The Dogs of Pohnpei

Travel Stories: They roam wild on the Micronesian island. Their meat is also considered a delicacy. When one of his students offered him a plate, Rob Verger faced a decision.

01.03.08 | 11:09 AM ET

micronesia, pohnpeiPhoto by Rob Verger.

The town of Kolonia, on the island of Pohnpei, is the only place I’ve lived that has been destroyed twice. A typhoon flattened it in 1905, and in 1944, American bombers leveled the town in a battle against the Japanese. But when I lived there for just over five months in 2006, volunteering as an English teacher at a public high school, the memory of violence was as far as it could be. The place was intact and functioning, albeit at a sleepy, island pace. The only potential danger (or nuisance, really) were the island’s dogs.

Pohnpei looks the way you might picture a South Seas island, although it is actually in the Northern Hemisphere: It’s a wide, sprawling splash of deep green—the remnants of an ancient volcano—in the middle of thousands of miles of ocean. The capital of the Federated States of Micronesia, Pohnpei is in the western Pacific, seven degrees above the Equator and about halfway between Honolulu and Manila.

It is said to be the second-rainiest place on earth. Kolonia, the only large town on the island, is perched on the northern coast and receives about 12 feet of rain a year. The deep, uninhabited mountainous interior gets twice that amount. With the heat of the tropics and all the rain, jungle grows thickly across the island. Palm trees and breadfruit trees grow in abundance, as do banana trees, whose wide, shiny leaves are sometimes cut and used as biodegradable umbrellas during one of the many sudden rainstorms.

Life on the island was slow and peaceful, sometimes euphorically serene. But thousands of dogs roam the island, and dog encounters were a part of daily life while I was there. Some of the dogs were wild, and wandered about, homeless. Others belonged to specific families, lived in their yards, and possibly had names. But they were not pets in the same sense that dogs are pets in the United States.

Many of them were mangy, filthy, flea-ridden, skinny. Some survived on what they could find on their own to eat. At night, they prowled together in packs, fighting and yelping. I could hear their howls and snarls outside my bedroom window all through the night, and the next day, I might see a dog in my neighborhood with a bloody, shredded ear, or another with a bite on its leg.

I lived in a house with two other American teachers, Margaret and Shannon. It was halfway down a narrow, dead-end road in a small, crowded, noisy neighborhood in Kolonia. Public throughways—small dirt paths—snaked between the homes, a few feet from people’s living spaces. Clotheslines stretched between trees outside each home, and in the moments of sun between rains, laundry flashed its colors in the green of the jungle.

But when we ventured from our home, the neighborhood dogs frequently presented a nasty obstacle. They usually slept away the hottest hours of the day, sometimes in the middle of the quiet roads, their brown or grey coats merging with the dirt of the street. But they were more active at dawn and dusk, and at night, they were ferociously territorial. Many lived in nearby yards, and if I stepped even one inch onto their property, the dogs would gallop viciously towards me, ready to attack.

It was not a bluff. Dog bites were common. Twice, during the semester I was there, students mauled by dogs came in with seeping bandages on their legs. And a colleague of mine at school was bitten in the behind as she was leaving her classroom for the day.

So I began to see dogs not as lovable creatures with personality but instead as animals with teeth. Frequently, while I was walking down the street near our house after dark, three or four dogs would block my path, barking madly. One strategy to avoid being bitten was to walk steadily and slowly in the very center of the road, far from any dog’s territory, trying to move with confidence and avoiding eye contact. Usually, this technique worked. We became a group of animals that had worked out an understanding: I wouldn’t bother their territory, and they would allow me to pass. The middle of the road was for humans.

Another interesting fact about dogs on Pohnpei is that they are sometimes killed, cooked, and eaten. Dog meat is a delicacy on the island. Many people whom I spoke to about this told me that they loved it, finding it tasty. Pohnpei is a place of abundant food, and as far as I could tell, people ate dog not out of a sense of need but instead, pleasure. The Pohnpeian word for dog is kidi and the word for delicious is iou (pronounced yo), and it was common to hear the two words used together.

