Being There

Going to the dogs

Walking the good-natured female cross-breed Midnight - all in a day’s work as an animal shelter volunteer.
Walking the good-natured female cross-breed Midnight - all in a day’s work as an animal shelter volunteer.ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

Poop scoop for the pet cages and a tight leash on the big dogs kick off an SPCA volunteer gig

There is a chicken at the Society For The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). It clucks quietly in its cage, alongside several dozen of the organisation’s most familiar species, cats and dogs, as well as some chinchillas, hamsters and rabbits.

The bird was found wandering the streets. It is hard to imagine how this rooster will find a home, when only two out of 10 animals are adopted.

The building housing the lonely bird is next to the adoption area, a spot visitors to the centre’s premises at Mount Vernon Road are most familiar with. It is here that I have spent one Wednesday morning, along with staff and volunteers, washing and sweeping cages.

Mr V. Mohan, 47, the shelter supervisor, shows me a few tricks for scrubbing dog faeces off the floor. First, I lead the animals out of their cages and into a leashed waiting area. Rather, they lead me. 

The longer-term residents, such as a big German shepherd who has been there since February, know the drill and drag me to where they are supposed to go.

Then, dogs out of the way, to work with the pooper-scooper. Wet the floor and walls with a hose, douse them with detergent, then scrub. I am not used to the odour of the unwashed cage and it gives me the dry heaves. Mr Mohan has seen enough volunteers come and go and knows the signs of distress. He tells me to take a walk outside. It helps and I continue. 

There are teenage volunteers also washing the cages, without drama. I am determined to do the same. Once done, I lead the dogs back into the cages.

“When you step out of the cage, go out backwards and keep your eyes on them. They can squeeze through your legs and run out,” he warns. Luckily, none of my furry charges make a break for it, despite my amateur mistake of turning my back on them.

After I sweep the cat enclosure, I am ready to help take a dog out for a walk. I am assigned a black cross-breed called Midnight and am supervised by volunteer Koh Mui Hiok, 46. She shows me the different types of collars and harnesses for dogs of different sizes and temperaments. Then, how to use a leash.

“Keep the loop around your hand, not the wrist,” she advises, because a large, boisterous dog could pull on it hard enough to cause a sprain. “If a big dog runs away, don’t chase after it because it will run faster than you can. Stay where you are and call out to it,” she says.

Midnight is mine because the dog, which is female, is gentle. Ms Koh is walking Zeke, another cross-breed. When it was brought in, the male dog showed great distress outdoors. Perhaps it had never been outside, she guesses. The shelter gets a lot of “cruelty case” dogs, animals chained up all their lives. The dog-walking programme not only gives them exercise, it gets them used to sunshine, grass, cars and people. Zeke is a success story. From being a trembling wreck when taken out of its cage, it is now a walking enthusiast. Ms Koh carries a roll of plastic bags for the poop, as do the other volunteer walkers, to make sure the dogs stay on good terms with the public.

Around 11am, I sit with the three staff at the reception counter. They also answer the hotlines. An expat couple walk in with a box. Inside is a kitten, barely moving, its face bloody. They had found it off Orchard Road and rushed it there. During the day, there will be more such boxes of animals, some healthy, some not, but always carried by worried people.

Washing food trays under the watchful eyes of cat residents. ST PHOTO: JOYCE FANG

No one knows how the kitten got hurt, but it is in a bad state. It will be put down by the veterinarian later.

Two women turn up. They had called the night before to report a collared dog they found near a bus stop. They want to take photos of it, to make “Found” dog poster. The staff try to talk them out of it. 

The society will instead put an advertisement in the Lost and Found section of The Straits Times for a few days and read the microchip on the dog, if there is one, for owner information, they are told. “Found” animal posters have a consequence not obvious to well-intentioned people.

Some owners see the posters only weeks after the loss. Others, on seeing the notices, imagine that their pet is safe and take their time asking for it back.

In both cases, it might be too late. The dog might have been adopted or worse put down. So if you find a lost pet, better to home it yourself if you want to give the owner the benefit of time, advises the SPCA. Each lost pet competes for space with a stray, an animal with no one to depend on. Each day, the organisation euthanises four animals, because it cannot cope with the 600 or so creatures that come in each month. 

