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Bigger better animal welfare roadshows, but is it enough to make a difference?

Image by Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD)
Image by Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD)

By Veronyka Lau

The AVA Responsible Pet Ownership roadshow last Saturday, attracted over 2,000 visitors in a catty occasion.

As early as 7am, a sea of cat faces could already be spotted at the Big Splash along East Coast Park. By 10.30am, the Cat Welfare Society (CWS) had counted 124 visitors who were ready to make it into the Singapore Book of Records for the "Largest Gathering of People with Cat Faces". The record attempt was just one of the crowd pullers that were organized for the day in a cat-centric theme – the first in a series of roadshows that will be organized for the year.

Over the years, AVA has tweaked its outreach blueprint by increasing the frequency of their roadshows from just once a year to four. It has also begun to partner with animal welfare groups in turn to bring more attractive and media-friendly programmes on board to thronging locations such as Jurong Point, HDB Hub, Singapore Expo and East Coast Park, which has proven to be a winning formula for education and outreach.

This year, the number of participating animal welfare groups has also been increased to 10 with newcomer Voices For Animals (VFA) and has given more focus to pet adoptions as part of responsible pet ownership.

AVA’s message for this year’s campaign was, “the adoption of rescued animals is the better option when looking for a pet”, a bold message and a welcomed alignment with the needs of the animal welfare community.

The presence of over 100 hamsters, rabbits, cats and dogs put up for adoption at the event is the largest showcase so far at an AVA roadshow and underscores the importance of bringing attention to the staggering number of animals that need to be saved every year from abandonment, abuse, hoarding, irresponsible breeding and the threat of culling.

Adoption first

These changes come amidst the recent developments regarding animal welfare in Singapore. The Animal and Birds (Amendment) Bill has strengthened animal welfare legislation in Singapore and the enhancement of AVA’s powers of enforcement have been undergoing parliamentary review since October 2014.

A new section in the legal framework will soon place clear legal responsibility on owners and “persons in charge of animals”, which also includes pet industry workers, to provide proper care for animals.

For animal welfare groups, these developments have been too long in coming, but the reality is not lost on them. Even after the law comes to pass, reigning in a free-wheeling party of operators, backyard breeders and careless owners that contribute to the thousands of animals that end up on our streets and shelters could be years away, as attitudes, practices and enforcement efficacy need to catch up first.

The relentless toll of coping with the demands of animal welfare work constantly derails attempts to smooth tensions on the ground with the promise of change. According to Eunice Nah of Agency for Animal Welfare, the number of dog rescue shelters alone in Singapore has grown to 30. That is a lot of animals-in-waiting and punishing personal sacrifices are typical from rescuers who must compete for the same resources and donor base in Singapore.

Until preventive measures make a real impact, sterilisation, rehabilitation and rehoming remain the most effective strategies in the animal welfare arsenal. With culling rates reduced from 14,000 in 2004 to around 1,500 in recent times, stray cat sterilisation has made significant headway. But stray dog sterilisation is ten years behind this progress since it has only begun recently on Jurong Island and Pulau Ubin.

So the toil continues with small relief at the moment, with adoptions steadily on the increase across the board. Collectively, the 10 participating animal welfare groups at the roadshow on Saturday – which included Animal Lovers’ League (ALL), Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD), Save Our Street Dogs (SOSD), SPCA and CWS – rehomed 1,500 animals in 2014. They can only hope that the thousands more will additionally be able to find homes through AVA’s platform to promoting the adoptability of rescued animals.

Beyond adoptions, beyond roadshows

Joanne Ng of CWS echoes the sentiments of the community when she says that AVA should not put all their education and outreach eggs in this one basket. For lasting change, it needs to look at what is happening in our schools. Encouragingly, MOE schools with the support of AVA will now have animal welfare incorporated into the Primary 4 school curriculum this year, which will in effect ensure that school-going children get at least one lesson on the subject in their formative years at school.

Up to this point, AVA and animal welfare groups operated outside the school curriculum by giving ad-hoc school talks or working with students on projects for their Community Involvement Programme (CIP) when invited to do so. As a result, many schools would not have any exposure to the subject matter at all.

Even with this first positive step by AVA and MOE, the need to help more teachers bring the topic into the classroom remains, and to this end, SPCA is developing an age-appropriate free resource library of lesson plans to empower teachers who are keen to explore.

Causes for Animals made significant inroads with United World College when animal welfare became a part of the international school’s holistic curriculum, with students being graded for their work on animals in and out of the classroom. Other groups engaging students like SOSD and VFA see the potential to work with AVA to extend the reach of youth initiatives in Singapore, especially in the area of promoting tolerance.

Judie Chang of Humane Society of Singapore (HSS) feels support in this area is forthcoming as long as people bring good ideas to the fore. A case in point is the well-designed “Old is Gold” project by final year NTU students promoting the adoption of senior animals.

An added bonus with the trend towards pet adoption has been to bring the screening practices of animal welfare groups into the spotlight. Groups regularly screen to ensure that a potential owner is truly ready before getting a pet, effectively educating them on what it means to be a responsible pet owner at that crucial point of decision-making. AVA has also implementing a checklist that all licensed pet shops must administer to new pet owners when selling an animal so that the owner-to-be is clearly made aware of the issues involved.

The pet industry, meanwhile, is due for a shake-up when the new laws set in, and will be complemented by plans to raise standards through education and accreditation.

At the community level of society-at-large, things are the least rosy. At conservative estimates, AVA, HDB and the Town Councils collectively handle more than 300 cases of animal-related feedback a month. They address such issues with support from each other, grassroots groups, and animal welfare groups such as CWS, AAW and Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES).

Of immediate concerns are people who have genuinely face or contribute to pet-problem issues due to misunderstanding, negligence or errant action. Education and outreach for this target group has a high chance of smoothing tensions within communities and resolving the issues in a fair and humane manner.

Unfortunately, the responsibility for tackling animal-related issues in communities is fragmented across so many agencies and groups that resource availability is inconsistent for efforts to be scaled up effectively. Those dealing with an unceasing procession of community disgruntlements and other ground issues are often left on their own, without getting meaningful support.

As it stands, case handling – which is mission-critical to all involved – threatens to be crushed by its own weight even before it can find its feet. If this were a social experiment on “shared responsibility” (often referenced in glistening reports of multi-agency, government-community partnerships), the verdict must be that shared responsibility without leadership is dead upon arrival.

The leadership component is therefore a clear necessity to tie all the different efforts and initiatives together as one comprehensive solution for the multifaceted issue of responsible pet ownership. The obvious candidate for this is AVA who is positioned perfectly to look at how our case handling ecosystem can meet the needs of the beleaguered constituencies, and also where the shortfalls are (by choice or inherent limitations) in its partners, service providers and even itself.

Then perhaps we can finally get somewhere, otherwise we are just going to end up reopening old wounds and simmering tensions that one-big-happy-family type roadshows can no longer ease.

Veronyka Lau is the Vice President of the Cat Welfare Society.

Images by Cat Welfare Society and Save Our Street Dogs

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