“My dog is trilingual!” is my favorite joke to make when people meet my new rescue pup, Cannoli. Technically, he only speaks “dog” fluently, but as a Korean-born dog that literally flew to America to be with me, I assume he understands a little bit of both of those human languages, too.
I always knew I would get a dog of my own eventually and walked a ton of them in 2019 for extra cash and snuggles. I even fostered an adorable senior Shih Tzu from the ASPCA in New York City where I live. But I never thought I would have a dog that spoke more languages than I did, or that they would originate from a country I’ve never stepped foot in.
Yet on August 25, 2020, a friend and I drove to John F. Kennedy airport to pick up a Terrier-mix mutt that would soon be mine–all the way from Seoul, South Korea.
For weeks I tried to find a dog in the tri-state area that matched my criteria, to no avail. I followed almost every local animal rescue I could find on social media and relentlessly swiped through the PetFinder app. Rejection email after rejection email came despite having a solid application, plenty of references, and experience with dogs.
It made sense. While I wasn’t picky about the animal’s age or breed, I’m very allergic to short-haired dogs which eliminated many rescue options. I also live in a studio apartment which disqualified me from bigger pups. And, yes, the pandemic played a role.
While the pandemic has been a blessing for shelters looking to place homeless animals as everyone decided this was the perfect time to get a dog, anecdotally, it meant the process has become much more competitive for potential adopters. A friend of mine and her husband had applied for seven dogs before securing a puppy driven up from the south, and she happened to know someone who worked with the rescue.
Then, in typical millennial fashion, I stumbled upon an international dog rescue page on Instagram just as I began to lose hope. I saw former Bachelorette alum Kaitlyn Bristowe share a photo of her new rescue pups that she adopted from Korea, and she had tagged the rescue she adopted from in her photo.
I was intrigued. How was it possible to get two pure-bred Golden Retrievers so easily? In America, there are certain “desirable” breeds that don’t stay in shelters very long and Goldens and other longer-haired dogs are among them.
Enter the rescues, Bunny’s Buddies and Domo’s Friends. The two rescues work in tandem, Bunny’s based in California and Domo’s Friends in Asia.
They save as many dogs as they can from the meat trade and kill shelters in Korea and China, and find them homes in the United States, already spayed and/or neutered and given the proper shots. Since buying a dog from a breeder was out of the question for me, I figured I had nothing to lose. So I applied.
A few weeks later, Domo’s sent me a photo of a small dog with big brown eyes, shaggy hair and a white patch of fur on his left paw and chest. Then came a video of him pulling a white poodle across the doggie playroom floor in a game of tug-of-war. They called him Ben.
He was two years old and rescued from what I was told was one of the few no-kill shelters in the country. Someone found him roaming around the countryside outside of the city. That’s all they knew. A rescuer chose to pull him from the pound for a grooming, until she fell in love and fostered him. I had never met him, but I liked what I heard so far. I sent his picture to a friend.
“That’s your dog!” she responded.
“I try to mainly focus on last-day dogs, the dogs that no one wanted to adopt who are about to be euthanized”
International dog adoption has been happening for years, but has especially grown in popularity since knowledge about the Korean dog meat trade, in which about 2 million dogs are killed and eaten in Korea, made its way to the States.
In 2018, the Olympic Games in Seoul put a spotlight on the issue with American Olympic skier Gus Kenworthy rescuing 90 dogs from the country on his own—in addition to the street dogs he also adopted while competing during the games in Sochi, Russia years prior.
While the number of dogs killed for meat is going down, the rate of abandoned and subsequently euthanized dogs abroad is still high. About 250 dogs are abandoned each day in Korea and the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 200 million stray dogs worldwide.
In addition to saving dogs from the meat trade, the high-kill shelter industry is where many international rescues, both in Asia and in the United States, put their focus. Though dog homelessness is also a big crisis in the States, which also leads to many euthanizations, the rate of U.S. euthanizations has been on the decline since 2011.
Still, one of the biggest questions people tend to have for Americans who help bring homeless dogs over from elsewhere when there are so many here tends to be: Why?
Emily Doran of Domo’s Friends (named after her first dog Domo) helped facilitate Cannoli’s adoption, and is an American teaching in Vietnam and previously in Korea. She has been helping national and international dog rescues happen since she saved her first dogs in July 2016.
The puppy she originally had gone to adopt had already been euthanized by the time she arrived, so she adopted two others that day. Three years later, she has saved and helped find homes for over 300 others and counting.
