By Elysabeth Hahm
SEOUL, March 4 (Yonhap) -- As its pet culture grows, South Korea is grappling with one big headache arising from it: abandoned animals. One group of local and foreign individuals is quietly working to help resolve the problem by finding homes for them.
The group, called Animal Rescue Korea (ARK), refers to itself as a grassroots endeavor. It is not an official organization or charity, nor does it own any animal shelters. Simply, it's a community-built Web site (AnimalRescueKorea.org) maintained by a network of animal lovers who use their spare time to help homeless animals in Korea.
It does so in a variety of ways, including adopting, fostering, fundraising, volunteering at local shelters and sharing ideas with others in the Web site's forums. A quick visit to the Web site will reveal a long listing of adoptable dogs, cats, rabbits, hamsters and guinea pigs.
"These dogs are so beautiful and healthy, but a lot of people are prejudiced against mix breed dogs because they're not designer pure-breeds," says 29-year-old Kia Veselsky, who moved from Pennsylvania to Korea in 2006.
Veselsky began volunteering for ARK a little over a year ago and now shares the responsibility of maintaining ARK's forums, organizing ARK fundraisers and visiting animal shelters on the weekends with other long-term volunteers.
"I really appreciate what ARK is trying to do and they helped me adopt two dogs and a cat," says Veselsky.
Although pet ownership in Korea is relatively new, it is on the rise, with one in every five households now raising a pet. With that, however, the number of abandoned pets is also steadily growing. According to the National Veterinary Research and Quarantine Service, there were 68,898 lost animals captured in 2006. Just two years later, the number jumped to 77,877.
"When people aren't prepared to raise an animal, they simply abandon it on the street, giving it a very small chance to survive," says Veselsky.
ARK began in 2006 as a blog, titled "Lonely Lifetime," by Karen Busch, who wanted to share stories and photos of two particular dogs she wished to help. Soon, though, her research on animal welfare in South Korea led to a growing links section on her blog.
It didn't take long for Lonely Lifetime to become a hub for informational resources as well as a meeting point for like-minded people, many of them expatriates.
"After hearing from dozens of animal lovers and rescuers in Korea, forums were added," Busch writes in the "About" section of the Web site.
In January 2008, the site was moved to AnimalRescueKorea.org.
"There is no particular person in charge of ARK," says Veselsky. "It's really a group of people who share all the responsibilities."
Part of the reason is because Busch moved back to her hometown in Canada in 2007. In turn, ARK has evolved into a team effort comprising a large network of rescuers, animal shelters, veterinarians and animal lovers.
Since its start, ARK has seen over 900 volunteers. Although many of them have left Korea since then, new volunteers sign up via the Web site regularly. Of those, there are about 10 long-term volunteers, who are heavily involved in ARK's daily responsibilities.
"Everyone does a little bit of everything," says 33-year-old Vancouver native Kathy Hall. "I help with adoption and fostering, coordinating, shelter trips, fundraising and I've adopted and fostered quite a few animals myself."
Hall began volunteering for ARK just over two years ago. Since then, her responsibilities have grown tremendously and she spends no less than a couple of hours a night e-mailing, making calls, reading applications and communicating with potential adopters.
"I'm actually trying to do a little less now," Hall says. "I've picked up a second job, so I've had to let go of some of my responsibilities."
"It's still busy though," she adds.
With hundreds of subscribers and animals adopted, Hall and other volunteers are finding themselves increasingly busy with ARK because of its growing success in recent years.
Although most of the success is due to the volunteers' dedication and passion for animals, a part of it also has to do with Korea's growing awareness for animal welfare.
In 2007, the government responded with revisions to the Animal Protection Law, including stricter provisions over animal abandonment and harsher penalties for animal abuse or cruelty.
Aimed at promoting responsible pet ownership, the new laws require owners in certain districts to register their pets with the local government. It is also mandatory for pets to wear identification tags. Fines of up to 500,000 won (US$444) can be given to violators.
"Animal welfare isn't as big in Korea as it is in Western cultures, but it's spreading. There are a number of really great advocacy groups out there like KARA (Korea Animal Rights Advocates) that are gaining popularity," Veselsky says.
In addition to helping abandoned animals find homes, ARK tries to prevent future abandonment by requiring an extensive and arduous adoption application process.
Those interested in adopting any of the animals listed on the ARK Web site must fill out a four-page application with questions like, "Are you familiar with the particular needs of the breed/species you are interested in?" and "How will you train/condition your pet?"
"We know the application is long but we don't want the animals going to just anybody. It's important we find the right fit for them," Veselsky says.
Submitted applications then go to Veselsky, Hall or one of the other long-term volunteers to review.
"We've all been doing it for so long that we trust each other's decisions," Hall says. "We can all pick up the red flags immediately."
One of the more common red flags that they encounter is the refusal to pay the required 50,000 won ($45) adoption fee.
"We just feel that if someone isn't willing to pay 50,000 won for an animal, they're definitely not going to pay the 1 million won medical bill or the expenses related to caring for an animal," Veselsky says.
In many cases, volunteers who do not have the means to adopt will foster homeless animals until they can find permanent homes. Then, when someone expresses interest in adopting, the foster parent assumes the role of primary coordinator for that adoption, including reviewing the application, communicating and coordinating shelter visits with the potential adopter.
"Volunteers who foster are making a verbal agreement to care for that animal from the moment the animal enters the home to the moment it moves to its permanent home," Veselsky says.
Simon and Martina Stawski, the founders of the expat blog EatYourKimchi.com, adopted their dog, Spudgy, through ARK and are convinced that they could not have done it any other way.
After they sent an initial email to ARK expressing their interest, a volunteer responded, took them to the Asan Animal Shelter, acted as a translator and went to the vet with them afterwards.
"Basically, he did it all. Without ARK, we'd have no idea how to get to the shelter, or what to say to the woman running it, or what to do with our dog afterwards," says Simon. "They were fantastic."
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