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When Meghan Kahler and Steven Halstead adopted the Japanese mastiff, he came with the name Daniel.
He is a big, old goofy dog, emphasis on big. He has paws the size of saucers and a head the size of a volleyball. He tips the scale at more than 100 pounds, with a wide body and a back you could use as a coffee table.
Daniel didn’t seem to be a good name, the couple thought. It didn’t seem to capture his personality, or his heritage, so they changed it.
They named him Ham.
It’s not short for Hamilton – as in the play or the founding father. It’s just Ham, “like Christmas ham,” Meghan said.
It made sense. They adopted Ham around Christmas 2020. And just a few months before that, Ham was destined to become ham, having been rescued from a South Korean farm where dogs were bred and raised to be food.
“We think we’re funny,” Steven said. “For a meat market dog, it’s a great name.”
‘Truly pitiful’ conditions
Ham was among 170 dogs liberated from a farm in late October last year, rescued by South Korean members of the Humane Society International’s Animal Rescue Team from the facility in Haemi, a rural town south of the capital, Seoul.
Although dog meat is not a staple in the South Korean diet, it is still part of the nation’s tradition, particularly in rural parts of the country during what’s known as Bok days, the hottest days in late July and early August. Bok days are, quite literally, the dog days of summer. Consuming dog, it is believed, increases energy and brings luck and prosperity.
The majority of South Koreans, though, abhor the practice. Eighty-four percent of South Koreans, according to a poll commissioned by the Humane Society, have never eaten dog meat and have no plans to do so. And a majority of South Koreans – 57 percent, according to the poll – believe that dog meat consumption reflects poorly on the nation, contributing to racist Asian stereotypes.
The South Korean government, responding to increased pressure, both internationally and domestically, has been leaning toward banning dog meat. Authorities, in the past couple of years, have shut down some of the nation’s largest dog meat farms, markets and slaughterhouses.
Among those was the farm in Haemi.
The 170 dogs in the farm lived in terrible conditions, kept in cages, stacked one upon another in a long, seemingly haphazard structure fashioned from PVC pipe, corrugated metal sheets and plastic tarps.
An investigator from the Humane Society described the conditions as “truly pitiful.” Nara Kim, the Humane Society’s dog meat campaign manager, said, “Every dog meat farm I’ve visited has a horrible stench of feces and rotting food, but there was something different about this dog farm; it had a smell of death. When we found these dogs, they had looks of utter despair on their faces that will haunt us forever.”
Nine of the dogs wound up at the York County SPCA. All but one has been adopted, a difficult feat considering that these dogs would need special attention to make the transition from the dinner table to the couch.
‘A chance for a better life and a little love’
Natasha Lewis-Oliver and her husband, Eric Oliver, had fostered shelter dogs while living in Baltimore. But when they moved north to York County eight years ago, they took a break from rescuing dogs to get settled in their new home in the suburbs in Manchester Township.
As dog people know, eight years is a long time to go without canine companionship. And Natasha and Eric thought it would be nice for their youngest son, Aidan, who’s 11, to have a dog.
So they visited the SPCA shelter to look over the dogs. They hadn’t set out to adopt one of the dogs rescued from South Korea. But when they laid eyes on the young Japanese mastiff – it’s believed that she’s between 2 and 3 years old – it was love at first sight.
“She was very shy,” Natasha said. “She just wouldn’t engage with people.”
When they learned about Mochi’s early life, it was a done deal. “If we could give her a home and a chance for a better life and a little love, why wouldn’t we do that?” Natasha said. Noting the scars on her legs, Eric said, “We didn’t know exactly what she went through, but we suspect it was a lot.”
They adopted her Dec. 6.
When Mochi came home, she was skittish. She went into the room that serves as Natasha’s home office and just cowered in the corner. Natasha spoke with the behavioral specialist at the SPCA who recommended getting her a crate. Since she grew up in a crate, it would provide her with a safe place. Now, she has a crate with a soft dog bed and several blankets. They never close the crate door, allowing her to come and go as she pleases.
She is still shy around strangers and, ironically, around Aidan sometimes. Eric tells her, “Aidan’s the reason you’re here. Don’t be afraid of him.”
You can tell Mochi is still kind of anxious. She seems to have a worried expression on her face constantly.
She is coming out of it, little by little. And physically, she’s doing much better. When they adopted her, you could see her ribs, Eric said. And her appetite was poor. “We almost had to force feed her,” he said.
Now, she appears healthy, and her appetite is better, preferring snacks slathered with peanut butter and the occasional pork chop or some chicken. The last time she was at the vet, she weighed 90 pounds.
When they took her to the SPCA to visit recently, the staff said Mochi was completely different, much more comfortable around people and not as skittish.
“She’s had a really tough time so a lot of things frustrate her. We just have to be loving,” Natasha said. “We know it’s going to take a lot longer because of the circumstances she came from.”
They know it’s going to take patience. “We think about what she probably experienced,” Eric said, “and it makes it easy.”
Natasha said, “It makes us happy to make her happy.”
‘It would take a lot of patience’
Shirley Lewis had a black lab mix named Sadie.
She’s retired and lives alone near Wrightsville, and Sadie provided companionship and gave her a purpose. “She does best when she has something to take care of,” her daughter, Jami Smeal, said.
She had acquired Sadie from a neighbor who had to move and couldn’t take his dog with him. Shirley adopted Sadie and the two were constant companions. Then, Sadie was diagnosed with heart failure and, at 9 years old, crossed the rainbow bridge, as they say.