As my stay lengthened, I became more and more interested, abstractly, in eating a dog. I joked about it with my friends. Sometimes, while I was walking at night, a dog would lunge from the shadows, barking hysterically. My heartbeat would surge, the small hairs on my neck would rise, and I’d try to work my way around it. With each of these encounters the idea of eating a dog began to seem more reasonable, and my jokes became fueled by a fear of the creatures and a vague desire for vengeance. I had no intention of actually killing and cooking a dog on my own. But I decided that if I was offered dog meat, I would consider eating it.

Several students from Kolonia’s high school lived in our neighborhood, and I was close with one of them, Jo-Jo, who lived with his family in a house just through our backyard and under a breadfruit tree. The tree had huge, hand-shaped leaves, and every few weeks the breadfruits grew larger and larger until—unless they were harvested—they fell with a messy, sticky splat. Tall, thin coconut trees separated our houses as well, and sometimes the nuts fell, tumbling like rocks, and landed on the street or on a metal roof with a concussion loud enough to wake me at night. (It is said that more people die in the Pacific every year from falling coconuts than from shark attacks.)

Jo-Jo was a junior at the school, about 16 years old. His family owned many pigs, as most families on the island who could afford them did. The more pigs you had, and the fatter they were, the more assets your family owned. Because pigs need to consume a lot of food before they are large enough to slaughter or sell, I offered to bring our food scraps over to his house. Jo-Jo was enthusiastic.

So almost every evening, at dusk, before the nighttime rains began and before the dogs became more active, I’d walk over to Jo-Jo’s with the bag of leftovers. It was a way of recycling what we could not eat. I looked forward each day to this short trip. It was a good excuse to leave our house, which sometimes felt like a tiny America set on a tropical island. The local culture, if we wanted it to be, could be left outside. But it was lonely to do so, and as the months progressed I spent more time at my neighbors’ houses, playing Ping-Pong, or drinking a coconut, or letting children teach me phrases in Pohnpeian, then smiling while they giggled at my pronunciation. The foundation of the culture there is the extended family (which almost always lived together in a single home), clan, and sharing; the more I was able to join it, the happier I was and the richer my life was.

One rainy evening I walked over to Jo-Jo’s house with the bag of food. A large group had gathered outside near a smoking fire pit, and in the heavy, wet air I could smell a strange meat cooking. It was already dark out.

Jo-Jo walked towards me, and I gave him the food. He said, “Rob, we are cooking a dog! Come back in one hour, and you can have some.” I went back to our house, and returned in a moment with Shannon. We were both curious.

On Pohnpei, dogs and pigs are cooked in a traditional oven called an uhmw. First a large fire is lit and then allowed to burn down to coals, over which round, smooth rocks are heated. The meat is then placed among the rocks and coals, and covered with a pile of thick, wet banana leaves, to roast and steam slowly.

I looked over at the smoking uhmw and saw them pulling the half-cooked carcass of a dog from the coals and rocks. Its skin was still on but its hair was completely burnt off. Its legs were curled, as if in mid-pounce, and its snout was blackened. They set it down beside the uhmw.

One of Jo-Jo’s cousins began removing the dog’s guts from an incision in its stomach. He pulled out the white and ropy intestines and placed them, coiled, on another banana leaf, where they sat in the light rain. Then, he used sticks to pick up hot rocks and placed a few inside the dog’s abdomen, so it would cook from the inside out.

It made me feel strangely ashamed to see this dead animal, and I regretted my jokes.

“How did it die?” I asked.

“It was hit by a car,” Jo-Jo said.

We walked home through the darkness and under the dripping leaves of the banana trees, and I sat on the couch and felt my stomach clench. A strange feeling washed over me. It would be polite to join Jo-Jo in the dog eating, but I also knew that if I didn’t return that night Jo-Jo probably wouldn’t be offended. The feeling was not one of obligation but it was instead a sudden heavy self-awareness: am I really going to do this thing that I’ve told myself I’m going to do? Is it a mistake to do it? Is it a mistake not to do it? I sat in the dark, listening to the rain.

In an hour I returned, with a worried stomach. The dog was not yet done. Jo-Jo told me to come back in another hour. I went back to the couch.

The next time I returned, the uhmw was empty, the leaves and hot rocks scattered in the rain to cool. The pit was still steaming. Two or three dogs sniffed carefully around the coals, curious, looking for pieces of food.

Jo-Jo emerged from his house and told me that the dog was still not fully cooked. “I have cut it up am boiling it so it will cook faster,” he said. “I will bring you some when it is done.”

