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Marine fights Vietnam's dog-meat tradition

Robert Lucius is on what may be his toughest mission: trying to convince the Vietnamese that cruelty to dogs is an idea whose time has passed

December 13, 2010|By Steve Chawkins, Los Angeles Times
  • Robert Lucius has started a nonprofit aimed at persuading Vietnamese people to stop eating dog meat.
Robert Lucius has started a nonprofit aimed at persuading Vietnamese people…

More than three decades after the war in Vietnam, a Marine named Robert Lucius had a moment of reckoning on the road to Lai Chau.

A naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, he was bound for a rural clinic with a donation of medical equipment.

When his car was passed by a motorbike with a wicker basket full of dogs, he locked eyes with one of them. "There was an immediate sense of connection," he said. "You could see the fear, the dread, the helplessness."

A vision raced through his mind: Liberate the dogs. Have his driver overtake the bike and dig into his wallet — anything to keep them from being served up in restaurants down the road.

Lucius, now 42, did nothing. He didn't, he said, want to be seen as a "cultural imperialist" bent on changing a local custom merely because it offended him. But later that day, after a celebratory meal with Vietnamese colleagues, he saw a dog skinned and splayed out on a restaurant kitchen floor.

"That dog was every dog," he said. "Like a light switch, my life flipped … from darkness to light."

Lucius renounced meat. Then he became a vegan. Now, two years after his return from Vietnam, he has started the Kairos Coalition, a nonprofit aimed at ending animal cruelty and making amends for what he sees as his cowardice on the road to Lai Chau that day in 2006.

Kairos is a Greek term loosely translated as "timely opportunity." For Lucius, who today is a lieutenant colonel and assistant provost at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, Calif., that means training young people in Vietnam to stage performances about the immorality of animal cruelty. He calls it "humane edutainment."

Like the wandering "culture and drama teams" that Ho Chi Minh employed to rally support decades ago, the Kairos troupe is being trained to use puppets and masks, songs and dance. The members have put on a couple of events and have more scheduled at schools and universities throughout Hanoi.

The idea is to draw audience members into the action, getting them to think about everyday cruelty.

At a workshop in Hanoi last month, Lucius and two American volunteers gave their players a situation that called for quick ethical thinking: A couple comes upon a suffering watchdog, chained outside a shop with no food or water. After discussing a number of alternatives, the actors decided to pressure the shop owner indirectly — by appealing to his neighbors.

One of the subjects that Lucius and his students discussed was the eating of dog meat. It was a touchy area, he said, particularly because of the torture and beatings suffered by many dogs bound for the table. In Vietnam and elsewhere in Asia, some believe that dog meat enhances the male libido — especially if the dogs are stressed before being killed.

"What we did agree on is that it's unnecessary to treat the animals so cruelly in the run-up to the slaughter," said Lucius, who has received a grant from Humane Society International.

Andrea Nguyen, an expert on Vietnamese cooking, said Lucius' group is fighting an uphill battle in taking on the dog-meat tradition.

"I certainly respect his effort to change people's minds, and Vietnam is indeed changing," said Nguyen, a Santa Cruz cookbook author whose family fled to the United States in 1975.

"On the other hand, there's this whole thing of how wonderful the meat is supposed to taste. Then there's the virility thing, and the fact that it's a longstanding source of protein. He's up against all that."

Dog is not part of everyday cuisine in Vietnam, Nguyen said: "It's nhau — noshing food. It's for when you and your buddies get together on the weekend over some beer, some rice wine, some moonshine."

In Vietnam, as elsewhere, people have consumed dogs and cats in times of privation. But many Vietnamese also have dogs as beloved pets.

"One of my biggest traumas was to leave my dogs behind when I was 11," said Andrew Lam, a Vietnamese American writer based in San Francisco. "We couldn't take them when we fled as refugees."

Lam, whose latest essay collection is "East Eats West," said Lucius' campaign "could be interpreted as a very condescending Western attitude."

"I doubt this one man will be able to change the mindset whatsoever," he said. "I see it as a quixotic effort."

Lucius is an optimist.

"We have a huge animal rights movement here jousting against factory farming, but they're making headway," he said, referring to the U.S. "Some people would say that's quixotic too."

In Asia, he said, local organizations are shifting public opinion against inhumane practices such as extracting bile — a traditional medicine — from the gallbladders of living bears.

As Vietnam prospers and more people have pets, attitudes toward eating dog have changed — but not, Lucius said, fast enough.

He has been a Marine for 22 years, trained to shoot down enemy aircraft and missiles. Then he was selected as a foreign affairs officer for Indonesia and then Vietnam.

In 2008, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals named him "the sexiest vegetarian" in the Marine Corps. He chuckles over the honor, but he's dead serious about the cause: When he retires next year, he may devote himself completely to animal rights.

"My time in the Marines has made me more sensitive," he said. "I've seen how cultures and traditions change over time."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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