Cover Story: Tails, you win

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 12, 2017 - June 18, 2017.

The SPCA centre in Ampang Jaya focuses on education, rehoming and taking action. The facilities here include a pet-friendly venue that can be booked for events.

Christine Chin

Jean Liew

Seema Subash

Events organised by PFAC such as the The Retro Sessions at the Elephant Rock Restro Bar in Aman Suria last month see members of the community come together to celebrate their shared love of animals

TNRM’s Spin for Strays session was a fun combination of fitness and fundraising, with the proceeds benefiting the animals that the organisation cares for

-A +A

Animal welfare issues have proved a constant bugbear in Malaysia. Every now and then, a particularly serious incident will make the news and infuriate the public. But, even when not the subject of heated discussion, the perceived lack of a legal framework to address concerns such as managing the large stray population and ensuring responsible pet ownership makes championing the cause of animals a trying one. These are among the many issues Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) chairman Christine Chin, Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage Malaysia (TNRM) co-founder Jean Liew and Pawse for a Cause (PFAC) founder Seema Subash encounter in their work and make them determined to bring about change.

“One of the main challenges SPCA is facing is the rapid reproduction of companion animals (cats and dogs). We, of course, bear the brunt of it because we are located in a central area where people tend to dump these animals. Ten years ago, we used to receive about 700 animals every month. Now, we get about 700 every year — this is a huge reduction! The large number of strays compared with animals in homes is an issue, not only in Malaysia but also all over the world. However, there is a solution to this problem, which is to spay/neuter, legislation and education. It is a matter of how animal welfare organisations, rescuers and the government work together to solve this overpopulation of stray animals,” Chin says.

However, Chin, who has been with the SPCA for 27 years now, is optimistic about the changing animal welfare landscape in the country. “I am very happy to say that a lot of people are beginning to understand the issue better and are carrying out rescues themselves. I think we have empowered, educated and taught these people to be rescuers as well as to spay/neuter the rescued animals and then manage them.”

Founded in 1958, the SPCA adopts a multipronged approach, which includes an adoption programme, investigations of cruelty reports, assistance to community animal caregivers and lobbying the government and local councils for humane treatment of animals and stiffer penalties for perpetrators of crimes against animals.

Seema feels that human mentality is the root of the problem. “I always joke that God created us last and we think we’re the most superior species, but we’re not!”

She says the problem primarily stems from people adopting a pet without first thinking it through. “Many get a pet for the wrong reasons — like because it looks cute when it’s little, and then giving it up when it isn’t anymore!”

A major problem faced by almost all welfare organisations in the current economic climate is funding. This is where Seema comes in. An animal lover herself who grew up in a like-minded household, she founded PFAC, which organises various events with the sole aim of raising funds for animal-related causes. PFAC has expanded from a simple birthday fundraising event at a bar in 2014 and has since raised over RM50,000 — both in cash and kind — for three animal shelters, namely Dog House, Cherishlife Home and Lost Animal Souls Shelter.

Moving forward, the funding will be done via the Chelsea Foundation — named after her dog (the face of PFAC), which joined us for the interview, never leaving Seema’s lap. The foundation aims to provide assistance to animal shelters and organisations through funding, education and awareness support, value-added services and strategic partnerships. This new approach will allow all animal shelters and organisations to submit pleas for funding and support.

Seema believes that shelters have bigger roles to play instead of merely housing animals in distress. “We find that, after a while, the shelters are just going through the motions and do not make an effort to give their dogs an attitude or character. They don’t try and convince people to take a puppy home. We have seen donation drives where dogs were placed in cages and people just walked past them,” says Seema, who is looking forward to PFAC’s biggest event to date, which will be held in Desa ParkCity next month.

Seema does acknowledge that “people who set up shelters are committing their entire lives to the cause”, something not everyone has the strength or ability to do. “People can turn around and say, ‘No one asked him/her to do so’, but we need to have mutual respect for what each other does within and for the community. So, we tell people that if they cannot adopt a dog, at the very least, go to a shelter and sponsor one. It alleviates burden for the shelters. They can instead channel their energy and resources into training people and tackling other issues,” she says.

All three women agree that the Netherlands is a shining example with its zero stray population — a goal that is attainable in any country, subject to certain provisos. And one approach that they unanimously agree on is spaying/neutering.

While this method of dealing with strays is nothing new, it is only of late that it is in the limelight. But for Liew and her fellow advocates of this method at TNRM, it is a humane solution they have been fighting for since the inception of the non-governmental organisation in 2012.

In fact, Liew has practised it herself on various occasions as an independent rescuer and even prior to founding TNRM. Brownie, a large handsome, beefy — and true to his name, brown — dog that stays by Liew’s side throughout the interview, is more than just the mascot of TNRM. The former stray is one of the reasons that compelled Liew to start the NGO, one of the earliest and most active to propound the idea of spaying/neutering to address the stray population in our country.

As its name suggests, releasing and managing the animals are the fundamental elements of TNRM.

“Strays usually survive on their own for a very long time, but it is often the people’s thinking that they know best and that it’s better for the animals to be placed in a shelter. But I’d rather the animals remain strays than be sent to a bad home,” she explains. Animals that have been spayed/neutered are usually released back to where they were found and community feeders are then responsible for managing them.

“We work with community feeders. We make them understand that feeding without neutering actually adds to the problem as the animals are then more fertile, healthy and able to reproduce even faster! It is great to feed but, first, neuter them — and we will help you do that,” says Liew.