I went back to my house, and in an hour, late at night, Jo-Jo knocked on the door. It was raining harder now. Dogs howled and barked in the background. He handed me a plate, covered in tinfoil.

“Enjoy!” he said, and went back home.

Both my roommates had gone to sleep. I put the plate down on the table and looked at it. I took off the tinfoil. There were two small pieces, each about five inches long and four inches wide: ribs. The meat was gray and black, steaming.

I stood there, staring.

I took a tiny bite.

It was gamey, chewy, revolting. It tasted the way the thick gristle you might cut off a steak would taste if it was charred in a fire. It did not taste like chicken. It tasted like dog—and this scrawny street dog had been struck by a car, roasted and gutted in a fire, and then cut up and boiled.

I put the meat in the refrigerator, brushed my teeth, and went to bed.

The next morning, Margaret and Shannon were displeased that there was dog meat in our refrigerator. Margaret took a picture of it, and then, after letting the meat sit in the fridge another few days, I threw it out. I washed the plate and returned it to Jo-Jo. He asked me how it was.

I told him it was iou, and I thanked him.

Rob Verger

Rob Verger is a frequent contributor to World Hum and the site's former air travel blogger. His articles and photographs have appeared in the Boston Globe and other publications, and he's a former undergraduate writing instructor at Columbia University. If you like, .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) or follow him on Twitter.

33 Comments for The Dogs of Pohnpei

Peter Daams 01.05.08 | 8:54 AM ET

Glad to see a story about Pohnpei on World Hum. I lived there for a couple of months as well and the dogs are indeed somewhat a pest. On another island in Micronesia where I spent some time, Kapingamarangi, they actually decided to kill all the dogs to avoid the spread of disease. It has apparently helped and I can’t help but feel they should do the same in Pohnpei. The dog’s lives can not be compared to the privileged lives dogs have in western countries.

I never did get the chance to eat dog, but did have turtle meat once. The meat was tasty enough (curried), but the sight of a turtle being slaughtered was not pleasant. :(

David L 01.05.08 | 11:05 AM ET

Very interesting story about the wild dogs that roam the Island of Pohnpei. Who would think people would allow such torment to go on. You would think they would hunt them to get rid of the problem.. Nevertheless thanks for telling this story I really liked it. 


Peter Daams 01.05.08 | 7:11 PM ET

I think the “torment” was a little exaggerated in the article. I never had this sense of fear for the dogs. Most people just ignore them and they take care of themselves. In fact, they probably help clear the rubbish somewhat, considering proper garbage disposal is seriously lacking!

David L 01.07.08 | 8:48 AM ET

Anytime people have to worry about being attacked by dogs I consider that torment. The article is consistent in saying they had to be careful where in the road they walked because they the dogs were territorial. It seems the people have to learn to live around the dogs and not the other way around. It also says how the dogs do bite people. That my friend is torment. Something people have to worry about on that Island. I say get rid of the dogs no animal should take precedence over people. For people to allow such is ridiculous. Besides burning garbage will work better it’s less dangerous. Dogs don’t eat material waste just food.

Peter Daams 01.07.08 | 9:06 AM ET

David, I lived on the island and never felt worried the dogs would attack me. I lived in what sounds like a pretty similar community and the dogs were in fact dead scared of the humans, who would regularly kick them or throw rocks at them. I think most dogs on Pohnpei are more afraid of humans than the other way around! But that was my interpretation - the writer may have experienced things differently.

David L 01.08.08 | 9:50 AM ET

Well Peter, I don’t want to argue about this. And I doubt Rob Verger would lie about this. From what I perceived these dogs are a nuisance and are more than just a inconvenience. Maybe you were in a safer part of town. Either way I find the story both interesting and disturbing that in 2008 people would be so dumb so as let such a danger exist. I can only imagine little children getting hurt by these animals. I say Pompeians wake up and get rid of these pests! Before the kids get hurt.

Peter Daams 01.08.08 | 10:07 AM ET

David, I have no intention of arguing either. :) I found it quite an interesting article and above all was happy to read some writing about Pohnpei.

The area I was in was certainly not what one would consider a “nice” part of town - there were numerous dogs in our neighbourhood, just like pretty much anywhere in town and dozens of kids would always be playing in the streets near them. I never once saw anyone get hurt by the dogs - but that’s not to say that no-one has been hurt. Rob clearly does know people who were!

