Dining on Dogs: The History of Eating Canines

When Lewis and Clark finally emerged from the Rocky Mountains 16 months into their journey, the crew was thin and weak. Their route through the Great Plains had provided a bounty of protein, and they’d grown accustomed to feasts of bison, elk and deer. In unfamiliar territory that seemed derelict of big game, they relied on the Nez Perce Indians to fill their stomachs.

The tribe graciously provided the corps with dried salmon and camas root, Pacific Northwest staples. Camas, which the crew devoured and described as tasting like pumpkin, is high in fiber. This proved disastrous for their malnourished bodies and caused the party to become nauseous and dehydrated. “I am very sick today and puke for relief,” Clark wrote.

Desperate, they turned to the only red meat in sight: dog. The Nez Perces had an abundance of dogs around camp, which were considered workers and companions. For the starving travelers, though, the hounds represented a source of food. “I prefer it to lean venison or elk, and it is very far superior to the horse in any state,” Lewis wrote.

The crew took to eating dogs, and it got them through one of the toughest stretches of their journey. According to journal entries, the men consumed 193 dogs, more than the antelope, bighorn sheep, black bear, turkey, grouse and horses they ate combined. “The dog now constitutes a considerable part of our subsistence and with most of the party has become a favorite food,” Lewis continued.

Cultural Differences
Had their journey occurred few hundred years later, it’s unlikely Lewis would have been so open about their diet of dogs. Eating dogs is frowned upon in Western cultures, and recently became illegal in the U.S. The Dog and Cat Meat Trade Prohibition Act of 2018 passed with last year’s farm bill, and prohibits “slaughtering dogs for human consumption.” The law seemed like an unnecessary reach, but a major motivator for regulation was to pressure other countries to follow suit. “This bill is a reflection of our values and gives us a greater standing in urging all other countries to end this horrific practice once and for all,” said Representative Alcee Hastings (D-FL).

That’s unlikely to happen, although this isn’t the first time American sensibilities have been pushed on those in the East.

In South Korea, for example, the government requested that 12 restaurants around Pyeongchang stop serving dog meat in advance of the 2018 Winter Olympics. The tradition is becoming more taboo, but agencies estimate that South Koreans still consume about 2 million dogs a year. Pushback on the issue hasn’t been welcomed, which was observed when animal rights groups tried to encourage Seoul residents to stop eating cats and dogs in 1988.

“Local people who objected to being told what to do in their own country slaughtered and ate yet more dogs, to protest against the ‘interfering imperialists abroad,’” said Jill Robinson, founder of the Animals Asia Foundation, in an interview with National Geographic.

China leads the world in dog consumption, where it’s estimated that about 15 million dogs are eaten each year. There’s even an annual gathering in Yulin that celebrates eating canines called the Dog Meat Festival. Local government has considered banning the festival, but it’s so popular that thousands of dogs are slaughtered to meet the demands of the attendees.

Vietnam is a distant second in dogs eaten, at about 5 million per year. The dog meat market is so popular, however, that it usually sells for three times the price of pork and is a regular menu item in high-end dining.

Some cultures consume dogs for their perceived supernatural or medicinal powers. In various parts of Nigeria, India and Poland, dog meat is thought to help those with lung problems. In portions of Asia, dog meat is supposed to regulate body temperature: In cold months, it’s eaten to stay warm, and in warm months, it’s eaten to say cool.

Eating Coyotes & Wolves
Although practices varied, many Native American tribes would only eat domestic dogs in times of crisis. The Sioux and Cheyenne dabbled in cooking dogs if when meat was scarce, but wouldn’t eat wolves or coyotes for religious reasons. Trappers and mountain men of the same era had no issue with eating wild dogs, but their reviews of coyote and wolf meat were mixed.

Edward Farrow, who wrote Mountain Scouting: A Handbook for Officers and Soldiers on the Frontiers, gave tips on preparing nearly every game animal of the Great Plains. His instructional has little to say on coyotes, but the briefness of his coverage speaks volumes. “Coyotes are only good for food in the total absence of all other varieties,” Farrow noted.

In Adventures of the First Settlers on the Oregon or Columbia River, two men kill and eat a wolf that entered their camp. Their experience with wolf meat was positive. “The flesh of the wolf we cut up and laid by for some future emergency,” Alexander Ross wrote. “And in the meantime feasted upon the skin; nor did we throw away the bones, but pounded them between stones, and with some roots made a kind of broth, which in our present circumstances we found very good.”

Most modern-day hunters and trappers likely don’t know the taste of coyote or wolf flesh, even though it’s estimated that about 400,000 combined are killed each year. All states classify coyotes as varmints, a status similar to racoons or opossums, meaning you’re not required to harvest the meat from a kill. Similarly, there are no laws around wanton waste for wolves in Alaska, Idaho, Montana or Wyoming, allowing hunters to kill them and only take the fur or skull.

It’s unlikely anti-hunters would be comfortable with sportsmen eating wild dogs, anyway. How to Cook a Wolf, a Seattle restaurant paying homage to the title of a book by famous food writer M.F.K. Fisher, learned that the hard way.

“We had one person repeatedly egg the restaurant every few months,” said owner Ethan Stowell in an interview with Boise Weekly. “We ended up setting up security cameras and caught him hammering in a window and egging the inside of the restaurant. When we caught him, we asked why he was doing the egging. He said, ‘Cuz you can’t serve wolf.’ We showed him the menu and explained that we have never served wolf. He cut us a check for the damages.”

“Complex Relationships”
Despite the Corps of Discovery’s fondness of dog meat, they only ate one of the 18 wolves they killed. This was likely because most of their wolf encounters occurred in the Great Plains, where better game meat was available. Even in their most desperate times, though, they never butchered Lewis’s dog, Seaman.

Seaman, who was purchased for $20 and the only animal to complete the entire trip, was written about by Lewis and Clark with more reverence than most crew members. Their bond with the Newfoundland is likely what spared him.

Steven Rinella, who has cooked and eaten coyote, understands how meat eaters like Lewis and Clark would have trepidation with dining on wolves or dogs. “We humans have complex relationships with canines—almost too complex for words,” Rinella said. “To put a piece of their flesh in our mouths is no light matter.”

It’s that complex relationship that I’d like to explore for myself. As someone who grew up with a black lab for a best friend and loves calling coyotes, it’s hard not to see one when I look at the other. I think my perspective could benefit from bringing a coyote to the dinner table, as would a lot of sportsmen’s.

Feature image via Wiki Commons. Shown is a painting by George Catlin, who participated in a Sioux Indian friendship ceremony where dog meat was served.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article