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Jaipal Singh Gill: From saving strays to running SPCA

As a child, Dr Gill would take home all kinds of stray animals, to his parents' annoyance. Now, as the SPCA's new acting executive director, he is focused on helping Singapore become a trendsetter in animal welfare.
As a child, Dr Gill would take home all kinds of stray animals, to his parents' annoyance. Now, as the SPCA's new acting executive director, he is focused on helping Singapore become a trendsetter in animal welfare.ST PHOTO: DESMOND FOO

Acting exec director wants to make S'pore a leader in animal welfare

Dr Jaipal Singh Gill's earliest memory is of a bat flying into his family's five-room flat in Hougang.

"It smashed its head against the window in the bathroom and fell into the bathtub. I was five or six, and I remember trying to scoop it up and check that it was okay," he recalls.

It was an event that foreshadowed his life's calling.

The 33-year-old last month assumed the role of acting executive director at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), after spending nearly half his life as a champion of animal welfare.

The younger of two boys, he was a restless kid who would, in his own words, annoy his parents by taking home stray animals and shirking the clean-up responsibilities.

NEW CHAPTER FOR SPCA

The first weekend we opened to the public it was packed, so it's nice to see that people are so excited about us opening here.

DR JAIPAL SINGH GILL, on the SPCA's new home in Sungei Tengah

His father, an assistant consular officer with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, eventually put his foot down after their home had been filled with "everything small, furry and legal for an HDB flat".

The young Dr Gill was a voracious reader but disliked studying, occupying his time in Rosyth School with projects such as the "library" he set up. "I brought my books to school and set up a system where I would charge my classmates membership and borrowing fees," he says. "I liked to do things, and I suppose sitting in class wasn't fun."

When he was 11, he began to follow his mother, a nurse, on home visits to the elderly who could not afford hospital treatment.

"I realised for the first time that the perfect happy life that I had was not shared by everyone, which got me thinking a bit more about the world that we live in," he says.

By the time he was a secondary school student at St Joseph's Institution, he was making weekly visits to old folks' and children's homes, among other volunteer activities.

But it was not until his brother handed him literature on factory farming practices that the concepts of animal welfare and suffering took shape in his mind. "I started reading up more and realised that it wasn't just the farming industry - animals are used for everything from entertainment to research, and I started seeing that there's a world of suffering out there for them."

At 14, he became a vegetarian, despite his disdain for vegetables. Eating his greens is a daily struggle, says Dr Gill, whose diet has a lot of mock meat, tofu and gluten products.

As a life sciences undergraduate at the National University of Singapore (NUS), he founded the Students' Animal Welfare Group and helped to organise Singapore's first animal welfare symposium, which was held in 2008.

Shortly after graduation in 2007, he saw an advertisement for a position as an SPCA inspector, and raced down for an interview with then executive director Deirdre Moss.

"I remember him sitting at the reception; he struck me as a quiet and politely confident young man," recalls Ms Moss, who held the position for 27 years before handing the reins over in 2011 to Ms Corinne Fong, Dr Gill's predecessor.

"There wasn't any doubt in my mind that he should be given a chance to take on the role of inspector, given his passion and enthusiasm," Ms Moss adds.

His first day on the job, however, ended with a death threat. "I had gone to investigate this case of a guy keeping cats in a less than ideal situation. We try to help people improve the conditions for animals, but sometimes they are a bit resistant, and he left a voicemail on my phone saying that he was going to kill me.

"So, that was my welcome to the SPCA," he says wryly. Investigating up to 80 cases a month took a toll on him emotionally. "It was difficult seeing animals suffering on a daily basis, but what got me through was the fact that I could actually do something about it," he says.

After a year, he left to study animal science at the University of Melbourne, returning to SPCA for two years as operations manager before pursuing a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the same university.

Now, he has returned to the organisation with ambitions of helping to make Singapore a leader and trendsetter for animal welfare.

Dr Gill pioneered Singapore's first national study on pet care and ownership, with University of Melbourne and NUS researchers, one of whom happens to be his wife. The results of the study, which aims to understand and address welfare issues for pets, are being analysed now and will be used for focus group discussions with pet owners.

Dr Gill's first month in his new job has been occupied with the SPCA's move from Mount Vernon to its new 7,700 sq m Sungei Tengah premises. "The first weekend we opened to the public it was packed, so it's nice to see that people are so excited about us opening here," he says.

He will miss the old place, which he would often visit as a boy to take strays in and play with animals.

"There are a lot of memories... good times, hard times and painful moments, so it's a bittersweet experience leaving," he says. "But we are excited to be here as well; it is a new beginning, a fresh start."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 22, 2016, with the headline 'From saving strays to running SPCA'. Print Edition | Subscribe