TNRM is also appreciative when feeders are able to sponsor the procedure, but in the event that they are unable to do so, crowdfunding is a feasible option. “Community feeders get to know the dogs and cats quite well through feeding them. They must then, as much as they can, try to catch these animals. This is one of their core responsibilities. The SPCA cannot catch and spay/neuter every single animal. But when an animal is caught, we at TNRM can arrange for the procedure to be done at a discounted price — 80% for cats and 50% for dogs — at selected vets,” says Liew.

Today, more and more people — individuals, organisations and the authorities — are beginning to realise the efficacy of this method in dealing with strays, particularly cats and dogs, in the country. “Animals are territorial and when one is removed from an area, new unspayed and unneutered animals will move in and start breeding. However, when caught and released after they are spayed or neutered, the numbers may remain the same ... they can’t procreate anymore and will guard the territory, preventing other unneutered animals from coming in. This buys us time to trap, neuter and release other strays, and the numbers will dwindle naturally,” says Liew on the far-reaching benefits of TNRM’s approach.

While not every municipal council has adopted this approach, campaigns such as Stray Free Selangor — organised by the SPCA, with Tengku Permaisuri Selangor Tengku Permaisuri Norashikin as its royal patron — are indicative of growing support from the authorities. “The SPCA’s ultimate goal is a home for every soul,” says Chin.

Liew quickly qualifies, “A good one! We have all met the authorities before to discuss their approach (the catch-and-kill method) to managing strays as not only the numbers remained the same but also it actually went up! So, not only is it inhumane but it is also ineffective!” laments Liew, on the difficulty of convincing the authorities to adopt TNRM’s approach instead.

“Spaying/neutering a pair of female and male dogs can prevent up to 67,000 dogs being reproduced in six years. For cats, it is up to 420,000,” says Liew, citing statistics from the Arizona Humane Society. She says no figures are available locally.

Chin and Liew agree that while the catch-and-kill method may have been practised for years now, it has not proven effective in reducing the number of strays. If nothing else, this method — despite public outcry — is commonly associated with being cruel and the use of unethical means to catch and put the animals to sleep.

“One of our goals is to explain to the councils that spaying/neutering works. The catch-and-kill method may seem to work at first, but [as time goes by] you will need to catch and kill more because the source of the problem is not the animals; it is the irresponsible owners who dump unspayed/unneutered animals,” Chin says.

She also believes the key to reducing the number of strays while tackling all other animal-related issues is by creating caring and compassionate communities.

Seema, who views all animal welfare organisations, shelters and the community as parts of a jigsaw puzzle, says, “Before the community can be educated, the advocates need to unite. All the animal organisations are currently fragmented and you cannot lead this way. The ones spearheading the movements need to first educate themselves, put aside their egos and pool their resources so that we can all get to the end of the tunnel.”

For decades now, the issues relating to animal welfare have been grave and offenders aplenty, and many agree that it is high time the offenders were brought before the law. In this light and with hopes for a strong deterrent, the Animal Welfare Act 2015, which was passed by Parliament almost two years ago, is a welcome improvement and a move in the right direction.

Prior to that, there was very little room — if at all — for legal remedies in cases involving the breach of animal welfare regulations; the closest, arguably, being the Animal Act 1953 and Animals (Amendment) Act 2013, which stipulated a meagre RM200 fine and/or six months’ imprisonment for those found guilty of cruelty to animals. Under the new Animal Welfare Act, the penalty has been increased substantially to a fine of between RM20,000 and RM100,000 and/or a maximum of three years’ imprisonment.

Chin, who is especially glad that section 29 of the act includes abandonment, has this to say about the soon-to-be-enforced legislation: “I think it is excellent because it has section 24, which covers the duty of pet owners. There is now a law that says you have to be kind to your pet! I am not saying that this will solve everything, but if the deterrent is too light or inconsequential, people won’t care!” Chin says, adding that the SPCA receives about 60 notifications of cruelty cases from the public each month.

Although most pet owners know their responsibilities such as providing shelter, food and care, there are still cases of ill-treatment of companion animals. As it is with any legislation, implementation is key to achieving intended goals and even the best legislation would be pointless without strict enforcement.

Liew, a fitness aficionado, draws a parallel between the Animal Welfare Act and exercise. “It is better to walk for five minutes than to be a couch potato!” she laughs. “Something is always better than nothing, and for the law to be effective is a different story. But this is the first step towards better animal welfare.”

Seema is also positive about the new law. “It is my hope that the community won’t look for loopholes in the law but take it as an opportunity to work with the government to improve the situation.”

This is also the approach Seema is adopting for her work at PFAC. “We are trying to remove all the negativity in animal welfare, and instead of having pity on an animal, we want to focus on the feel-good factor.”

When asked what keeps them going despite the challenges, their responses vary. “Wine helps!” Chin jests, while Liew says that not dwelling on the horrible things she has seen as an animal welfare advocate helps her cope. “It is difficult to forget the cruelty inflicted on animals I have come across, and I used to get very upset.”

As for Seema, it is “the change she sees — slowly but surely — that is taking place”.

A common sentiment the three seem to share is the love for animals and a sense of embracing the work they do, knowing that they are in it for the long term.

As the nation eagerly awaits the coming into force of the Animal Welfare Act and the changes it will bring, we can take solace in knowing that individuals such as this passionate trio will keep doing their best to champion animal welfare in Malaysia.