Animal activists risk turning off pet lovers

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2013

When 40-year-old Lisa Soh was thinking of adopting a mongrel from an animal shelter, the housewife was grilled by representatives on where she lived and her past pet history. She was told she would have to let them visit her home and talk to family members "for screening and spot checks".

She would also have to pay an adoption and sterilisation fee and sign a contract agreeing to take good care of her new pet.

"I know they came from a good place but honestly, I felt they were too intense. Was I trying to give a needy dog a home or were they doing me a favour? Then when I saw how previous adopters had been flamed online, it really made me think twice," she said.

In the end, she opted to adopt from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) instead.

Tensions have really boiled over since expatriate Alison McElwee had her seven-month-old adopted puppy Tammy put down last month, claiming the mongrel had become too aggressive.

Tagged a "puppy murderer", she was vilified by animal lovers who put her photos and personal information such as where she lived and worked online. Some made racist and disparaging remarks about the British woman and her family, and she was hounded into removing her details on Facebook.

The vet who did the deed was not spared either, with many swearing off the clinic's services, and some going so far as threatening to picket at its front door.

I am an animal lover. And like most animal lovers, seeing Tammy's sweet "spectacle-ringed" face in media reports, and then reading of her fate, brought tears to my eyes.

"What a shame," was my instinctive reaction.

But with the adopter and the dog's initial rescuer up in arms and telling two completely different stories, and now lawyers being drawn into the fray, it is hard to be totally sure of whether Tammy was a hapless victim or a disturbed and untrainable dog.

Animal lovers may have every reason to be incensed over the senseless death of a young dog, but it seems that the knee-jerk reaction of some activists is to bark and bite immediately after any perceived wrong-doing.

What's worse, this often happens even before the full story emerges and facts are established - mirroring general online behaviour where mostly anonymous netizens post with impunity when they might be far more hesitant to confront face to face.

There are plenty of examples to choose from.

In one case, for instance, a photo of a dog dragged by a dog catcher supposedly hired by the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) went viral online. Checks later found the picture to be an image previously used in an article on dogs in China.

Even those within the animal welfare community have not been spared, and in-fighting among groups who have different ideas and opinions is common.

The SPCA, for instance, is often criticised for putting down animals it has no resources to take care of. Others have been slammed for being slow to rescue stray and abandoned animals picked up by the authorities.

Meanwhile, netizens continue to rant and Tammy's story went viral, with even Law Minister K. Shanmugam - a dog lover himself - being drawn in and recommending that the upset animal welfare volunteer consult a lawyer.

But in the end, all this may not do the animal crusaders any favours.

They risk losing hard-won respect if they persist with an overly adversarial tone and, more importantly, if they allow their passion to be perceived as over-zealous vigilante behaviour.

It would truly be a shame for these animal lovers to sabotage themselves and undo the good that the animal welfare community as a whole has done.

Because this community has come a long way since the days when its lone voice was the SPCA.

Indeed, it is one of the most successful and active citizen networks in Singapore. The AVA said it works with 11 registered groups. A handful of other unregistered groups have popped up in recent years as well. They focus on anything from conservation and education to finding homes for strays and abused dogs, exposing cruelty, sterilising cats and giving abandoned rabbits a second chance at life.

And that's not counting hundreds more individuals who feed, home and volunteer for the cause.

Many have hearts of gold, spending a huge chunk of their time and money on caring for animals. They will take time off work to save an injured animal, or spend nights in far-flung parts of the island feeding and rescuing strays.

It is also through the tireless rallying efforts of such people that bans have been lifted on larger dogs and cats in public housing, and sterilisation schemes for stray cats revived in place of culling.

Yes, when it comes to Singapore's furry denizens, love has no bounds for animal crusaders.

But the social media which serves them so well when it comes to sharing information and helping animals sometimes also helps fan unnecessary flames.

Condemning pet owners who are trying to give up their animals to proper homes, for instance, may encourage them to abandon the animals instead.

Some animal lovers, however, have chosen a softer approach.

Mr Derrick Tan, 32, who set up "Voices for Animals" to find homes for former breeding dogs, was among the first to work with dog breeders who sell pedigree puppies.

While many volunteer groups consider breeders to be the enemy, he chose not to judge. He made friends with them rather than storming their farms.

In this way, he has managed to get hold of and find homes for hundreds of dogs that otherwise might have faced a premature death when their prime puppy-producing days were over, or if the farms went belly-up.

But those who have crossed animal lovers have often paid the price. Some volunteers' blinkered passion for the cause has seen them crossing the line.

By cyber-stalking and harassing people not in tune with their beliefs, they risk putting off the moderate majority who would happily give a "local special" a home.

In the wake of the Tammy incident, even people who would never condone what happened to the puppy have said they cannot stomach some of the subsequent backlash.

Whatever the alleged wrongdoing, they say, retaliating with racist and derogatory remarks is never the way.

It would be more sensible to tone down, calm down, and let sanity prevail.

Or it's the animals which will pay in the end.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Nov 16, 2013

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