IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

More teeth needed in pet adoption?

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 21, 2013

IT IS an issue that can be overlooked in the well-meaning act of giving a stray dog a home, rather than forking out a big sum to buy one: the adoption process and its obligations.

The rights and obligations of taking in such a pooch are in the spotlight following the controversy over Tammy, the healthy, seven-month-old puppy that was put down by its adoptive owner last month.

Briton Alison McElwee euthanised the mongrel pup for being aggressive, claiming that the dog had bitten several people, including her four-year-old daughter.

The woman who initially rescued Tammy before giving her up for adoption, assistant project manager Ada Ong, said Ms McEl-wee had ignored her pleas to return Tammy. The Briton disputes this.

An upset Ms Ong has begun legal action against Ms McElwee for allegedly breaching their pet adoption agreement.

While lawyers for both parties debate the circumstances of the dog's adoption and death, animal activists and welfare groups have set their sights on preventing more "Tammys" from occurring.

The groups, and also independent pet rescuers, are looking at making their adoption agreements - signed between adopters and the groups - more stringent to better protect their charges.

Others, however, have called their efforts impractical.

Does the pet adoption process need to be reformed, and what is the best way to do it?

Pet protection now

CURRENTLY, most animal welfare groups conduct extensive interviews with potential adopters to ensure they are suitable to take in a pet. Questions include the adopters' working hours, their neighbours, and history with pets. Some groups even visit the homes to check that they are pet-friendly.

While some people may be turned off by the intrusive process, Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD) president Ricky Yeo said it helps pair adopters with suitable dogs.

Animal welfare groups and independent rescuers also use adoption agreements to set out owners' basic responsibilities.

While the documents vary, the terms usually require the adopters to provide food, water and veterinary care to the animals. Some also forbid adopters from giving away or abandoning their dogs without first notifying the group.

Ms McElwee's lawyers have disputed that the agreement she signed is a legal contract, but other lawyers disagree - parties are legally bound by the documents, they told The Straits Times.

Several animal welfare groups also conduct home visits for up to a month after the adoption to check on both pet and owner.

The groups reassure adopters that they can call them if the pets develop health or behavioural issues. If the owners insist on giving up the pets, "all they have to do is tell us, and the responsibility falls back on us", said Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD) president Siew Tuck Wah.

Laying down the law?

GIVEN the in-depth process, most people who do adopt are ready to take care of their pets, said the animal welfare groups.

But they cited several close shaves, with pets slated for euthanasia saved because the vets were friendly with the groups and notified them.

To stop pets from being put down possibly unnecessarily over behavioural issues, several groups said they will compare notes and see if their agreements should be beefed up. Both SOSD and ASD plan to explicitly forbid adopters from euthanising the dogs without notification. Some groups said they may run their agreements by lawyers and make it clear to adopters that the documents are legally enforceable.

After the Tammy incident, independent rescuers started sharing a stringent, lawyer-drafted agreement that spells out additional rules. These include not removing the dog's vocal cords to prevent nuisance barking and not euthanising the animal without the previous owner's consent.

Nine animal welfare groups have formed a euthanasia protocol for vets, The Straits Times reported last week. They have sent it to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which regulates vets, and the Singapore Veterinary Association.

Currently, vets have to confirm ownership of the pet, satisfy themselves that euthanasia is reasonable and advise the owner of various options before taking the final step of killing the pet. The decision, however, rests entirely with the pet owner.

The proposed protocol asks vets to carry out more specific steps before euthanising animals for bad behaviour. These include verifying that the animal has had basic obedience training and that a trainer has indeed failed to change the pet's aggressiveness.

Unintended consequences

THE desire to protect the animals is understandable. But a barrage of new, harsher legal clauses may be counter-productive.

ASD's Mr Yeo summed up the animal groups' dilemma: "A legal framework needs to be in place to prevent a repeat (of the Tammy incident). But we don't want to make the adoption process so legalistic that it scares people and puts them off adoption."

More stringent adoption contracts may make pet shop animals more attractive as they may not carry the same legal risks. This is despite the fact that dogs can cost thousands of dollars to buy compared to the usual few hundred dollars to adopt - which includes things like vaccination and sterilisation. While some pet stores also have agreements setting out basic care responsibilities, these are not compulsory.

The contracts' practicality is also limited. They may give previous owners recourse if something goes wrong, but they are likely to be useful only then. Most animal welfare groups and rescuers lack the manpower to ensure the agreements are adhered to over time.

Final checkpoint

ENLISTING vets may be more effective. They are well-placed as the last stop before the act of euthanasia, to carry out some reasonable checks. To verify that a trainer failed to change the animal, vets only need to ask the owner for the trainer's contact details and make a phone call.

When asked by The Straits Times, vets themselves had several recommendations. One who declined to be named said: "If a person comes to me and says the animal is aggressive, they must show evidence, such as a police report or injury photos.

"Even if the pet is aggressive in the consulting room, that's not enough. It could be the strange surroundings or the owner's presence causing the behaviour."

It seems reasonable to ask owners to furnish proof of injury or evidence that they tried to change animals, to show that the animals are not put down just for convenience.

Other ideas need more work. Ms Corinne Fong, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), said it did not support the proposed euthanasia protocol as some parts were "impractical".

She said: "How can you possibly guard against someone who lies and says he doesn't remember where he got the animal from? How does the vet verify this?

"If the vets contact the previous owners or re-homers and they object to euthanasia, are they going to take the dogs back unconditionally? Animal shelters are usually full. Will they make the adopters hold on to the animals while they find space? How long should the holding period be? These are not addressed in the protocol and need to be answered."

Mind the people

SOME people also painted a nightmare scenario: The pet turns aggressive, its previous owner refuses to take it back and trainers insist it can be rehabilitated with more sessions.

Should the owner be trapped with the animal then, and be on the hook to pay trainers more and more money or risk getting caught abandoning the pet?

Others point out that while many came to Tammy's defence, few seemed interested in the injuries it allegedly caused. Ms McElwee's lawyers described bites leaving "puncture wounds with blood".

A compromise could be limiting the number of rehabilitation sessions before taking the step of euthanasia. If an owner shows a vet, say, a receipt for recent training and the animal is still aggressive, that could be grounds for euthanasia.

Animal welfare groups and independent rescuers could also create a website where an owner with valid reasons can list the animal for adoption. If nobody takes it after a reasonable time, that could be another green light to put it down.

The state's role

IN THE meantime, the AVA is working on establishing a national microchip database. Since 1996, imported dogs have had to be implanted with a microchip, as do dogs licensed after September 2007. The national database will incorporate all existing registries such as private registry Pet Call, and those of animal welfare groups such as ASD and SPCA.

The measure is intended to discourage pet abandonment, but the AVA could go further and include information on ownership history. Vets could use the database to find "condemned" pets' previous owners, and check if they want the animals back.

The Straits Times had suggested - and some animal welfare groups backed - a one-week mandatory waiting period between the euthanasia request and procedure. Owners might change their minds or animal welfare groups could use the time to try to re-home the pet, such as listing it on a centralised website.

But if a pet remains aggressive, trainers are unable to change this and no new owner steps up, euthanising the animal may be necessary. People should accept this.

It is too late for Tammy. But perhaps some suggestions arising from her death, such as an adoption process with more bite, will lead to more humanity in caring for man's best friend.

zengkun@sph.com.sg

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 21, 2013

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