“I try to mainly focus on last-day dogs, the dogs that no one wanted to adopt who are about to be euthanized,” she said. “I wanted to show Americans and everyone that shelter dogs in Korea also needed help and that you could basically get almost any breed of dog.”
In fact, one day she decided to check a Korean adoption website for types of dogs to prove just how easy it is to find the kinds of dogs that are considered “designer” or a breeder speciality in America.
“When I did the numbers, it was 50/50 purebred vs. mixed breeds. The number one pure breed was a Maltese followed by a poodle and then a Yorkie, Shih Tzu and then Pomeranian,” she explained.
For reference, I checked on Petfinder while writing this article and found 27 Malteses, many seniors, in the New York area. At the Korean rescue, Doran stopped counting at 164.
She works with a woman in Korea named Nani to go find the dogs in shelters to place in homes through her rescue or for Bunny’s Buddies, a rescue that adopts out lots of dogs, but Golden Retrievers, especially, as bigger dogs are also stigmatized in the country.
Dog rescuers around the world face similar issues that Americans do, especially dog abandonment. But while Americans stigmatize based on breeds like pit bulls, people overseas tend to discriminate based on size and any sort of mixes.
“The number one reason is space,” Doran explained. “They mainly live in apartments so that isn’t always the best home for, say, a Golden or Border Collie. ‘[People ask] why do you have so many purebred dogs?’ In all honesty, that’s what’s available.”
In fact, there’s a whole network of dog parents who have opted to adopt internationally although no exact number of adopted dogs from overseas is known. Some went through rescues that are based in the U.S. while others sought out international rescues, specifically.
They all have one thing in common: Like me, they wanted to save a life through adoption and the international process seemed accessible.
Jessica Lai found her dogs Puff and Momo, a Shih Tzu and a Pomeranian respectively, through Domo's who worked with Korean rescues that were either overseas or based in the United States. Lai needed a smaller dog for her home in the New York area and also one that would get along with her bunny. But she had run into trouble while searching locally in 2016.
“It was actually pretty difficult to adopt a Shih Tzu,” she said. “A lot of these rescues saw we had no prior dog experience.”
Now, she does, and has referred friends and loved ones to adopt internationally based on her experience. Once approved, the rescue will use the adoption fees to book a flight for the animal, either with a person or “flight volunteer” in the cabin, or in cargo, if no volunteer can fly along. Adopters pick up at major U.S. airports like JFK, LAX and SEA as those most-often have direct flights from the countries in question. For Lai, Puff flew in from Ohio, but Momo flew into JFK.
Going through international shelters based in America is also another route people can take.
D.C. native Hannah Hindel and her fiancé adopted her mutt Kimchi through a rescue in Alexandria, VA, called Hope for Donghae Paws. He was found wandering the streets of the countryside and is absolutely adorable. But he was on the list to be euthanized.
“We were not opposed to adopting locally, but we just wanted the right dog for us and it turns out he was in Korea,” she said.
I myself was shocked to learn that my sweet, loving dog had sat in the pound for five months unwanted.
Out of respect for American rescues, Doran says she only ships dogs that aren’t as prevalent in the shelters here, like Labradors. She also takes feedback from the Korean rescuers she works with and follows their lead. But at the end of the day, it shouldn’t matter where the dog comes from, she says: “Both places have cruelty. If you adopt locally, good job, if you adopt internationally, good job. No matter what, the dog has a better life.”
“After three days, and a stressful vet check-up, we became best friends”
Two weeks after submitting an application to Domo’s Friends and 24 hours after verbally committing to adopting Ben, I paid for his adoption and flight fees and a few days later he had his flight booked for the following week on Asiana Airlines. I decided to name him Cannoli, because I love sweets and his long brown body and white belly reminded me of the Italian treat.
In total, I paid $925 for my rescue dog who came potty-trained, microchipped, neutered and vaccinated, a few hundred more than a local rescue but way less than what one would pay for a dog sold by a breeder without the health amenities.
On the day of his flight, Cannoli’s foster mother was kind enough to send me videos of him in his cargo crate pre-takeoff and my new pup parent instincts kicked in. I watched YouTube video after YouTube video of other people picking up their animals from airports (Did you know that JFK has a terminal just for animals? I didn’t!) and prepped my apartment for his arrival like any other dog mom to-be.
When he finally arrived, he was apprehensive, quiet and ridiculously jet-lagged. But after three days, lots of naps and a stressful vet check-up, we became best friends. His favorite food is cheese (which I give him sparingly) and he will throw himself on his back when he wants belly rubs, which is often.
I honestly don’t know if he “speaks” English despite my jokes, but luckily for me, the only language between us that matters is love, and he definitely understands that.