Ensuring Tammy did not die in vain

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 25, 2013

THERE is a furore over a woman who had a veterinarian put down her healthy, seven-month-old puppy called Tammy.

Tammy was a stray taken in from an animal welfare group by Ms Ada Ong. Ms Alison McElwee later adopted the mongrel from Ms Ong and contracted with Ms Ong to return Tammy if she were to decide she no longer wanted it.

Ms McElwee said she had Tammy euthanised because it was aggressive and had bitten her family members. She did not inform Ms Ong beforehand of her intention to have it put down. The dog's death upset Ms Ong and many animal lovers.

Law Minister K. Shanmugam weighed in on the issue, writing on Facebook that he had looked at the contract and the text messages between the two women. He thought Ms Ong could sue Ms McElwee for breach of contract and "suggested a lawyer to her who will help her pro bono".

One issue that arises is whether the vet concerned did the right thing to put down Tammy. On this, the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), which regulates vets, said in a statement that a vet consulted about euthanising an animal must confirm ownership of the pet, examine it to assess if euthanasia is necessary and then advise the owner accordingly. So it would appear that a vet would not err if he complied with these rules.

There is another issue at the heart of the case, which was shocking to many: that vets can and do carry out "convenience euthanasia", even when the pet is healthy and adoptable or could be adoptable with reasonable vet care.

This is in fact the harsh reality in Singapore. Pet owners can pay vets to kill their companion animals whenever it is convenient for them, without having to show that the pet has an incurable health condition, or is suffering unbearably in a way that can't be alleviated with good vet care.

Current law and regulation permit owners to put down pets for convenience.

Should this be allowed to continue?

No, because companion animals should have the right to life. After all, they already have some rights, including legal protection from cruel, abusive or exploitative humans.

Under the Animals and Birds Act, any act of cruelty to an animal attracts a fine of up to $10,000, a jail term of up to 12 months, or both. These acts range from "the more commonplace acts of cruelty (inflicted upon animals)" in Public Prosecutor v Seah Kian Hock (1997) to "unnecessary suffering" by confining one's pet in a small place, as ruled in a recent case.

Singapore thus has anti-cruelty statute that protects animals from "unnecessary suffering" inflicted by humans. It thus seems strange that pets do not have protection from owners' callous decisions to have them killed for no good reason other than convenience. Surely being killed for no good reason constitutes "unnecessary suffering" or worse.

What then can be done to prevent animals from being killed on the whim of owners without also introducing too onerous a regulatory regime?

The AVA's rules that apply when pet owners ask for their pets to be put down in convenience euthanasia are "vague" and open to different interpretations, according to Animal Recovery Centre director Jean-Paul Ly. The criteria include "alleviat(ing) their suffering, or if they are aggressive". The wording allows for too broad an interpretation.

To protect animals from temperamental owners, why not introduce a new rule that prohibits vets from immediately killing owner-relinquished animals even when all AVA criteria are apparently met?

The regulator could require vets to wait a minimum of seven full days before putting the animal down. This gives the "condemned" animal the opportunity to be adopted.

The animals' details could be put on the AVA or other animal welfare groups' websites. Such a "cooling off" period might give owners time to rethink and animal activists time to re-home the creature.

This simple rule might have prevented Tammy's death.

Other animals could also be saved. Take, for example, healthy pets abandoned by owners who want to get rid of them and now make false claims to vets that they are ill or aggressive just to get them put down.

Or pets captured by people who are not their owners - such as irate neighbours or vengeful ex-lovers - and taken to the vet to be euthanised.

All these creatures may get a reprieve during this grace period if AVA adopts a new rule requiring a reasonable waiting period for vets before they carry out convenience euthanasia.

Such a new rule would do much to prevent unnecessary pet deaths. Already, many animals are being culled. The AVA relies on culling and other measures to deal with the 8,000-strong stray dog population because animal shelters have been full for years. The AVA had 2,400 stray dogs euthanised in 2011 and 2012.

The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals takes in 900 animals a month, so it runs out of shelter space quickly. Thus, it resorts to euthanasia for 82 per cent of them, though it doesn't reveal the actual numbers put down.

All in all, too many animals are being put down. And any instance of animal euthanasia that is solely for the convenience of owners is arguably unnecessary killing and extreme cruelty.

Stopping vets from immediately euthanising pets given up by owners, or abandoned animals, and mandating a seven-day period where they can be adopted, is one way of challenging the owner's presumed right to kill his companion animal.

If this move slowly changes the way people relate to pets, and helps pet owners become more responsible, then one good thing would have come out of Tammy's sacrifice.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Oct 25, 2013

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