I totally agree the dogs should probably be eradicated for public health and safety reasons, but I wouldn’t go so far as to call the people there dumb for not doing so.

David L 01.08.08 | 10:14 AM ET

Hi Peter, I look at it this way too what if those dogs get rabies? What kind of harm could they do then? It could become a really big problem worse then it is now. Anyone that allows that kind of risk is certainly not smart from my standards. I have been around the world and have seen many thing I would consider dumb and that is one of them. I don’t want to insult anyone particularly but the major of that town should have insight in what could happen and prevent it instead of being a bleeding heart for animals.

Peter Daams 01.08.08 | 10:22 AM ET

Fair point on the rabies.

Well, we can only hope that they will indeed do something about it. Although I really don’t think it’s the biggest problem they face there, but that’s a different story!

Nicole 01.09.08 | 8:30 PM ET

I found this article to be heartbreaking and disturbing. I find it sick at the fact that these people do not have to eat dog but are choosing too. Of course these animals are going to be territorail and aggresive. Why would they be any different?! They are neglected of shelter, food, love and attention. What heartless, cruel, inuhmane people. If there is a population problem, these dogs should be put to sleep or nueterd… instead of living out a horrific life. It’s no wonder the town of Kolonia was destroyed twice, and should be again.

Peter Daams 01.09.08 | 11:26 PM ET

Nicole, are you suggesting that another bombing would be appropriate punishment for how their dogs are treated?! What a horrible thing that is to wish on anyone!!

Imagine if people thought the same way about how pigs are treated in the US.

I have to eat my words somewhat though. I spoke to my dad about this yesterday and he was also bitten by a dog once. So I DO know someone who was bitten.

Galan 01.10.08 | 11:22 AM ET

I almost found the comments as interesting as the article… almost.  I have eaten dog (while on numerous visits to the Philippine Islands) and did not find it to be all that repulsive but then, I’ve had worse too.  Perhaps a little bar-b-que sauce was the order of the day.

Instead of extinguishing the population of animals as some would suggest, don’t you think a bit of game management would be more appropriate? 

We may be the dominant species but lacking dog we could well follow the history of Borneo… perhaps savoring the taste of human? (Tastes like Pork).
I’m not going to call a people primitive when we ourselves are guilty of looking down on what is considered normal cultural behavior amongst tribal communities and they, oddly enough, have better family values.

It is easy to condemn the actions of others or to degrade them for not ‘measuring up’ to our sociological norm   yet our society cannot pass a law without disrupting logical thought.

I did so enjoy reading Rob Verger’s experience and have been fortunate enough to have placed myself at the mercy of the people when I travel… it’s such a wonderful (and sometimes awakening) experience to live amongst those who would welcome you into their homes.

David L 01.10.08 | 11:40 AM ET

You know I am so tired of bleeding hearts. Everyone loves everything mentality. If it is a unsafe condition this just might put an innocent persons life at risk. And when people are not smart enough to see the risk then they need to be educated, yes taught to do better. It is not a matter other cultures pushing their own ways rather it is a matter of peoples well being. If people knew more about cleanliness the black plague would not have killed as many as it did. Sure it’s fun to see different cultures but a human life is more important than a life experience. Human life comes first not some preservation of primitive thinking.

Dahmao 01.10.08 | 11:04 PM ET

Don’t know what you have communicated by the article except that you are a better human being for not liking dog.

David L 01.11.08 | 12:25 AM ET

People come 1st dogs 2nd or whatever other number you want to give.

Galan 01.11.08 | 2:52 AM ET

Slaughtering a species just because it’s repulsive to ‘civilized’ tastes is uncivilized response.  The people of this chain of islands happen to think it’s a delicacy, much like Filipino consider Balut (a partially matured duck egg embryo) to be.  It was an honor for me to be offered this off-character delight because it isn’t offered to someone you don’t like.  Thankfully, I had San Miguel to wash it down - it tastes like meat flavored chalk with slime in it to me but I ate it.
I don’t consider myself an authority on what’s right for everyone else but I do know what’s stupid. 
I’ll leave it at that.
Thanks for sharing your story Rob and I do hope I have the pleasure of enjoying more.
To some it is stupid, to others, it is survival.  You don’t eradicate your food supplies.  I remember in Viet Nam where a camp got over run by rats (an excellent food source to native people).  The troops introduced snakes into the camp area and were soon rid of the rats and over run by snakes.
When dealt lemons, make lemonade.