Shirley had a cat, Penny, but she didn’t fill the void left by Sadie’s death. “Cats are jerks,” her daughter explained.
Jami told her mother that they would go the SPCA to look for a dog to adopt. That’s when they met Angel, an English lab rescued from the South Korean meat farm. “We went up there to meet her and just fell in love,” Jami said.
Shirley was a bit apprehensive, at first. “We were a little concerned how she would adapt and how we would adapt,” she said. “We knew it would take a lot of patience and a lot of love.”
Angel was a bit shy. Loud noises would prompt her to hunker down, making Shirley wonder about how she was treated on the farm. She was afraid of the water – Shirley lives near the Susquehanna and walks Angel by the river.
She has improved. Angel now loves the water, jumping into the river with abandon, “like a bull in a China shop,” Jami said. And loud noises don’t seem to bother her anymore. She slept through the fireworks on the Fourth of July, snoring. (“She’s a snorer,” Shirley said. “She sounds like a pig.”)
“We had to reassure her that if there was a loud noise or a quick motion, she wasn’t going to get hit,” Shirley said.
Jami said, “We just had to reassure her that we aren’t where she came from.”
And she took a lot of attention. “When she lays down,” Shirley said, “I rub her tummy and sing to her.”
She is Shirley’s constant companion. They do everywhere together.
“She’s my buddy,” Shirley said.
‘Not like any dog I ever had’
Kristen and Shannon Sweeney saw Flenderson’s Christmas photo online and fell in love.
“That’s what got us,” Shannon said. “He looked so gentle. And he looked so sad. He was not like any dog I ever had.”
When they went to the SPCA to meet him, they learned he was already adopted. The Sweeneys were crestfallen. They wanted to have a chance to turn Flenderson’s life around, to give him a chance to be a dog.
About a month later, they learned Flenderson had been returned to the shelter. It turned out that of the nine dogs that came from South Korean, Flenderson and a Samoyed named Baron were the most frightened by their new surroundings. For Baron, his fright led him to run away from his foster home and elude those trying to capture him for a week until he was struck by a car on Interstate 83. For Flenderson, his anxiety caused some behavioral problems. He liked chewing things, and the people who adopted him couldn’t handle it.
Flenderson would have an advantage in their home. They had another rescue dog, a lab-Chesapeake Bay retriever mix named Howdy that they adopted from a kill-shelter in Alabama, who could provide companionship and a role model.
Flenderson took some time to settle into their Dallastown home. “He was scared of everything,” Kristen said. “He’s on the defensive most of the time. But he’s getting better.”
She said, “When we first got him, he didn’t know how to eat or drink. That first day, he was afraid to eat. The second day, we just opened his mouth and shoved food in there.” He was terrified of everything and had a lot of anxiety. When somebody tried to pet him, he would pee or poop.
One of the expressions of his fear and anxiety is chewing. “He was a chewer,” Kristen said. “Sheets, comforters, mattresses, couches, he chewed everything. We’ve lost so many sheets and comforters.”
And he was afraid to go outside, which led to some problems when it came to housebreaking him, they said. “It was a rough start,” Kristen said.
“Overall,” she said, “he’s been a very good dog, except for the destruction.”
‘Suckers for a sad story’
Meghan Kahler and Steven Halstead are “suckers for a sad story,” Meghan said.
They’ve served as a foster family for rescued dogs from the SPCA and were, well, failures at it. The dogs would come into their North York home and they couldn’t bear to send them off to another home. In this instance, their failure as fosters turned out to be a win for the dogs.
They’ve always told the folks at the SPCA, Meghan said, “If you need any help, we’re here.”
And that’s how Ham came into their lives, joining their five other dogs, all rescues. “When our dogs met him,” Meghan said, “he was all about our dogs. It took time for him to get close to us.”
Like Flenderson, Ham is wary of people. And like Ham, he’s a chewer. “He’ll take the pillow you’re sitting on and start chewing it,” Steven said. He once ate an 8-foot-long leash, they said. (He passed it, they said.) He’s taken pictures off the wall and destroyed a neon “EAT” sign in their kitchen.
He’s come a long way since they adopted him last December. But he still has a way to go to learn to be a dog. “He’s super good in the house and listens very well,” Meghan said. “But it seems that he’s always on watch.”
On a recent trip to PetSmart, for instance, he hid behind Meghan and her cart when other people approached.
A reunion at the dog park
On a recent Monday morning, Ham was reacquainted with Flenderson and Angel at Canine Meadows at the John C. Rudy County Park. It was a hot day, one that would wind up in the 90s, truly a dog day, and the dogs and their owners sought refuge in the shade, making sure to bring water bowls for their dogs.
Flenderson and Ham seemed to recognize one another. Since they came from the same farm and are the same breed, their owners speculate that they’re either litter mates or, more likely, Flenderson, who had been a breeding dog at the farm and is older than Ham, is Ham’s father. Angel was a little shy, staying by the side of her owner.
The dogs have begun adjusting to life as pets, not as livestock. Essentially, they had to learn how to be dogs.
Their new owners shared notes, about their dogs’ progress in learning to be dogs. The Sweeneys and Meghan and Steven shared stories about things their dogs have chewed up. Meghan and Steven won that round, noting that Ham has torn up carpet and has tried to eat it and that they’ve been to the emergency vet clinic three times with him. Angel has done her share. Jami said, “I lose a pair of flip-flops a week.”
The owners chatted as the dogs lazed in the heat.
“I wish they could talk,” Jami said wistfully, “so we could know what they went through. The good thing is we know they’ll never have to go through that again.”