South Korean shelter dog basks in presidential glory as 'First Dog'

SEOUL (Reuters) - South Korean President Moon Jae-in on Wednesday welcomed a rescue dog to his official Blue House residence, delivering on a campaign promise to boost awareness of the fast-growing numbers of abandoned animals accompanying a surge in pet ownership.

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Tori, a four-year-old black mixed breed, becomes the first shelter dog to attain the title of First Dog, joining Moon’s two other pets, a 10-year-old Korean-breed Pungsan dog called Maru and a former stray cat, Jjing-jing.

“As a society, we need to pay more attention to abandoned animals and care for them,” Moon told animal rights advocates at the welcome ceremony, his office said, adding that as many as 300,000 animals had been abandoned.

Like many shelter animals, Tori suffered the double stigma of being abandoned and having darker fur in a country that favors lighter-colored animals as pets, and avoids those with black pelts out of superstition.

“Tori had to wait for two years to be adopted while his lighter-furred friends easily found new homes,” said Park Soyoun, president of Seoul-based animal shelter Coexistence of Animal Rights on Earth (CARE).

Before his rescue, Tori was kept on a short leash in a deserted farmhouse and fed scraps.

“We wish Tori all the best in the Blue House, unlike the nine dogs abandoned by the former President Park Geun-hye in March after she was removed from office,” added Park.

Moon’s predecessor had faced criticism for leaving behind nine Korean Jindo breed dogs at the Blue House when she was removed from office over a corruption scandal.

South Korea has often been criticized for its custom of consuming dog meat, although the trade has fallen off in recent years.

Pet ownership has grown rapidly, with nearly a quarter of all homes having one, but the trend has also boosted the flock of abandoned animals in shelters nationwide.

The government spent nearly 11.5 billion won ($10.3 million)on care for about 87,100 such animals in 2016.

A change in perception is long overdue, say some pet owners.

“It is the key to improve animal welfare in South Korea, as many treat pets merely as possessions, something to purchase,” said Song Chanwoo, a doctor who adopted a mixed-breed dog three years ago.

Editing by Jack Kim and Clarence Fernandez