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S. Korean livestock culling takes emotional toll on farmers

In a bid to quickly curb the spread of hoof-and-mouth disease, the government has had pigs and other livestock, sometimes still alive, buried in mass graves. For some farmers, it's like losing their children.

February 01, 2011|By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times
  • A loney watchdog protects an empty stable in a farming region outside Seoul that has been hit by foot-and-mouth disease. The government has reponded to the outbreak by buryng many animals alive, enraging activists and farmers.
A loney watchdog protects an empty stable in a farming region outside Seoul… (Matt Douma, For The Times )

Reporting from Changmanri, South Korea — In this farming town an hour outside Seoul, the stalls sit eerily empty of animals, helter-skelter hoof marks in the mud the only reminder of once-thriving operations.

The animals are all dead, swept away by a fast-moving outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease that has seen the government come up with a grisly solution to save money and time: burying many pigs and other livestock alive.

"Having to bury little baby pigs alive is … there's no way to describe how I suffered inside," sobbed the wife of one farmer who said she was so ashamed she declined to give her name. "It still breaks my heart to think or talk about what happened here."

In tiny Changmanri, the mass culling has emptied six of the town's seven farms. From her home chapel with the white bell tower, Presbyterian minister Lee Kyung-hee has counseled distraught farm wives who compared burying the piglets alive to killing their own children.

"We've lived here for 40 years," she said. "We know these farmers. So you can't go around saying it's their problem. It's everyone's problem."

So far, more than 3 million pigs and cows — 20% of the nation's livestock — have been dumped into industrial-sized mass graves, which are quickly plowed over by bulldozers.

Though government officials here emphasize that only a quick response will beat the lethal airborne virus, the method of disposal has sparked international outrage.

Officials say many cows and farm-raised deer have been injected first with succinylcholine, a neuromuscular blocking drug used to euthanize livestock. But animal rights advocates say the small doses administered merely paralyze the animals rather than rendering them unconscious.

Government officials deny any cruelty but admit a shortage of drugs has led to some live burials.

The grim deaths have taken an emotional toll on this nation, where Buddhist monks have held prayer sessions for the slaughtered animals. Many workers involved in the culling have been treated for post-traumatic stress. Tourism to affected areas has plummeted, as happened after a similar outbreak in 2001 in England's Lake District, where officials slaughtered hundreds of thousands of animals in a controversial effort to stop the disease.

In recent weeks, thousands of people worldwide have signed an online petition that claims South Korea's culling violates an international agreement the country signed guaranteeing the humane treatment of animals.

"Stop Burying Pigs Alive," implores one Internet petition, which has a photo of a truck dumping hogs into a tarp-lined hole. Another shows earthmoving equipment pushing dirt into a pit containing scores of pigs.

"The cruel slaughter and live burial of pigs continues in clear violation of the World Organization for Animal Health Guidelines, which South Korea endorsed five years ago," the petition claims.

Lee Byoung-guan of the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service said 127 foot-and-mouth cases have been confirmed on 7,500 farms. If one animal becomes sick, all others within 500 yards are culled, ill or not.

"We had a problem with shortage of succinylcholine, but now that has been solved," Lee said. He defended the drug, saying it blocks the muscles for breathing, causing death.

Activists say the government has put monetary concerns over animal welfare. With their thick subcutaneous fat, pigs require more of the drug, so workers opt for cheaper methods.

"For 10 years we have asked the government to come up with a humane policy for animal killing," said Cho Heui-kyeong, director of the Korean Society for Animal Freedom. "But whenever animal disease breaks out, these mass burials of live animals are readily employed."

Seoul officials shift responsibility to local municipalities that lack the funds to handle the burials humanely.

"They're not at all interested in humane treatment of the animals — they don't put any value into it," Cho said of the officials. "They should stop saying 'There's no choice' or 'We couldn't help it' without putting in any effort."

Since the foot-and-mouth outbreak began Nov. 29, the disease has ravaged livestock operations that took half a century to develop.

"I used to call farmers who lost their stocks to console them, but these days I can't," said Shin Chang-seon, president of a beef association 45 miles outside Seoul. "They're personal friends, and it's hard to listen to them crying over the phone, knowing what they worked on all their life is gone."

On the outskirts on Changmanri, Lee Kyung-bok raises deer for market, so he's accustomed to seeing death come to his herd. Still, he said he never dreamed of enduring something like this.

His eyes moist, he spoke haltingly of the recent day government officials arrived at his tiny homestead. Workers in white suits injected all 27 animals, grimly carrying them off one by one, dumping them into a huge hole nearby.

Lee doesn't know whether the deer were dead or alive when the pit was filled in by bulldozers. He couldn't bring himself to look. "I don't want to think about it," said the solemn 75-year-old, gazing down at the empty feed troughs. "I can't. It hurts too much."

He says he's too weary to begin again.

"I'm thinking about quitting," he said. "It's all been just too terrible."

john.glionna@latimes.com

Jung-yoon Choi of The Times' Seoul Bureau contributed to this report.

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