Grizzly Bear Mom 01.11.08 | 3:21 PM ET

I have a PET dog that is my “beloved friend, companion and son”.  However I don’t have a problem with people eating them if there are wild game as on this Island.  It fact, it seems wise to take advantage of local food.  Some ?South Pacific? civilizations consider our eating eggs, or something that was never born, or given a chance to live, barbaric.  Muslims consider dogs dirty and I believe are prohibited from touching them.  In Korea ?men? ate dog meat to regain virility, but I believe it was considered as hick as our eating possums.  To each their own.

Linda 01.11.08 | 4:00 PM ET

Our family lived on Pohnpei from Nov, 1986, till July, 1987.  My husband is a pharmacist & he did all the ordering of medications for the hospital.  Sounds like the island hasn’t changed much but then i didn’t expect it to.  Yes we saw dogs everywhere but we were never afraid of them.  We were never “attacked” by any.  We found the thousands of frogs that appeared everywhere at night to be more of a problem.  We lived in Kolonia in a government owned home next to the school run by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.  Sounds like you lived down the street near the high school.  From the additional comments I wonder if everyone has an opinion but are not accepting these wonderful Micronesians & their culture.  It’s a beautiful island with very happy & kind people.  If their way of living works for them then we should be happy for them.  We enjoyed the beauty of the place & the kindness & happiness of the people.  We did have problems with the slowness in which things were accomplished.  But then that’s our culture to be in a hurry.  We decided to live…when in Rome…  We had 3 young sons at the time & we enjoyed swimming every day in the afternoons in the river.  Yes it was polluted but we kept our mouths shut.  Yes we came home with intruders in our intestines but a little medication took care of that.  It was so worth the wonderful time we had there.

Bellenda Shed 01.11.08 | 8:51 PM ET

Kaselel everyone,

As a Pohnpeian I find this article and comments very interesting and fun to read. I agree with all the comments. It is really hard to get use to other cultures. My experience here with dogs is very different than back home. You can actually see humans on the side of road without shelter but can never see a dog. Very strange and hard to understand. I am more afraid of humans here than dogs. But I am glad that you all enjoyed your stay on my island and hope to see you there again.

David L 01.12.08 | 10:44 AM ET

It is a tough balance I admit. The people are happy. Dogs have a right to live. People choose to eat dogs that’s their right. They have their own culture. One problem what happens when rabies makes its way to their island? Might this pose a real threat to the whole populous on that little island? You see dogs can be a special kind of threat to humans if they run wild in such great numbers.

What people are getting lost in in this conversation is peoples happiness, or culture, what about safety and well being which could cost lives in the long term. I hope they at least have a pest control on the Island with a gun. I say it’s great people have different ways of living that is fine. But some things are not wise to allow. Regardless of how Utopian as it might seem. Disease control is more important than tribes may think about.

This toleration of dogs running loose can actually bite the people of Pohnpei both literally and figuratively later.

Terry 01.12.08 | 12:42 PM ET

Nothing has to die for me to eat.

Galan 01.12.08 | 1:35 PM ET

Terry, an interesting but untrue statement. “Nothing has to die for me to eat”
You are claiming that you eat only rocks because plants do have life.
Sometimes it is better to keep your mouth shut and be thought an idiot than to open it and remove all doubt.
I hope you don’t vote because I’m sure you are one of those environmentalists that has no real concept of life… you just hug trees because you were told you should.
I think that this is my departing comment… now I’m ruffling feathers (oops, hope I didn’t hurt the bird).

Bellenda Shed 01.12.08 | 5:04 PM ET

I apologize, I think my comment may have been confusing. I meant here in Orlando where I am residing now comparing to back home in Pohnpei.

