Tuesday, October 6, 2015

What will the mass cull in the name of rabies achieve?

IF you think that the mass culling of stray dogs in the northern states which began last month, after rabies was first detected in Perlis on Aug 19 will serve to eliminate the zoonotic virus from spreading further, I urge you to think again.

Let us not be deluded by the notion that the council workers, dog catchers and Department of Veterinary Services personnel are coming face to face with ferocious, rabid and snarling dogs on their culling rounds which they are "destroying" for the good of the community.

The dogs that are becoming easy kill are dogs like Ah Pek, his photo first appeared in a Facebook post on Sept 23. It was a poignant image of a white dog sitting resignedly with its head slightly bent.

The dog had a collar around its neck and was surrounded by Majilis Bandaraya Pulau Pinang (MBPP) workers, one worker in particular held a metal chain that was fastened around Ah Pek's neck. It was a sad image indeed, of man's best friend on death row.

Some netizens who commented on the photo said the dog was likely abandoned by its owner because of the rabies scare and fell victim to the dog catchers.

Soon after the real story came to light, Ah Pek was a friendly community dog at Desa Mawar in Air Itam.

He was owned by Wayne Ng who operates a coffee shop in the area and was licensed and vaccinated. At the time of his death, when he was caught and killed by the council workers and dog catchers, his MBPP license tag was hung around his neck.

Ng could not house Ah Pek in his flat, but he cared for all his basic necessities and according to residents in the area, Ah Pek was often found leashed outside the coffee shop.

Most residents at the Desa Mawar apartment had fond memories of Ah Pek, saying he was loved by many and that people would press the lift button for him to go upstairs to find his owner.

Sadly it was his friendly nature and trust in humans that proved fatal in the end. He stood innocently  when approached by the dog catchers, Ah Pek did not put up a fight.

But he died a painful death, Ah Pek was not put to sleep with an injection, he was strangled with a hook and choked to death.

His owners have since held a press conference to highlight the injustice committed against this friendly community dog who was licensed and vaccinated, but became a victim of the state's mass rabies cull. The incident has since been highlighted in the Chinese media.

Though the general public might not be aware of this, this is the reality on the ground, because of their tame and trusting nature, it is community dogs that have become easy kill for the dog catchers.

The story of Ah Pek is a case in point. In fact a few days after the culling operations began, many independent rescuers reported that dogs under their care had vanished overnight.

Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng however says that the dogs are being put down in a humane manner with tranquilisers, adding that death takes place in less than a minute and is painless.

Accounts from independent rescuers and NGOs who have been tailing the dog catchers however suggest otherwise.

According to animal welfare coalition Stop Killing, Start Vaccinating (SKSV), they have documented proof that dogs were mistreated and put under a lot of stress before they were killed.

Based on accounts from NGOs and rescuers, council and DVS staff involved in the culling exercise frequently use a decoy in attempts to evade them.

Those who try to document the culling exercise have also been warned by the dog catchers not to do so.

If everything was being done in a legal and humane manner as asserted by the chief minister, why the need to warn the NGOs not to take photos and why the attempts to evade them?

The NGOs know full well that they can't obstruct local council personnel and DVS staff from carrying out culling activities, as such they should be allowed to gather documentary evidence in the name of transparency.

What is troubling however is accounts that have surfaced on Facebook from independent rescuers. One rescuer who posted on Facebook on Saturday, described how several puppies were put in plastic bags by the dog catchers and knocked to death with stones.

She added that to stop the puppies from struggling, the dog catchers stepped on their faces to stop them from struggling. The rescuer added that she could not take a video or photos, after being warned that she would be charged in court or face action from the authorities.

According to Penang Veterinary  Services Department director  Dr Siti Salmiah Tahir, a total of 1,647 stray dogs have been killed since the culling operations began on Sept 15, this number includes community dogs who have been sterilised, vaccinated and managed by independent feeders and rescuers.

As Siti Salmiah herself acknowledged, many strays could not be captured. These are likely more feral dogs who shy away from humans or strays who have suffered abuse and are not as trusting as community dogs who are easier to approach.

Despite the order to "destroy" all strays, even the state governments of Penang, Kedah and Perlis must acknowledge that no matter how long this operation continues, they will never succeed in completely eliminating the stray population.

