When the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) last month culled 24 free-ranging chickens in Sin Ming after receiving 20 complaints about noise, some people were up in arms.
They questioned the need to kill the birds. Indeed, The Straits Times receivedeight letters to its Forum page on the topic, with all not in favour of the culling.
It did not help that AVA had offered different explanations for its actions.
The AVA last month told the media that it culled the birds to address concerns from residents who had complained about noise, and that the chickens were euthanised due to the lack of relocation options in land-scarce Singapore.
It also claimed that "the free-ranging chickens sometimes seen on mainland Singapore are not red junglefowl".
Then, on Monday, AVA director-general Yap Him Hoo wrote in a Forum page letter that the chickens were culled because of "public health and safety" due to the bird flu risk. He added that "various media reports may have given the impression that AVA is taking action solely because of complaints of noise".
This did not help assuage public criticism of the AVA, especially in social media.
The ensuing outcry over the culling of the Sin Ming chickens is just the latest incident in the saga of wildlife conflicting with humans.
In this case, the AVA was viewed as being too quick to cull, and then confused matters by offering different justifications - first, noise nuisance, and then, bird flu risks.
In response, AVA said its priority in its approach to managing wild animal populations is to ensure that public health and safety are not compromised.
But as Associate Professor Donald Low from the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy said, the AVA should have quantified the extent of the bird flu risk.
"It cannot be the case that even the remotest possibility of a bird flu outbreak justifies mass culling," he added. "After all, chickens are not the only species that can be infected with bird flu." A cost-benefit analysis should have been done before the authorities decide to cull the chickens, he said.
With culling now in the spotlight, some have argued there is a need for a new model of animal management in Singapore that does not make it the easy option.
MORE STUDIES NEEDED
What would make a good animal management model? Firstly, it needs to be backed by science.
Singapore needs more scientific studies of its animal and wildlife populations. In this case, it was not clear if AVA or any other animal experts really know if the chickens roaming around Singapore are domesticated ones, or whether some are actually the endangered red junglefowl. There is also no census of the birds.
Singapore's human-wildlife conflict has centred on a few species in recent years, including monkeys and wild boars. Once species are identified, there can be more focused efforts to study these animals and their habitats and patterns of behaviour so as to minimise conflict with humans.
This was the case for long-tailed macaques. In an ongoing study, the National Parks Board (NParks) is tracking the range and movement of the long-tailed macaques by tagging them with GPS collars.
A finding was that monkeys often became a nuisance when they were fed by the public.
AVA, too, has embarked on studies and trials to better understand and manage wildlife issues. For instance, it has conducted trials on the effectiveness of bird contraceptives in managing the pigeon population.
This is encouraging. But scientific studies take time, and the authorities may not have the luxury of doing so when faced with problems that threaten public health, such as when rats running around Bukit Batok hit the headlines. But unlike the Bukit Batok case, the possibility of the Sin Ming birds posing a public health risk was not immediately obvious.
Culling ethics aside, AVA should have quantified the risk of bird flu and made it public, so people are not unduly worried about catching the virus from the free-ranging poultry or other birds.
Science-backed alternatives are also practised overseas, such as in Australia where culling of sharks has drawn public outcry. But after a seven-year monitoring programme, the authorities have rolled out an app that allows beach-goers to track tagged sharks in real time, and move out of their way.
IMPORTANCE OF DIALOGUE
Second, a good animal management model requires dialogue with stakeholders.
Dialogue can offer solutions that are kinder to animals than culling and which get to the root of the problem.
Mr Louis Ng, an MP for Nee Soon GRC and chief executive of wildlife group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), noted that, most of the time, animals move to areas where food is available.
This was the case for the wild boars at Pasir Ris, where at least one resident was feeding them.
The rats at Bukit Batok ate food for stray dogs left by feeders.
The long-tailed macaques ventured into condominiums bordering the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve to rummage for food in the bins. It may be the case for the free-ranging "chickens" too, said Mr N. Sivasothi, a senior lecturer with the biological sciences department at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
"When we visited some of the areas where the birds were seen, we noticed some residents feeding them," he added.
Perhaps by simply encouraging residents to stop feeding the birds, this could keep the numbers of chickens down - obliterating the need to cull.
AVA said it works with the community to understand concerns, before assessing the situation and available information to determine the best approach.
But going by the social media backlash, if it did so, it did not take into account, or realise, the possible impact on sections of the wider community.
Indeed, culling is an established method of controlling animal populations, not just in Singapore. In the Yellowstone National Park in the United States, for example, bison are culled to keep their numbers under control. But it was not done without protest. Last year, close to 135,000 people signed an online petition to stop the cull.
While culling remains an option, there are other methods that can reduce conflict with humans.
Monkey researcher Sabrina Jabbar in 2014 came up with a way to keep macaques away from condominiums bordering the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, through a novel "herding" method carried out by the estate's security guards.
The guard taps a stick, an umbrella or net on the ground assertively to deter the monkeys from entering the premises. And because of the principle of negative reinforcement, the monkeys avoid entering these areas.
Since this started in Springdale Condominium in 2014, the number of monkeys entering the estate has dropped. In the past, they used to come in every day, said a condo management spokesman. Now, they are seen only twice or thrice a month. The spokesman added: "In 2014, the number of monkeys in a group entering Springdale was about 20 to 40. To date, the group has been reduced to less than 10."
As for stray dogs, one scheme to sterilise them to prevent them from breeding has proven successful.
In 2014, state industrial landlord JTC worked with animal welfare groups, including SOSD, Acres, Action for Singapore Dogs, and Noah's Ark Cares to roll out a trap-neuter-release scheme on Jurong Island.
The place was selected for the pilot as it is a controlled environment where other stray dogs cannot get in or out. The scheme has helped in the sense that the population is now stable, with fewer litters of puppies now, said SOSD president Siew Tuck Wah.
Another option is the relocation and rehoming of strays, which the Government has helped promote with its adoption of a scheme allowing Housing Board flat owners to take in stray dogs.
Under Project Adore, dogs up to 15kg in weight and 50cm in height - about the size of a cocker spaniel - can now be kept in HDB flats. Previously, only purebred toy breeds like shih tzus and miniature schnauzers were allowed.
SPACE FOR TOLERANCE
Ultimately, key to managing human-wildlife conflict is tolerance and a more rigorous scientific basis to form decisions on what actions to take.
Nature groups and some government agencies are trying to nurture an appreciation for nature through various initiatives, with NParks, for example, conducting free guided tours to Singapore's nature areas.
The authorities should also take a measured approach to complaints about animals, and base animal management policies on science.
As ecology consultant Ong Say Lin, who studied the conflict between wild boars and humans in 2008, noted: "If the authorities continue to cull animals based on complaints without a robust scientific approach, what kind of a society would we be encouraging? Is there no space for tolerance, even when appreciation is missing?"
After all, animal nuisance complaints will always arise. The Asian koel's loud calls, for example, irk some residents. Wild boar incursions into parks, roads and residential areas pose safety concerns. Another issue is monkeys that enter homes to forage for food. Some animals could also pose public health threats: bird flu from fowl, rabies from dogs.
But reasonable citizens will not expect or want the authorities to cull all animals that pose a nuisance. Tolerance is important.
At the same time, AVA and other government authorities need to make it clear that they have a sound basis for deciding on their response to such complaints.
These should also be explained to the public, so all parties involved understand and can come to accept the need for action - even if it includes culling.