Strays get a second chance
Animals Taiwan.org: Working to save street animals and stop animal abuse
By Jim Lehman
Those of us who’ve lived in this town long enough have grown accustomed to the sight of stray cats and dogs as a feature of street life in every neighborhood of Taipei, but the situation has hardly been static. Taipei’s population of strays is now around 15, 000, but was around 25, 000 a decade ago.
The boom, according to Sean McCormack, came because “fifty percent of Taiwanese grew up in a house with a dog. Those dogs that they grew up with were free roaming, basically – they weren’t in an urban setting. The stray dog problem started happening in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. They were trying to take their rural dog ownership ideas with them, and it wasn’t working.” Widespread abandonment was one result, and animal abuse was another, both problems which persist to this day.
So in February, McCormack established the volunteer organization AnimalsTaiwan.org and has since been working to alleviate the plight of Taipei’s street animals, as well as spread awareness of animal rights and responsible pet ownership. In doing so, the group looks seriously into the local causes and policies relating to the animal problem.
A research study posted on the AnimalsTaiwan.org site lists the main reasons for strays in Taipei as “low rates of neutering, easy availability of low – or no-cost puppies, a tendency to allow owned dogs free access to the outdoors, unrealistic expectations of dog ownership, canine behavioral problems, and cultural taboos against euthanasia and shelter relinquishment.”
McCormack attributes the last decade’s massive reduction in the stray population mainly to the elimination of garbage bags sitting on the street – a ready food source. But an additional factor of humanitarian concern has been the bonuses given to dog catchers. “They started giving bonuses to the dog catchers for every one they caught, which meant that peoples’ pets were being caught. You can see dogs with collars on them at shelters being put to sleep. They shouldn’t be there,” he said.
AnimalsTaiwan.org was founded after McCormack realized the limitations of how many animals he alone could help. He said of Foxy, the badly injured, first dog he took into his home, “I found her outside my building. I’d been feeding her for about a year and someone had thrown acid over her.” After taking her in, “I realized, that’s my limit. I’ve got a dog, my girlfriend’s got a dog. Then I took in another one.” And even then he kept thinking, “What if I see another one like Foxy; a perfect pet? I can’t just have her there. It was about just wanting to help more. I see these animals that want to live.”
The day-to-day activities of AnimalsTaiwan.org volunteers include feeding, walking and filling of the other daily needs of the animals temporarily in their care, liaising daily with vets for the rescued animals, socializing dogs (housebreaking, teaching them to walk on a leash, etc.) in order to give them a better chance at being adopted, providing information and support to people who want to adopt a stray, baking and selling dog biscuits to help finance their organization, maintaining the bilingual website, and visiting elementary schools to educate children about responsible pet ownership. Also, the are currently building a stray holding center and adoption facility near Danshui in Bali, whose high standards they hope will serve as a model for the normally black animal shelters in Taiwan.
“They don’t even spay or neuter these animals, and they put them all in together,” said McCormack.
AnimalsTaiwan.org also works to bring social and legal pressure on animal abusers. As we were conduction our interview, McCormack received a call from a co-worker who had tracked the owner of a “puppy mill” back to a fetid, cramped breeding facility. But when they had tried to send the authorities to investigate the operation, they discovered the breeder had moved the animals to a new location, which the rescuers were hoping to find that night.
McCormack’s group also pursues prosecution for animal abusers and helps people who witness animal abuse contact the proper authorities, such as the police or the Taipei Municipal Institute of Animal Health (TMIAH).
The TMIAH’s role is to prevent the spread of disease from animals, prevent abuse, take care of strays, manage an animal shelter in Neihu, and to pursue prosecution in violations of Taiwan’s Animal Protection Law – which McCormack calls one of the most comprehensive animal protection laws in the world. However, “the problem is, it’s just a law that’s in place, and no one seems to know it’s in place including the police,” said McCormack. “And when you call the police about a dog that’s being mistreated, which contravenes the law, the po0lice don’t want to know because they think it’s just a dog. But this is the law.”
To raise awareness of the Animal Protection Law, McCormack simply recommends reporting more instances of abuse. “The more we report cases, the busier they’ll become, the bigger their department will have to become, the more the government will have to sit up and listen,” he said.
Despite working with limited resources, McCormack claimed: “We don’t give up on any of them. It doesn’t matter what their like. We’ll try.” Ghastly proof of this can be found on the website under “rescues.” Those with strong stomachs can see photos and read the story of Lazarus, who went from being covered with horrifying open sores and near death, to being a healthy, loving pet thanks to rescuers’ intervention.
McCormack sees a number of reasons to be optimistic about the prospect for improving the stray problem. One is Taiwanese general reluctance to euthanize unwanted animals, which presents a difference to the US and other areas. Reasons could include local Buddhist beliefs, which proscribe the killing of animals, and a general willingness to give animals a second chance. It also means that “Taiwanese are more than twice as likely to adopt a stray than Americans. That means that we’re in a position to get these strays into homes and get them cared for,” he said. Another strong point already in place in Taiwanese society is a history of what McCormack calls “community animals,” or animals that live in the street yet are fed and looked after by neighborhood residents. He envisions a plan to “find these people who are caring for the dogs, give them a title, give them support and a network. We can make them feel part of a very big organization. What they will do is let us know when a dog is sick, when there’s a new dog in the area, when there are puppies, and we go in there and we take care of the problem. It’ll work.”
It’s a vision based on the belief that animals that are healthy and thriving in the streets are far better caught for spaying, neutering, and any other required medical treatment, and then released back into their freedom, than captured and forced into an unsanitary shelter where they will likely be put to sleep. So far, it’s making a difference.
What you can do:
If you see a mistreated animal: “Photograph it, make a note of the address, and I would go straight to the TMIAH. It’s far more effective than going to the person yourself.”
If you see a stray that’s not being mistreated:
There are a couple of options here. If you’re willing to give the animal a permanent home, take it in yourself. “Veterinary care here is extremely cheap. You can take a stray dog in with any number of problems, and you’re not going to spend more than NT$2000 – you’ll probably spend NT$500Nt.” The other option for an animal that’s thriving on the street is to have it spayed or neutered and vaccinated, then put it back. If the animal has a caretaker, be sure to contact him or her first.
Contact AnimalsTaiwan.org: “If the dog’s in a really bad way, you can contact us. We will help. We’re not a rich organization, by any means, and we’re limited to the number of helpers we have, and the number of places we can put dogs, but we will help.” Visit their website (www. animalstaiwan.org) or contact Sean McCormack at 0920-620-109.
Volunteer or donate: if you would like to learn more, or find out how you can offer your time or financial support, AnimalsTaiwan.org welcomes interested helpers and donors.
Government support: The Taipei Municipal Institute of Animal Health (TMIAH) is responsible for pet registration. It offers information relating to animal vaccination, spaying/neutering, health, and pursues animal abuse cases (http:www.tmiah.tcg.gov.tw/). English speaking contact: Amanda Yeh: (02)8789-7158.
Check the law: Animal Protection Law is online in English at http://www.gio.gov. tw/info/98html/aplaw.htm.