several major Holywood celebrities, including Kim Cattrall and Jennifer Aniston, to write to the European Commissioner for Consumer Affairs, supporting a ban.

Despite mounting public support, the European Commission were still dragging their heels on the issue.  They feared that an EU ban would be challenged by the World Trade Organization (WTO), despite the fact that a ban on cat & dog fur from China had already been introduced in America and no case had been brought by the WTO. As the campaign gained momentum following the US ban, 5 EU countries unilaterally banned the trade – Italy, Denmark, France, Belgium, & Greece. However, the Schengen Accord meant that countries where a unilateral ban had been introduced could not stop the movement of cat & dog fur across their borders. It was clear that only an EU-wide ban would be effective in sealing the external borders of Europe to the trade. But still the European Commission were reluctant to move.

I decided to confront the Chinese in person and travelled to Beijing where I met with Zhao Xuemin, Deputy Chairman of the State Forestry Administration, which controlled animal welfare in China. We were joined by five of the State Forestry Administration’s senior officials, including the Secretary General of the China Wildlife Conservation Association – Chen Runsheng. Far from threatening to challenge the EU in the WTO, these senior government officials agreed that they would welcome an EU ban and told me they regarded the trade as “barbaric”. Armed with this news I returned to Brussels and tabled a bill for an EU-wide ban before a full plenary session of the European Parliament in Strasbourg. The bill received the unprecedented unanimous backing of the parliament at First Reading and the European Commissioner for Consumer Affairs instructed his officials to draw up a draft Regulation proposing an EU-wide ban, finally bringing the nine-year campaign to a successful conclusion.

While the ban effectively saved over two million cats and dogs from a gruesome death, simply to supply a demand for their fur in Europe, there is evidence that the trade continues without interruption in China, where there is growing demand for cat and dog fur domestically and in countries like Russia. Hopefully the ground-breaking vote in South Korea to ban the butchering of dogs for their meat, may serve as a wake-up-call for animal lovers in China, who may see the sense in stopping the brutal suffering and death of companion animals for their meat or for their fur.