Tan Soh Hwee was deep asleep in the wee hours of the morning when an unwelcome text message jolted her out of bed.
The message delivered the somber news that an aging Shih Tzu had been abandoned outside her workplace, lying motionless as the rain poured. A basket beside it contained a purple leash and container of kibbles. Surveillance footage would later show a man arriving outside the compound of Mutts and Mittens, the pet boarding facility where Tan worked, leaving the sickly dog and driving off just after 3am.
That was four years ago. As Tan, 31, recently recounted to Coconuts, it had only been four months into her job as a receptionist. Now a manager, she said the abandoning of pets never stopped.
“Last time when we were at Pasir Ris, someone just threw a Shih Tzu at our place, and it couldn’t even move, and it looked like it was half dead. I think it was intentionally left there so that a shelter can take care of it since it’s old with health problems,” she said.
More and more of Singapore’s cats, dogs, and rabbits are being abandoned by people who either can’t handle or can’t afford them, resulting in growing suffering only alleviated by animal lovers and volunteer rescuers working on their own time and money. Fueling the cycle, distrust of animal adoption groups is driving more people to breeders, leading to more unwanted animals dumped in the streets.
Mutts and Mittens moved in 2018 from the Pasir Ris Farmway to The Animal Lodge on Sungei Tengah Road, a space recently set up by the government for animal welfare groups and shelters.
The Shih Tzu, who was older than 10, died several months after it was found, Tan said. The 2016 incident was reported to the Animal Veterinary Service, who failed to find the owner.
Laws against animal cruelty and higher standards for breeders have not prevented animal mistreatment from continuing in Singapore. Each month, The Society for the Prevention and Cruelty to Animals, or SPCA, receives upward of 90 reports of abandoned pets, with cats being most frequently dumped. It was alerted to 57 abandoned felines in 2018, over double the previous year.
More often than not, it is the independent animal lovers who take it upon themselves to help in these situations, but resources have been running thin.
‘On the brink of physical collapse’
In Yishun, where a spate of cat abuses had been reported, a community of cat lovers had worked tirelessly, around the clock, to rescue animals in distress, including some left behind by their owners. But as the number of volunteers dwindles amid the heavy workload, the group is struggling to keep up with the demand. Some have sacrificed sleep.
“We are on the brink of physical collapse and sheer mental exhaustion. Now only left one elderly volunteer coping with daily dizziness and high [blood pressure]. We are all sleeping at 4:30am daily,” the Yishun Cat Patrol group, now down to at least two people, told Coconuts.
Just last month, the group came across three cats dumped in paper bags and left at the foot of housing blocks. Another cat suffering from seven large tumors was also recently found hiding at one of the corners of a housing block.
The Yishun Cat Patrol is not the only guardian of Singapore’s pets, there are also others like Sayang Our Singapore’s Community Cats and Lost and found pets in Singapore that have altogether accumulated 50,000 followers keeping tabs on the latest cases of animal abuse and abandonment, as well as appeals for funds and rehoming of kitties.
With limited space, animal shelters can only do so much for Singapore’s homeless animals. The Mutts and Mittens boarding facility currently houses at least 30 rescued animals, according to Tan.
“It depends on case by case basis because we only don’t want to overcrowd our space,” she said. “We will normally advise the stray feeders or rescuers to look for other places, find a proper home or post on Facebook to see whether anybody else can help to take care.”
At least 20 animal shelters are located at The Animal Lodge, comprising 20 two-story blocks with a total capacity of 7,000 animals. But shelters have to share the space with dozens of pet breeders, who put up dogs, rabbits, and cats for sale.
“I honestly think shelters have done a lot,” said the founder of the Causes for Animals shelter, Christine Bernadette. “It’s time for NParks and AVS to step in and do far more – banning breeders who are cruel and not of acceptable standards. Not all breeders, but the mills are of disgusting standards.”
She added: “I see a giant pin up encouraging puppy purchases instead by a breeder in the same compound. As a society, together we can do more.”
About 260 pet shops had registered with the Animal and Veterinary Service, or AVS, as of last year. One of them was fined S$180,000 in 2017 for chucking dogs it had bred into small and filthy cages, allowing disease to spread among them. Then there are the backyard breeders operating out of homes and lurking on Facebook and Gumtree, selling pets at cheaper prices. Unlicensed pet farm operators face up to S$10,000 fines and a year in jail.
Strict adoption fueling pet sales?
As more pet owners misbehave, animal groups are finding it difficult to trust them, imposing stricter adoption policies in response. But the rules may have put some people off adoption altogether and make the thought of buying pets alluring.
On Reddit, a post lamenting how difficult it is to adopt a pet in Singapore went viral last month. In it, the author complained that a “well known” animal shelter had rejected her application to adopt a 9-year-old dog after finding out she would not be home 11 hours a day. She had a job. Other onerous rules include registering pets with AVS, meshing windows and doors, and agreeing to house visits by the animal shelter. Some also require an adoption fee to cover vaccination and sterilization, among other expenses.
“This whole attempt at adoption has left a very bad taste in my mouth, and I am sorely tempted to just buy a dog,” the dog-denied woman wrote. “I feel triggered now, when I see people constantly chanting ‘adopt, don’t shop’ as if it were that easy.”
Hundreds of others echoed her sentiments in the comments, with some saying that animal shelters were snotty toward would-be pet owners.
These are complaints that animal shelters and groups are aware of but defend as necessary. After exhausting time and money into restabilizing rescued animals, it is too big of a risk to put them back into similar predicaments.
“Shelters have spent a lot of time and effort to rescue the pet, spent time building up the pet’s confidence and training, days of rehab if required, pay for boarding fees, vet medication and consultation and so much more,” said Melodee Tan, founder of Hope for Animals. “All these efforts are not easy, the funds are mostly generously paid by the rescuers’ hard earned money themselves.”
She said the motivation is a concern for the animal’s future.
“Thus, naturally, they would want to make sure that whoever adopts the pet that they have amazing spent their time, effort and money on love, care and rehab, would be the best home who genuinely cares about the pet as well,” she added.
Even though it could indirectly fuel the demand for pet sales, president of House Rabbit Society Betty Tan still has faith in the strict adoption rules. She has taken in 105 abandoned rabbits this year and was still able to find suitable adopters despite turning down some applications.
“There is always such a dilemma, while we cannot allow unsuitable adopters to adopt, they always have the choice to get the animal on their own either by buying or adopting from other individuals and potentially giving them up when things don’t turn out well,” she said. “However, this shouldn’t be a factor for rescue groups to be laxed on our adoption screening procedures.”
For now, Tan and many other animal lovers are looking forward to an official review of the pet industry and plans to educate the public on responsible pet ownership.
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This article, ‘On the brink of collapse’: Not enough rescuers for all of Singapore’s abandoned pets, originally appeared on Coconuts, Asia's leading alternative media company.