Sunday, 24 February 2008

Animal 3Rs: Rescue, Rehabilitate, Rehome

Published in ‘Streets’, the New Straits Times, on Saturday, 23rd February 2008

By Wong Ee Lynn

Perhaps you have received e-mails or text messages before from groups or individuals who need to find homes for cats or dogs. Perhaps you have encountered booths put up by animal rescue groups at public events and in shopping centres to find homes for the formerly stray or abused animals under their care.

Perhaps you have wondered how these people could devote so much of their time, energy and effort into caring for unwanted animals; whether the animals would ever find homes and what happens to the animals that are not adopted.

There is a small but growing number of volunteer stray animal rescuers in our country, and their mission is to help reduce the burden of our overcrowded and underfunded animal shelters and prevent healthy animals from being put to sleep.

Stray animal rescuers can be loosely divided into 2 categories: incidental rescuers, and organised rescuers.

Incidental rescuers are not intentional animal rescuers in that they did not plan to pick up stray animals, but found themselves in a situation where they have to provide care to one or more animals in need of medical attention and a new home. It could be a concerned neighbour who finds a dog left behind by a family that has moved away, or a student who brings home an injured cat but is unable to keep it.

Toby is one such case. A young lady and her friends found Toby at a food court in Petaling Jaya in September 2007. He was badly injured in a road accident and in grave need of medical attention. The good Samaritans brought Toby to the vet, where they learned that Toby’s right hind leg had to be amputated. The medical bills were rather high, and so other friends chipped in to pay for the unfortunate kitty’s surgery and medication. An e-mail circulated to collect funds for Toby’s vet bills was so successful that his rescuers managed to pay for his vaccination and neutering as well.

At the same time, Toby’s rescuers had to find him a new home, as they lived in apartments or rented accommodations that did not allow them to keep pets. Then a kind offer came in from an expatriate schoolteacher and her family, who have sufficient experience in caring for rescued and injured cats. Toby went to his new home in November 2007.

Not all injured animals are as fortunate as Toby, and it is hoped that by learning more about efforts to rescue, rehabilitate and rehome animals, you will be inspired to offer them your support and assistance.

Organised rescuers, in contrast with incidental rescuers, actively locate, round up, foster, neuter, rehabilitate and rehome stray animals. Most of them have websites or blogs informing the public of their latest activities and the animals available for adoption. Some even give out their telephone numbers to allow people to contact them if there are animals that need to be rescued. Some have earned the support of commercial establishments such as shopping centres or night markets to set up weekend booths offering animals for adoption. Others strive to find homes for their animal wards by e-mail. Many are former or current volunteers with animal shelters such as SPCA, PAWS or NANAS. Some have fostered young animals for registered animal charities before and could not accept the fact that animals that are not adopted within a certain timeframe would have to be destroyed, and have therefore started their own initiatives to find homes for the animals in their care.

Some of these organised rescuers fall under SPCA’s outreach programme, Mission HELP. Under Mission HELP, rescuers round up, feed and care for stray animals and bring them in to the SPCA for neutering and medical treatment before securing new homes for the animals. They also assist animal lovers who feed strays or who lodge reports with the SPCA on stray animals in their areas in bringing the animals in for neutering at the DBKL-SPCA Low Cost Spay and Neuter Clinic. This programme is one of the measures taken by the SPCA to reduce the number of stray animals in the country and to lower the euthanasia rates in our animal shelter.

All animal rescuers carry out the good work they do on the premise that we owe a collective responsibility, as humans, to the animals that we are supposed to care for and protect. Humans have selectively bred cats and dogs for so many generations that without food, shelter and medical attention from us, cats and dogs are unable to keep themselves healthy, safe and free from starvation and suffering.

Animal rescuers also understand that the problem of stray overpopulation is a direct result of human apathy and negligence. Most pet owners do not intend or could not afford to keep all the offspring of their pets, yet do not take the necessary step of neutering their pets on grounds that it is against their religion or that it would ‘alter their pet’s behaviour’ or on any other baseless or frivolous reason. The unwanted pets are then abandoned and often suffer from malnutrition, disease and injuries related to traffic accidents and fights. Strays do not live long. The average life expectancy of a stray cat is only 3 years, while an indoor pet cat can expect to live well over 10 years.

There is, nevertheless, a need to tell apart real animal rescuers from those who are not taking any concrete action to promote animal welfare and control stray overpopulation. The former group deserves our backing, while the latter group needs our advice and has to learn to redirect its energies towards more productive and progressive ways of helping animals. People who claim or appear to be ‘animal rescuers’ but whose actions do not help animals include people who feed strays but refuse to have them neutered, and people who allow their pets to breed indiscriminately and then attempt via e-mail and text message to find homes for all the animals they could no longer provide for.