Margaret 01.14.08 | 12:56 PM ET

Great job, Rob.  I’m the Margaret in the story and can verify that the way Rob told it is also the way I felt things happened.  I did not get bit by a dog but I never walked down my street without a handful of rocks.  There was a particularly mean dog around the corner on a main road from our house.  You’d see people walking down the street, always on the opposite side of where the dog lived when they were within 25m of him.  Once I didn’t cross in time and the dog - albeit a fairly small one - came charging after me at full speed.  I hit it in the head with a rock (pure fear, no pleasure) which it appeared to eat (though that seems extreme) and in those moments I crossed the street.  Months later that dog did bite someone and was killed.

There are new laws in effect on the island trying to control the dog popultaion such that all dogs without collars will be taken away and put to sleep.  From what I’ve heard it’s been slow in being enforced but they are trying.

As for rabies, it does not exist on the island at this point.  If it did, it would certainly be an epidemic but until it is introduced from off-island, it is not a problem.

One other thing to keep in mind as far as eating goes: no, no one HAS to eat dog. But food is very expensive and local edible products are scarce - everything is imported and comes via ship.  Other than fish and pork (eaten only on special occasions) it is very difficult for most families to afford meat/proteins.

Linda 01.14.08 | 3:52 PM ET

I found the article most interesting to say the least! Im the biggest animal lover and rescue strays of all kinds frequently, BUT i would not be adverse to eating dog IF i was hungry/starving, cant say id do it just for pleasure/fun BUT again i would like to try DOG MEAT. In your instance you say the animal was run over so - waste not want not, i dont exactly like the idea of them going out on dog hunt/culls, rather sad they are a nusiance on the island but ALL THE STRAYS stemmed from some individual humans who didnt get them spayed or neutered - if indeed there is facility to do so, Or the option to lock up the animals when the bitches come in season was done.
So its logigal that given time high numbers will have to be reduced to managable levels for the locals.

Terry 01.14.08 | 5:41 PM ET

If you think the brain of an animal and a plant are the same, then you need to have your tiny little brain examined. Get a life you moran.

Galan 01.15.08 | 3:18 AM ET

Terry, what’s a Moran?  Did you mean to say Moron?... so, now who’s the idiot?
Moran is the preferred method of spelling “moron” by morons.

Diane 01.18.08 | 12:36 AM ET

that is a scary and weird situation. why do they eat stray dogs? that is bad, very bad.

Glenda 01.18.08 | 10:55 AM ET

I found this really interesting to read. I had no idea this kind of thing went on anywhere. But It is terrible that they let the dogs get as bad as they do. The dogs suffer and starve. It is a wonder that the dogs do not attack and eat a person. It seems like they would do something about this wild dogs.

Kate 04.28.08 | 5:04 PM ET

Kaselel everyone, Just so for everyone’s info, not all Pohnpeians eat dog meat. I am from Pohnpei and have never eaten dog meat. I now live in California and have a pet dog named Missy.

Signed: A dog lover

shed family 10.11.08 | 3:57 PM ET

I am displeased by the condition of dogs on my island.I never tasted it but my mom and family have cooked and ate it.The first sight of it would freak the young boy out of me.They also tried to make me eat it but i refused.Also pigs,I hate it and would be grossed out if i see them cut up like that.(im a twelve year old boy who respects his culture and is missing his family and island)                                  (branson shed)

rad 10.17.08 | 6:44 PM ET

Great Story!  I agree that the “feral” dog population in Kolonia Town is a growing problem.  It’s always interesting to hear how others view certain things that we often take for granted.  I doubt if the “locals” view the dogs as menacing but one has to remember that the locals grew up with this “arrangement” of dog/pet order.  It is unfair for locals that do not eat dog meat or outsiders to judge Pohnpeians who partake of this delicacy; just look around the world (including the USA) and I’m sure you’ll find other groups of people who dine on “nastier” things.  Kudos to the author for a well written and accurate story of life in Kolonia.

Frank 11.06.08 | 8:53 PM ET

I was a Peace Corps volunteer on Pohnpei in the mid-1970s. Spent most of my time in the outer villages (before the road went through). Yes, the dogs of Pohnpei were mostly ill-tempered. I was attacked and bitten at least a half-dozen times in two years. I always believed it was a result of the way they were treated by humans. The Pohnpeians showed more love for their swine than they did for their dogs. But that’s their culture.

As for eating dogs, let’s not forget: It wasn’t too long ago that Americans were still eating dogs. Read the journals of Lewis & Clark. Dog meat purchased from the Native Americans (also dog eaters) was part of their diet during their explorations of the West.

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