The ones picked to be put down are older, bigger, more aggressive or sicker creatures that adopters are unlikely to select. Those selected for re-homing, however, are under no time limit.

A 91-year-old man shows up to donate a few hundred dollars, in cash. The pensioner has been doing it, once a year, for more than 30 years. He and his grandchildren have come up with this amount. 

“Animals can’t speak up for themselves, they need the SPCA,” he says. After he shakes the hand of Ms Deirdre Moss, 59, SPCA’s executive officer, the widower takes the bus back to his Housing Board flat.

The society runs on the thousands of small donations made by people like him, rather than the largesse of a few, says Ms Moss, visibly touched. 

Just before lunch, I drop by the clinic to watch Dr Tai Yesun, the consulting veterinarian. She declined to give her age. I try to shave a female rabbit being prepared for sterilisation, a standard procedure for mature animals before adoption. But I cannot bear to hold the bulky shaver against the creature’s delicate skin, so I give up after a few strokes and let her and veterinary assistant Angeline Sy, 30, finish the job.

The clinic’s equipment is bare bones. It exists to carry out sterilisations and a few other simple procedures for the shelter’s residents. It cannot afford to go all out to save rescued animals on the brink.

At 2pm, I ride with Mr Ng Hou Chong, 30, an animal-rescue officer. A caller said there has been mewing coming from a Tampines electrical substation for some days. When we arrive, the caller, an elderly man, is waiting, as is an officer from Singapore Power.

Inside, we find a white-and-tan cat crouching in a corner. “How did it get inside?” wonders the officer. The cat must have been thirsty and starving, but it streaks across the floor to get away from us, diving into one of many small, floor-level tunnels.

The terrified cat, seen in the yellow glow of the torchlight, has wedged itself in a gap 2m deep inside the tunnel, just wide enough for it and a thick power cable.

Mr Ng and I are nearly prone on the ground, trying to get the animal out; he trying to work the snare pole and me holding the torchlight. Twenty sweaty minutes later, no luck. We dust ourselves off, put food on the floor and leave. He will bring a baited cage trap tomorrow.

Back at the SPCA, Mr Jaipal Gill, 27, assistant manager of operations, tells me that many cases take several attempts. Strays or house pets, rescue officers put in the same amount of effort. They have plucked chihuahuas off roofs and cats off HDB window ledges and too many other tight spots to count.  

Next, we head to Upper Thomson Road to bring in a maltese. This breed of tiny toy dog is popular with apartment dwellers who buy them as adorable puppies. But cuteness only goes so far. These little white balls of fluff yap constantly and, in Australia, are the breed most commonly dumped by annoyed owners.

The family that is giving it up to the SPCA is doing it for the sake of their very young children, who seem to be allergic to the pet.

The society counsels everyone surrendering their pets to exhaust their own re-homing alternatives because those not selected for adoption may be put down.

But it cannot turn anyone away because, without the society’s help, the outcome for unwanted pets might be too horrible to contemplate.

In any case, HDB-legal, young, healthy pure breeds such as the maltese stand a better chance of being adopted.

Around 5pm, staff begin to clock out. But the call centre and animal rescue officers are available 24 hours. The new shift employees are just coming in.

From 8am till now, the support desk has handled 135 calls and walk-in cases.

Mr Lawrence Tan, 31, an animal support officer, is still on the phone.

“Fill up a mineral water bottle with warm water and put it next to the body. Put a ticking clock near it too,” he says.

A caller has found an abandoned newborn kitten and Mr Tan is giving advice on how to simulate the vital body warmth of a mother-cat’s body and its heartbeat. Remembering this bit of feline care information, along with many others, has to be second nature for staff.

There are no adoptions this Wednesday. Adopters prefer to drop in on weekends.

Then, a surprise. A friend of veterinary assistant Sy has come for the chicken. She already has a few in her backyard and one more is not a problem. The rest of the 180 or so animals there will, however, have to wait their turn.