Friday, 2 January 2015

Letter to the Editor: Rescuing Animals An Uphill Battle


The recent reports of the imminent deregistration of a volunteer-run animal rescue organisation in Kajang highlights just some of the challenges faced by animal rights and welfare organisations and rescuers in Malaysia, as well as the urgent need for better animal protection laws. 

The rise in the number of animal rescue organisations and independent animal rescuers in Malaysia is an encouraging sign that our society is progressing and extending help and concern to all living beings. However, it is also born out of necessity, as our animal protection laws are too weak to be effective, and law enforcement agencies do not prioritise incidents involving animals. Weak penalties and the absence of measures to deter animal abusers from re-offending or acquiring more animals after the removal of their abused animals means that well-meaning animal rescuers keep on taking in more and more animals to prevent their continued abuse. 

The lack of support from governmental bodies also means that the cost of rescuing animals is borne exclusively by rescuers, with occasional help from NGOs and private donors. Many rescuers are forced to cease their activities due to financial, physical and emotional burnout. Lack of resources, lack of preparedness and lack of foresight by rescuers frequently result in animals being abandoned by the very people who undertook responsibility for their lives and safety. 

Apart from knowledge about the feeding and basic care of animals and the importance of vaccination and neutering, here are some of the things every potential animal rescuer must know and be prepared for: 

1. Ignorance of the law is not a defence. Rescuers who register their organisations must comply with all legal requirements and submit all their relevant documents to the Registrar of Societies on time. They must also do their research and be prepared to face the consequences of trespassing private property, removing animals that are technically the private property of another, keeping animals in premises where animals are prohibited and failure to settle veterinary and other bills. Rescuers should always obtain the necessary permits and approvals to carry out their operations and work with the Dept of Veterinary Services, Dept of Wildlife and National Parks, registered and established animal welfare organisations and law enforcement agencies in cases where there is a risk that criminal offences may be committed. 

2. Every rescuer should ideally have an independent source of income and mode of transport. A rescuer or rescue group running low on funds should have contingency plans and carry out fundraising activities before taking in more animals. There are limits as to how much and how frequently one's friends and family are able to contribute to one's rescue work. Having the mindset that you can always take an animal in first and “look for the money later” is irresponsible. Animals have been surrendered to shelters or abandoned in vet clinics when their rescuers are unable to pay the bills. 

3. Unless they are the owners of landed property, rescuers should ensure that they have the express consent and knowledge of their family members, housemates, landlord, apartment joint management body and other relevant parties BEFORE they start bringing animals home. One should not have to sneak animals in and out of one's home with the constant fear of eviction looming over one's head. 

4. In the event of complaints from neighbours or the threat of eviction, rescuers should have alternative accommodation plans. Boarding at a vet is often a good albeit costly short-term solution. Alternatively, find a willing family member or friend who is able to host your animal companion until s/he can be rehomed or safely released. If you are lucky enough to find someone so generous as to offer you space in his/her property, be responsible! Feed, exercise and clean up after your charges daily. Don’t foist the responsibility on the hapless homeowner. 

5. Be prepared for the eventuality that a rescued animal may have to live with you for months, and even years, before s/he gets adopted, especially if s/he is injured, ill or diseased. Think before you take on this responsibility: Can you afford the vet bills? Are you able to adjust your working hours and other commitments? Do you have your own transport? How will your family members, housemates or landlord take the news? Are you planning on moving house or emigrating anytime in the future? In the event no-one adopts your rescued animal, are you able to keep her/him? Do not make the mistake of taking in an injured animal with the intention of only keeping the animal long enough to seek treatment for the injury. Once you undertake to bring an animal to the vet, you must assume responsibility for her/him until s/he gets rehomed or released. Consider these questions first: Where will s/he live after being discharged from the vet? What if s/he needs follow-up treatments or physiotherapy? What if s/he may never safely live outdoors again? A good rescuer would start looking for an adopter and alternative care providers as soon as possible. 

6. There is no doubt that rescuers act out of kindness, but an overcrowded shelter or living space is a major source of stress for people and animals alike. Many cats and dogs get stressed out by the presence of newcomers. Previously friendly neighbours may start complaining to the local authorities. Avoid biting off more than you can chew. Rescuers and fosterers should ideally not foster another animal until a previous rescued animal has been rehomed. In urgent cases, it is always wise to find a willing vet, friend or family member who can provide the new rescued animal with a temporary place to stay until your existing rescued animal is rehomed. 

7. Be prepared to prioritise and make heartbreakingly difficult decisions: Should you continue treatment for a critically diseased animal if there is a risk of infecting your other animals? If resources are extremely limited, do you save a sick animal or 5 healthy ones? Would you choose to save an aggressive young animal over a compliant but timid older one? If an animal has been suffering for a long time despite your best efforts, would euthanasia be the humane and merciful thing to do, or would it fill you with lifelong guilt? Do you proceed with an abortion for a heavily pregnant stray animal if you knew that you would be able to rehome her but not all her babies? 

8. Remember that when you bring your animal to the vet for treatment, you are essentially entering into a contractual agreement, and your vet can take legal action against you for arrears in bills. Even the most sympathetic and patient of veterinarians need to take care of their economic interests if they want to stay in the business. 

9. It is important to have a strong network of volunteers. Many friends are often ready to contribute in any way they can: as adopters, donors, graphic designers, adoption/rehoming promoters, fosterers, part-time pet sitters and volunteers. Be mindful not to take advantage of the kindness of your friends. Being an animal rescuer does not give you the licence to behave disgracefully towards humans. If you assume the responsibility of rescuing and fostering animals, you should find your own solutions and create your own back-up plans. 

10. I cannot emphasise this enough: DO NOT HOARD. Hoarding animals puts an immense strain on your resources and is unfair to your housemates and existing animal companions. Animals in overcrowded living conditions are often stressed out and they become hypervigilant over the constant invasions of their territories. You should always make every effort to find good homes for your rescued and foster animals, and remain in touch with their adopters as much as possible without being intrusive and over-anxious. You must trust the new adopter to provide the best care possible for your rescued and foster animals. Remember that hoarding is not a sign of love, but a sign of anxiety and insecurity. Before you decide to keep yet another one of your rescued animals, ask yourself: “What happens if I am evicted, or have to move into an apartment? What if I fall sick or get badly injured or die? Can my family members take in all 30 of my cats? What if one of my rescuees have an incurable infectious disease and infects all the others? What if one develops a terminal illness that costs a lot to treat? What happens if my child or parent develops a severe allergy to my animals?” In these worst-case scenarios, remember that it is easier and takes less time to rehome 3 than to rehome 30. 

Despite its challenges, rescuing is a rewarding and fulfilling experience, both for the rescuer and the rescued animal. Considering the important work carried out by animal rescuers, the government should introduce or increase measures to support and assist animal rescuers, such as subsidised veterinary treatment, public education efforts to actively encourage the neutering and vaccination of companion animals, low-cost spaying/neutering clinics, tax deductions for certain products and veterinary treatments, setting up a dedicated animal cruelty investigation and prosecution team in each state, ensuring that law enforcers provide practical assistance to animal rescuers and identifying suitable locations for the setting up of animal shelters in cases involving significant numbers of animals. The Animal Welfare Bill 2012 has been debated in Parliament long enough -- it is our sincere hope that 2015 will see the draft bill finally being given statutory footing. 

Petaling Jaya, Selangor

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