In such cases, SPCA volunteers and officers could be requested to provide counselling and practical support to such people, in order that the animal population could be brought down to a manageable level so they could continue feeding and caring for a now stable animal population.

Not all animals may need to be rehabilitated and rehomed, however. There are special circumstances in which a neuter-and-release strategy may be desirable. This applies more frequently to feral cats that are able to care for themselves and are unused to human contact or indoor life.

To a certain extent, the neuter-and-release strategy also applies to stray dogs that live in largely rural areas where there is strong community acceptance of stray animals. This means that the stray animals are regularly fed, and the society’s tolerance levels are so high that the local authorities are rarely, if ever, called in to deal with stray dogs. Here, animal rescuers also have a large role to play in educating the community and mobilising their support and assistance in bringing the animals in for neutering.

For most people, the idea of having to commit their time, energy, resources and living quarters to rescuing and helping stray animals can be an intimidating one, especially if you have a growing family or are not a person of means. There are, however, many ways in which you may help animal rescue efforts.

Many animal rescuers are unable to reach out to even more animals as they have limited resources and space. Those that do not operate out of animal shelters often use their own homes and if they exceed the acceptable limit of animals living in their premises, complaints from neighbours may hinder further animal rescue work. Some volunteers have suffered from burnout due to escalating veterinary expenses and caregiver’s exhaustion.

If you have ever felt sad about animal casualties of road accidents, felt concern over the number of relatively healthy animals that have to be put to sleep at our overcrowded animal shelters, or walked past a suffering animal and felt immense pity but are powerless to help; then these are reasons enough to support the animal rescue, rehabilitation and rehoming movement.

How you may help:

1. Adopt from rescuers and shelters

Adopt your next pet from pet rescuers and animal shelters to give them an opportunity to live. For each animal that you purchase from a commercial pet store, one animal from an animal shelter will have to die for lack of a home.

2. Spread the word: By e-mail, text message or phone.

We spend so much time forwarding jokes and meaningless e-mails and text messages to one another. When you receive electronic appeals from rescuers needing homes for animals, kindly forward the same to your other friends. Even if only one out of 50 of your friends agree to adopt an animal, you would have made a permanent change in the life of an unwanted animal. If you are a person of means, you could add an incentive, for example, you could offer to bear the neutering costs for any animal your e-mail recipients adopt.

3. Offer your premises: Fostering, Hosting and Boarding

As mentioned earlier, one of the main problems encountered by rescuers is that of lack of space. If you are lucky enough to live in landed accommodation, it would make a big difference if you could offer to foster an animal until he or she is rehomed. If the animal is very young or in need of medical treatment, you may be able to work out an agreement where the rescuer drops by regularly to feed or administer medicine to the animal.

Alternatively, some rescuers may need to use a house in a strategic location to hold a ‘viewing party’ for their animals. You could then offer the use of your house for an evening where potential adopters could come and play with the animals and hopefully, adopt them.

Rescuers need a break too, and when they need to travel or otherwise be away from their animals, please do offer to babysit their animals for them. A week or two is not a very big sacrifice, compared to the months and years rescuers spend providing care for their animals. In addition, fostering and boarding are good opportunities for you to teach your children responsibility for animals before you decide to adopt one of your own, or determine if your current cat or dog is ready for a new playmate.

4. Funds and contributions in kind

Although Malaysians are generally very generous when it comes to donating money to charities, society tends to be more wary of organisations that are not incorporated or registered as charities. If you do plan on making a cash contribution to an animal rescue group but insist on an official receipt for transparency purposes, you could donate the exact amount needed for the treatment or neutering of an animal and request that the receipt be issued in your name. The advantage of paying for the cost of neutering is that receipts issued by the SPCA and the DBKL-SPCA Low Cost Spay and Neuter Clinic are eligible for tax exemption under the Income Tax Act 1967.

You could also make contributions in kind of rice, pet food, pet vitamins, shampoo, leashes, cages, pet carriers, scratching posts, chew toys and pet baskets to animal rescuers, as this would relieve at least part of the burden of caring for many animals. It would be advisable to check with the rescuers first on the items that they need most sorely before you go on a purchasing spree.

5. Spread the word about Mission HELP

You may know of people who regularly feed stray animals in your area. These kind-hearted souls are often to be seen feeding strays near food stalls, food courts and wet markets. Please approach them, commend them for the good work they are doing, and persuade them to have the animals neutered. They may need help in capturing and transporting the animals and in financing the veterinary fees. You can contact SPCA Selangor at 03 4256 5213 and they may be able to put you in touch with volunteers and rescuers who will be able to lend a hand.

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