In South Korea, where dogs are considered a traditional delicacy, Jung Myoung Souk’s hillside shelter which houses more than 200 of the animals is regarded as something of an oddity.
But the 61-year-old champion of animal rights, who has been rescuing and caring for dogs for 26 years, has no plans to stop her work any time soon.
Since she started picking up stray dogs roaming the streets, Jung has been forced to move seven times because of neighbours’ complaints about the noise.
Now she has more than 200 dogs and continues to look out for strays and those in danger of being sold to dog meat farms or restaurants. Some people question whether someone as poor as Jung, who ekes out a living cleaning a store and collecting recyclable boxes, can feed and care for so many dogs. While Jung’s dogs looked healthy and well-fed during a recent visit, their condition could not be independently confirmed.
Authorities in the central city of Asan know about Jung’s current shelter, which she opened in 2014, but have no legal responsibility to inspect it, according to an official.
Pets are growing in popularity in South Korea, where one in five households has a cat or dog, but activists say public attitudes toward pets lag behind those in the West.
Supporters of Jung see her as a heroine, saving stray or lost dogs from being killed for food or euthanised at public shelters if not adopted or found by their owners. About 81,000 stray or abandoned animals, mostly dogs and cats, were sent to public shelters in 2014, down from 100,000 in 2010, the government said.
“My babies aren’t hungry. They can play and live freely here,” said Jung.
“Some people talk about me, saying, ‘Why is that beggar-like middle-aged woman smiling all the time,’ but I just focus on feeding my babies. I’m happy and healthy.”
Dozens of other South Koreans are believed to be raising large numbers of dogs, sometimes in unsanitary conditions where diseases spread easily. Jung says her dogs are mostly healthy, although some die in fights with each other.
Most of the dogs live with her for good. She said she spends about $1,600 a month on food and medicine, and otherwise relies on donations of soybean milk, pork, dog food and canned meat.
Family, friends and sometimes strangers send her sums of money.
Park Hye-soon, a local restaurant owner, has given Jung leftover pork for four years. “She lives only for her dogs,” he said, “without doing much for herself.”