When 22-year-old Yonlada Jampasi threw her roommate's chihuahua from their fifth-floor apartment in Bangkok last month, pictures of the little dog lying dead on a rooftop below ignited a firestorm across Thailand's social media.
Under the country's first animal cruelty law promulgated in late 2014, she was prosecuted within days and sentenced to two months in jail, commuted from four months after she confessed to the act, which is now considered a crime.
The new law is aimed at getting people to take animal welfare more seriously. The measure protects domestic pets, working animals and animals kept for food. The penalty for cruelty: two years in prison and/or a 40,000 baht (S$1,570) fine.
Animal welfare activists have welcomed the law, saying it is better than nothing. But they also believe it does not provide adequate protection. And the crux may be cultural: a lack of understanding on what constitutes cruelty.
"This is the shortest animal welfare law in the world... It's only nine pages long; and only one Article in the law says no person can keep animals unnecessarily cruelly," said longtime activist Roger Lohanan.
The sentencing was swift for the chihuahua case, but otherwise, the prosecution and conviction rate is dismally low. Less than 30 have been prosecuted out of close to a thousand, he said.
It is confusing, when this is a Buddhist country...
We are a truly generous people, but just like many Asian countries, we have our own ethical concept of animal welfare. We see animals as a living possession or an object which deserves only what we want to give them.
MR ROGER LOHANAN, a long-time animal activist in Thailand
"The low rate of prosecution is because police, local livestock authorities and the district attorney (DA) and so forth don't understand the concept of animal welfare," said Mr Lohanan. "The police don't understand the law; and after filing the charge, the DA doesn't send it to court for lack of evidence or because of disagreement over what constitutes cruelty."
Across Thailand, thousands of animals - domesticated and wild - are kept as pets or used in commercial entertainment and tourism. In 2003, an amnesty for animal owners to declare what they owned saw over one million protected animals reported under human care - a figure that surprised officials.
Activists have long fought exhausting battles against zoos that keep animals in bad conditions. Last weekend, a raid on Phuket Zoo on concerns over the condition of a female orang utan called Milo saw the zoo dump the ape in a nearby jungle, in a locked cage, ahead of the raid. She was found after an extensive search, and activists are now trying to build a case against the zoo using the new law.
"The chihuahua tragedy publicised the law," Mr Anusart Suwannamongkol, a member of the National Legislative Assembly, told The Straits Times. "Implementation is something else, but at least now that there is a law, it is a different ball game. It has become part of our lives now, to think twice, to think of animals."
New laws on dealing with stray dogs, as well as a law to regulate how elephants are kept, are also in the offing. Domestic elephants currently come under the livestock and transport departments, and are essentially treated like trucks - they can be bought, sold and rented. Wild animals are covered by the Wildlife Preservation and Protection Act, which is also being revamped.
The exploitation of elephants for entertainment and tourism has been a running sore in Thailand, highlighted this month by the death of a Scottish tourist in Koh Samui after he wasgored by the elephant he was riding. The elephant was in musth, a state of testosterone-fuelled aggressiveness, and should not have been made to take people on its back, experts say.
Likewise, tourists have been mauled by tigers at Thailand's several tiger zoos and farms where they can touch tigers. And at one animal show in Phuket last month, a Chinese tourist was bitten on the lip by a python as she tried to "kiss" it.
The incidents show the animals are under stress, experts say. But it is difficult to convince enforcement agencies this constitutes cruelty.
Said Ms Lek Chailert, whose Elephant Nature Park in northern Thailand rescues and cares for elephants in distress: "The police feel it is too much to use the law to punish people who harm animals."
She added: "There is more public awareness, but it is not necessarily getting better for animals. Unfortunately, animal shows continue, despite rising public concern." The shows range from orang utans made to wear shorts and gloves for boxing matches to elephants made to stand on two legs.
The reason for the callous disregard for animal welfare is complicated, said Mr Lohanan. "It is confusing, when this is a Buddhist country," he acknowledged. "We are a truly generous people, but just like many Asian countries, we have our own ethical concept of animal welfare. We see animals as a living possession or an object which deserves only what we want to give them. And we think punishing animals is normal."
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Thailand's cruel menagerie'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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