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Dogs in the Pyongyang Zoo: Are they North Koreans' new best friend?

The zoo in Pyongyang now has a dog display, reflecting a growing affection for canines among North Koreans. 

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Visitors feed dogs at the newly opened Central Zoo in Pyongyang, North Korea, Tuesday, Aug. 23, 2016. One of the most popular attractions at the zoo might come as a surprise to foreign visitors. Just across the way from the hippopotamus pen and the reptile house, dozens of varieties of dogs _ including schnauzers, German shepherds, Shih Tzus and Saint Bernards _ are on display in the 'dog pavilion.'

Dita Alangkara/AP/File

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Nestled between the elephants, penguins, and monkeys at Pyongyang Zoo is an animal that you may not expect to find there: dogs. 

The canine display at the zoo, located in North Korea's capital city, features breeds ranging from Saint Bernards to Shih Tzus to schnauzers. Signs in the dog pavilion offer tips for how to train a pet dog, urging owners to be kind and patient with their animals. 

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While the idea of keeping dogs in a zoo may seem strange, or even inhumane, to those who are accustomed to playing with, dressing up, and sleeping next to their canine friends, the display may in fact reflect a growing fondness of dogs among North Koreans as adoption rates rise.

Though dog meat is becoming less popular in North Korea, it's still commonly consumed, especially by poorer families living in rural areas. The government began a push in June to encourage more citizens to use dogs as a source of sustenance, with various media outlets advertising the nutritional value of dog meat in the midst of the country's worst food crisis in years. 

But in the city of Pyongyang, especially, more people have begun to take in dogs as pets. North Korean watchers in December noted an increase in the number of city residents who have become dog owners in the past three to four years, South Korea's Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. 

Prior to 1989, pet ownership was prohibited in North Korea, being viewed by North Korean leaders as decadent. The ban was lifted by former leader Kim Jong-il, who presented high-ranking officials with pets as gifts, establishing pets as a fashionable luxury and leading to the creation of trading companies that specialized in bringing dogs to North Korea. 

In 2011, pet ownership was banned once again out of health concerns. But now, as Kim Jong-un has allowed the importation of European dogs, canine companions are once again becoming a popular status symbol among wealthy Pyongyang residents. According to Chosun Ilbo, many of the owners are wealthy women who keep "small, decorative dogs" to "flaunt the money they made in open-air markets."

Outside of Pyongyang, however, is a different story. 

"Few outside the capital can afford to have animals because they take up a lot of effort and money," wrote North Korean defector Je Son Lee for The Guardian, noting that "some people keep dogs for their meat or to guard the house when they're not home." 

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In China, another country where dog meat is a common dish, activists have begun to fight against the slaughter of canines as an increasing number of families take them in as pets. As the Christian Science Monitor's Stuart Leavenworth reported in June:

China is increasingly a nation of dog owners as its swelling upper and middle classes spend time and money on pets. Chinese families care for 27 million pet dogs in the cities and nearly 100 million in the countryside, according to the National Bureau of Statistics....

With each passing year, more people worldwide are signing petitions urging that the [annual dog meat festival in Yulin, China] be shut down. Worldwide more than 11 million people have signed such petitions including more than 2.3 million in the United States.  On Friday, Chinese activists presented these petitions to Yulin's office in Beijjing, which agreed to accept them, much to the surprise of some animal rights advocates.

Killing dogs for meat has been banned by a number of Asian governments, including Taiwan and the Philippines.