Stray dogs that have so far eluded the dog catchers will remain just that, elusive, moving further and further away from harm's way. If some of these dogs carry the rabies virus, the efforts of the three state governments to fight rabies by culling would be rendered ineffective.

Containing the spread of the virus

As suggested by animal welfare NGOs, the best chance of stemming the spread of the virus would have been to initiate a vaccination programme for strays in the affected areas and to put dogs who display symptoms of rabies to sleep in a humane manner.

Even the authorities themselves must acknowledge that the culling operations cannot go on indefinitely at the taxpayer's expense.

They must also take into account, that for every stray "destroyed", more are being produced, and I am not just talking about the litters produced by feral dogs and cats.

One of the biggest contributors to Malaysia's stray problem is irresponsible pet owners, puppy mills and pet shops.

Despite local councils saying that owners who apply for dog licenses must have their pets neutered, many people don't apply for licences and are happy to let their pets breed.

These are the people who will dump newborn puppies and kitten in boxes outside veterinary clinics, animal shelters, restaurants and hawker centres, the stray dogs and cats you see scavenging for leftovers outside food outlets were likely dumped there in infancy.

While some pet owners think they are doing a good deed by giving away litters of puppies and kittens each time their dog or cat gives birth. They don't seem to realise that not all of these puppies and kitten will end up in good homes for the rest of their lives.

At some point they might end up as strays on the streets, perhaps abandoned. As such, pet owners must realise that allowing their pets to breed is a  huge responsibility, they must ask themselves if they can guarantee that all the litters produced by their pets can be assured of good homes.

Despite the fact that many animal shelters are teeming with dogs and cats in need of good homes, the allure of buying a pedigree dog or cat from a pet shop is difficult to resist for many people out there.

It is a known but seldom mentioned fact that animals in pet shops come from puppy mills. As long as there's a demand for pet shop pedigrees, backyard breeders and puppy mills will continue to thrive.

Puppy mill operators are known to dump animals that can no longer breed outside shelters or on the streets.

While unsold pedigrees in pet shops are either sent back to puppy mills to breed, or put to sleep. 

To date there has been no concerted effort either by the local councils or the Veterinary Services Department to humanely manage the issue of strays or the dumping of unwanted animals.

Animal shelters manage as best as they can from public donations, but space is always a problem as irresponsible people continue to dump unwanted pets, most of whom are not sterilised as well.

Those who have come forward to be a lifeline for the strays, are independent rescuers who feed, neuter and manage the homeless dogs and cats in their community.

They do so on their own initiative, investing time and money in the process. When Penang began culling stray canines last month, it was the independent rescuers who were the most affected, as dogs under their care fell victim to the dog catchers.

Together with NGOs and animal activists, they were criticised by the Penang state government for being too emotional, but can we blame them?

These good samaritans have stepped up on their own initiative to manage the stray population, because the authorities have been disinclined to do so.

Though the local councils have complained about the costs incurred in having to put down stray dogs, they don't seem to have a plan to tackle the problem at its root.

Several NGOs have approached the various local councils to implement a Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage programme, however the councils appear reluctant to adopt an approach which involves releasing the dogs back on the streets, for fear of complaints from the public.

I believe this is where education plays a crucial role. The local councils should team up with DVS to educate the public on the benefits of TNRM and how it  is more effective in reducing the stray population in the long run compared to culling.

The local councils and DVS must also get tough with owners who don't neuter their pets. There must be no compromise on this, every person who adopts a dog or a cat must have the animal neutered.

While the DVS must launch a crackdown on illegal puppy mills and the pet shops that buy from them.

To encourage the adoption of homeless pets and lighten the burden of shelters, the DVS must make it mandatory for pet shops to work with shelters to promote the adoption of rescued dogs and cats.

In this way the shelters can keep rescuing and rehabilitating abandoned and stray animals with support from DVS, local councils and pet shops to get the animals into good homes.

Lim who has come under heavy criticism for ordering the mass cull of strays has repeatedly said that his priority is to preserve human lives and that of pet dogs, he however fails to see that the human lives he is striving to protect is the cause of thousands of strays roaming the streets today.

Is it not the stray dog, rabid or not who is the enemy, it is irresponsible humans.