After a few minutes, I began to think that the number of car horns sounding outside, far below on the highway, was unusually high. A few minutes after that, I finally decided to get up from my desk and see what all the commotion was about. I expected there had been a breakdown or accident, instead I saw what I believed to be a cat, meandering around the six lanes as though it hadn't a care in the world. Cars were doing emergency stops, weaving around it at the last minute, and stopping dead as the animal chose to remain in front of their halted vehicles. Horns were being sounded, to no avail.
People were standing at the side of the road, but nobody was doing anything. One driver opened his car door, perhaps in the hope that the animal would jump in, but it didn't and they had to move off. Two minutes passed by and I just couldn't believe the scene unfolding before me. The cat had to be hit, it was simply a question of when. Once or twice it approached the side of the road, but inexplicably each time walked back towards the centre. I watched a car swerve in avoidance at the last moment, straight into the path of a truck which somehow missed it. The animal was going to be killed, and there was every chance there was going to be a serious accident. I'd asked my wife to phone the police but it didn't seem to be happening, and in any case I knew what had to be done, even if I didn't particularly like cats.
Descending fifteen floors in an elevator seems an excruciatingly long journey when you're trying to go to an animal's rescue. I waited with Korean Mother who'd run out to join me - more I think to keep me out of trouble than in some consideration for the cat outside. When the doors finally opened, all I could say in English before I sprinted off was "you'll have to catch me up", in the hope that somehow she'd understand the sentiment. Assessing the situation from ground level was much harder than from my grandstand view above, but within half a minute I'd spotted the animal, which transpired to be a dog, not a cat. Now I was even more determined.
The dog was moving at a walking pace down the road as I ran to catch it up. Finally it moved across the road just enough to bring the three lanes of traffic at my side to a momentary halt. I'd seen this scene play out from above - the drivers would be speeding off again within a couple of seconds, so I had to seize my chance. I ran out into the middle of the road where two yellow lines separated me and the dog from the traffic speeding by us in the opposite lanes. I knew the dog could be vicious - even rabid - so despite getting this far, now I needed to try and grab the animal in as non-threatening a way as possible while trying to watch out for vehicles potentially bearing down on us both. I grew up with dogs but the crazy animal we rescued two years ago became the first dog that ever bit me, drawing blood - an act he has since repeated randomly several times. I was very cautious.
I moved my arms as slowly towards the dog as I could risk given the time pressure, but he snapped at me. We were dangerously close to being on the side of the road where the traffic wasn't stopped, and I knew that any sudden movements might cause the dog to suddenly jump away from me into the path of an oncoming car. My path of retreat was threatened as one of the cars behind me started moving forward, and I felt I had to withdraw. The dog would have to come off the road on its own. No doubt the onlookers wondered why I didn't just grab it considering I already risking my life, but once bitten, twice shy. And they wouldn't have my wife to deal with afterwards either if I returned to the apartment with teeth marks in my hand.
The other problem with being out in the middle of the road, contrary to law, is that if anything bad happened, I suspected I was going to get the blame for it, and being a foreigner might just make the ramifications worse. Voltaire wrote that "Common sense is not so common", but my time in Korea has led me to the alarming realisation that common sense is merely a cultural perspective. As an Englishman, common sense told me to do something wrong to prevent a greater tragedy. The inaction of the Koreans suggests it was common sense to them to stay off the road and not get involved. Who's to say they aren't right?
I indicated to Korean Mother, who had caught up with me by this time, that the dog might be vicious and she should call the police - '경찰. 전화.' - 'Police. Phone.' It was the best I could do. I didn't think the police would care about the dog, but they should at least care about the danger of a serious accident occurring on the road. I offered her my phone, which I'd had the presence of mind to grab on my way out. But it wasn't getting through. 'Police. Phone. Police. Phone.' Finally she replied - '일 - 일 - 구. 일 - 일 - 구.' It took a moment for me to absorb the unexpected direction this conversation was going in. 'One - One - Nine. One - One - Nine.' The number for the police. Sensing my confusion she signed the numbers with her fingers. I must have given her a complete look of despair - I know the number for the police, the problem is talking to them, "I can't speak Korean" I told her in Korean. The penny dropped "Ohhh!" she replied.. This was still, however, frustratingly not getting the police call made, so as I ran to catch up with the dog I called my wife back at the apartment and asked her to make it instead, while I attempted a new strategy of coaxing the dog to the side of the road with nothing but an anxious look. At any moment I knew I was going to see the dog run over at high speed in front of me. It promised to be awful. A car finally hit him at low speed, which was fortunately only enough to knock him off balance momentarily before he resumed his course.
The dog doubled back on itself and began to drift onto the opposite side of the road, so I ran to the other side using the subway underpass, but by the time I emerged the dog had finally left the road and ventured into a narrow street on the side I'd just left. Korean Mother was gesturing to me - I had to run back while phoning my wife to tell her to cancel the police - she was already worried that they might view her call to be a prank and fine her. "There are a hundred witnesses out here" I told her, and while I'd been largely oblivious to the crowd, there probably were. But this at least provided a possible explanation as to the continued reluctance by all concerned to involve the police and the odd absence of any law enforcement presence some fifteen minutes into the start of this chaos on a major road.
I found the dog around the back of a building in a narrow passageway that was blocked at the end. It was finally trapped, but appeared much friendlier now it was off the road. My plan was to slowly gain its trust. Korean Mother's plan was evidently to walk down the passageway and force the issue. A little over two years ago she was nervous around dogs as many people here are prone to being in my experience, now she was befriending an unfamiliar and traumatised animal out on the street. She rapidly won him over.
We took him to the nearby vets where the lone assistant finally agreed to keep him temporarily. It was a logical place for an owner to look for their lost dog, and we couldn't have taken him back to our apartment anyway - partly because of the aggressive dog we already have there and partly because my wife's pregnancy demands that no strange animals are suddenly introduced to the environment.
It seemed that after two days if no-one came forward he would be sent on to another organisation that would 'deal with him'. He might get rehoused, and he might not, with the latter outcome probably being a death sentence. I was determined not to allow the latter and had already found the Korean Animal Protection Society and Animal Rescue Korea when a call to the vets before they closed revealed that the dog had already been reunited with its owner.
And that's how I very probably risked my life yesterday doing something apparently no sane Korean person would do - which is running out into the middle of a busy six-lane highway trying to rescue an animal while a frozen audience looked on. What people must have thought of me running up and down the road, into it, trying to coax the dog to safety I can't be sure, but some of that frozen audience who were still milling around and who talked to Korean Mother afterwards told her they thought it must be my dog. So perhaps the Korean version of this story is 'crazy foreigner carelessly lets his dog stray into the road'.