When Bi Bi Cun was a child growing up in Vietnam, her dog saved her on two occasions. First, he protected her from a snake, resulting in two bite wounds she later bandaged and tended herself using leaves. The second time, hearing her shouts, he single-handedly fended off a man who tried to attack her. After that childhood dog passed away, Bi Bi devoted the rest of her youth to caring for sick dogs in her village–and speaking out against the cruelty of the dog meat industry.
She helped the dogs who could be saved, and she mourned and buried those who died. Some were ultimately stolen or sold for meat. Others were used for breeding, giving birth to litter after litter of puppies. Twenty years have passed now, but in that time, Bi Bi Cun has remained a tireless animal rescuer, saving many lives from being bought, sold, and butchered as part of the local dog meat trade. Today, she runs an independent animal shelter for dogs and cats in Hanoi.
The photojournalist Justin Mott, who runs the photo studio Very Dep Studio in Hanoi, visited Bi Bi’s shelter late last year to help tell the stories of the animals in her care, many rescued from the dog meat industry, some injured by cars, and others found abandoned and chained up in inhumane circumstances. The goal: find them loving homes, far away from the trauma of their pasts.
To help make the animals feel comfortable during the session, Mott brought the studio to them, setting up a professional backdrop in a smaller laundry room area in the house. “The dogs live in a large room in her home, and they are walked by her and some volunteers while she tries to get them adopted,” the photographer explains. “She runs everything out of her house, with the help from volunteers, using her own money from selling fruit and from donations.”
The day of the photoshoot was a treat for the dogs, who were appreciative of the attention. Some of them were understandably shy, including a young dog who had been born paralyzed and unable to walk. “He was so vulnerable but so excited to get some attention,” the photographer says. For this particular dog, Mott worked with a smaller crew and took care to keep everything calm and relaxed. “I really bonded with him,” he tells me. “I pet him for an hour, and he seemed to love it.”
Throughout his time with these lucky animals at Bi Bi’s shelter, Mott remembered the ones who weren’t so fortunate. “The dog meat industry is still very prevalent in Vietnam, you see ‘thit cho’ (dog meat) restaurants all over the place,” he explains. “While it’s not as popular with the younger generation, middle-aged and elderly people still consume a lot of dog meat.
“It’s hard for people outside of Vietnam to stop the dog meat trade, but you can start by supporting NGOs like Soi Dog. They are a non-profit based in Thailand, but they lobby from there to stop the dog meat trade in Vietnam. Dogs are often rounded up in Thailand and trucked to Vietnam for the dog meat trade, and Soi Dog is putting a lot of pressure on trying to stop this industry.”
As the battle against this cruel industry rages across borders, Bi Bi will continue to fight for individual animals in need. During the photo session, he saw Bi Bi interact with two shelter long-timers, a mother and son cocker spaniel, age eleven and one. They’d both been sold for meat after the mother grew weak from over-breeding. The mother cocker spaniel has been diagnosed with cancer.
Vet treatment is expensive, but they’re a bonded pair, and Bi Bi is devoted to keeping them together, whether that means finding a home for both of them or keeping them at the shelter. Watching them was one of the highlights of Mott’s shoot. The session wrapped in a walk for some of the dogs, including the paralyzed dog, whom the photographer carried in his arms. Despite the hardships these animals had endured, it was a joyful day.
While some have been adopted, many of the animals in Mott’s photos are still waiting. If you are interested in adopting or donating to Bi Bi’s shelter, you can contact the photographer.