Animal welfare improving but 'more can be done'

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2013

Animal welfare is gaining ground, with its introduction into the national school curriculum and laws in this area expected to be toughened.

But groups say they would like to see more done.

To encourage character-building, the Education Ministry is incorporating it into the Character and Citizenship Education syllabus to be introduced next year.

Last month, the Government-commissioned Animal Welfare Legislative Review Committee also recommended wide-ranging measures - both legislative and industry-led - to improve the lives of pets in Singapore.

There have been other signs of progress.

Pilot programmes to get stray dogs and cats adopted in Housing Board flats started on a positive note, a national adoption centre is in the pipeline and the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has in recent years begun re-homing some stray dogs.

Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law K.Shanmugam and Acting Manpower Minister Tan Chuan-Jin have also been visible in championing greater animal protection.

But tensions and challenges remain. Animal welfare groups - most representing dogs and cats - have grown by about 20 per cent since 2004 and now number at least 30.

The largest of these are the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), Cat Welfare Society (CWS), Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD), Agency for Animal Welfare (AAW), Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD) and the Animal Lovers' League.

Passionate and vocal, their volunteers and other animal lovers often harness social media as a clarion call, bringing animal concerns to the fore. At times, this has put the AVA and even the SPCA on the back foot.

On March 19, a member of the public took to Facebook claiming that the AVA put down a stray golden retriever unnecessarily. Her post was shared more than 5,000 times and prompted the authority to issue two explanations on its Facebook page.

Last October, the SPCA moved to improve how it identifies lost animals after hundreds of netizens criticised it for mistakenly euthanising a lost pet dog.

"It's not a sit-and-wait situation any more. Now everything is out on the Net in the open. People are tweeting, Facebooking," said Ms Eunice Nah, chief advocate volunteer for the AAW.

Groups say social media can be just as counter-productive as it can helpful. "It could give a bad image to animal welfare," said SOSD president Siew Tuck Wah. "People may sympathise less with the cause, thinking that (animal lovers) are going overboard."

The AVA said it welcomes greater awareness about animal welfare as it "reflects civic-consciousness and a maturity of understanding about the treatment of animals".

This very civic-consciousness has driven groups to regularly air their views on moves they feel AVA should take.

Welfare groups say problems of irresponsible ownership, animal abandonment, the large stray dog population and re-homing policies are linked, and that the AVA should focus on these root causes rather than rely on culling.

On their wish list of policies not included in the committee's report: a concerted effort to sterilise the 8,000-strong stray dog population here, for HDB to relax its ban on medium and large dogs in flats and mandatory training for all prospective pet buyers.

A national sterilisation programme would control the stray population, they say, reducing the need for heavy-handed culling. While the AVA recognised that sterilisation could be "effective", it stressed that "relying solely (on it)... is not a viable option. Dogs, sterilised or not, can still pose a public safety and public health risk".

Others want HDB rules relaxed as most strays are larger than the approved size, greatly lowering the odds of them being re-homed since about 80 per cent of Singaporeans live in public flats.

Groups say that larger breeds can be well managed as long as owners are informed and responsible dog keepers. But HDB says that small dogs are "generally more manageable", especially with the need to maintain conducive living for residents in these high-density estates.

A pilot to re-home stray dogs - stretching the rules - began in April last year, led by ASD and supported by the Government. It has since re-homed 18 strays. Last year, ASD re-homed about 100 out of the 240 dogs in its shelter, the vast majority in landed or condominium homes.

A similar pilot re-homing stray cats in Chong Pang is also underway.

Progress is being made, they acknowledge, but root causes like these mean the stray population remains large and animal shelters have been full for years. Culling is often the result, with the AVA killing strays for public safety and the SPCA doing the same to prevent overcrowding at its shelter.

In 2011 and 2012, the AVA euthanised about 2,400 stray dogs and re-homed about 220 others. In 2010, it put down 5,100 stray cats. SPCA declined to reveal its figures. Groups like the ASD and SOSD practise a "no kill" policy.

An AVA spokesman said it supported re-homing, but that "not all impounded dogs can be successfully re-homed and humane euthanasia is our last resort".

Inadequate law enforcement is another issue that has long been a sore point among animal lovers.

Animal abuse cases handled by the AVA and SPCA rose from 1,162 in 2007 to 1,426 in 2011, but warnings or fines were issued in only about 300 cases.

The AVA said it investigates every case of animal cruelty reported to it, but that it needs "verifiable evidence and witnesses who are willing to testify in court" to take further action.

SPCA's executive director, Ms Corinne Fong, said the AVA would be able to do more if given legislative power and a boost in manpower. She called on the public to be more understanding.

"AVA is hamstrung by the current laws. If the law is broadened and they are given specific powers of enforcement, then their job would be much easier. The courts must give them more bite and they need a larger budget."

The AVA said that it views working together with the groups as "integral" to animal welfare.

Ultimately, groups remain optimistic about the path ahead, saying that political will and public sentiment appear to be in their favour. "If you do this for so long, you have to be optimistic," said CWS president Veron Lau.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on April 23, 2013

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