Commentary: Want stronger protection for animals? Empower animal welfare groups to carry out enforcement
Countries like New Zealand and Australia empower their SPCA-equivalent to bring animal offenders to justice, President of SOSD Dr Siew Tuck Wah points out.
SINGAPORE: Would you house your dog somewhere else if you were going overseas for work?
If you were paying money for this service, would you expect him to be fed, showered and taken care of?
And if so, wouldn’t you expect your dog to be returned after, alive and well, at least no worse off than the condition you packed him off in?
We seem to take basic welfare standards of our animals for granted when we leave them in the hands of pet boarding facilities.
Yet over the past month, many Singaporeans have woken up to the fact that there’s not always the case, in the aftermath of flash raids on one pet boarding service Platinium Dogs Club by the Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA).
18 dogs and a rabbit were fortunately found in the rented semi-detached house but one Shetland sheepdog called Prince met his untimely end. What was more shocking was news from authorities that Prince had passed away at the premises and was cremated.
The tragedy has raised many questions about the state of animal welfare regulations in Singapore, with many calling for stricter rules on pet boarding facilities.
While much progress in animal welfare has been made over the past few years, the long-drawn incident clearly reveals the gaps in our laws regarding animal welfare and their enforcement.
PET BOARDING A MURKY GREY AREA FOR YEARS
It has become painfully obvious that tighter regulations are required to safeguard animals entrusted to pet boarding facilities, and what they can or cannot do.
Pet boarding has always been a grey area. Under AVA’s rules, pet boarders do not require a license to operate.
Only commercial pet farms need licenses and therefore have to comply with certain standards and rules set by AVA, including the size of cages animals can be housed in, the health of the animals and their records, as well as their agreement to AVA’s regular spot checks.
Pet boarding facilities that are not pet shops, however, do not fall under this category.
On the other hand, although the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA) does not allow pet boarding in residential properties, we have not heard tales of AVA or URA intervening in residential pet boarding businesses unless there are complaints from neighbours about arising disamenities.
But the recent episode suggests we must ensure that commercial pet boarding facilities, such as Platinium Dogs Club, are subject to the same rules and regulations which govern pet shops and farms.
Boarding animals must be given proper food, shelter, water and mental stimulation. They must be given timely medical care, and be protected from neglect and abuse.
But because most pet boarding businesses are not licensed, there is no way for the authorities to ensure this. This has to change.
Some will argue that there are many freelance pet boarders who have personal relationships with pet owners and look after animals in their free time, for whom heavy intervention will impose high compliance costs.
Indeed, there may be a distinction to be made between people who help look after their friends’ pets, and pet boarding businesses who are running a business operation with the intent of profit making.
Platinium Dogs Club, for example, advertised online and ranked highly on Google, leading to many dog owners engaging their services. At the very least, there is a case to be made for consumer protection.
What is disturbing is the pet shop license conditions, which stipulate how pets ought to be displayed, recorded, microchipped and then sold, are not very different form how we treat goods or property.
Might that be the reason why more resources could be devoted to animal protection but are not?
BETTER ENFORCEMENT NEEDED
In that context, it is heartening to hear authorities reassure the public. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam’s pledge of a thorough investigation and action to be taken against illegal acts was well welcomed.
Our laws have evolved in recent years to reflect society’s growing desire to protect animals, in tandem with the growth in animal welfare groups.
We have strengthened laws that support animal welfare. The Animal and Birds Act was amended in 2014 to impose harsher penalties for animal abusers. Businesses found guilty of animal cruelty for the first time can be fined a maximum of S$40,000 and/or jailed for 2 years, compared to s$10,000 and/or jail of 1 year before the Act was revised.
The next important step is to make sure that these laws are enforced, including on errant pet boarding facilities and other pet-related businesses. It is heartening to see more Singaporeans looking out for cases of animal cruelty. The SPCA receives an average of 80 to 90 reports of alleged cruelty to animals every month.
While AVA has also made improvements in enforcement, more still needs to be done. If the policy intent is to let pet businesses operate freely, only stepping in when trouble brews, do authorities simply have the bandwidth and manpower to respond decisively to look into all cases of alleged animal welfare and halt any mistreatment?
Since July 2018, neighbours were already surfacing complaints to AVA about excessive howling of dogs at Platinium Dog Club. Yet, it continued business operations until tragedy struck five months later.
Closer follow-up, more timely investigations, and perhaps involvement of the public for other similar complaints could have brought Platinium’s practices to light earlier and forestall the sad series of events. The dogs did not have to lose their lives.
Animal welfare groups in Singapore do not have enforcement powers. This is in contrast to countries like New Zealand and Australia, where the SPCA is empowered legally to bring animal offenders to justice.
Officers have the authority to enter property, seize animals and evidence of animal cruelty offences, issue on-the-spot-fines and initiate prosecution under animal welfare legislation, just to name a few.
If the authorities consider engaging the help of animal welfare groups in enforcing cases of animal cruelty, that could dramatically change the landscape of animal welfare here.
It could help authorities enforce laws against these cases of animal abuse without straining constabulary resources. It would allow errant pet businesses to be dealt with quickly and pose a more credible deterrent against animal mistreatment.
It would also be in line with the employment of auxiliary police who are vested with powers to safeguard life and property of persons in Singapore and assist the Police in the maintenance of law and order under the Police Force Act.
WHY DOESN’T CREMATION REQUIRE A LICENSE?
The lack of regulations are not limited to pet boarding businesses, but also include other pet related industries, such as pet grooming, cremation and training.
It was only two years ago that a pet cremation facility was found to have not cremated pets properly, and returned a mixture of compounds similar to sand and cement instead of the animal’s ashes to their owners.
Despite not being registered, that particular facility was able to continue its business activities, until complaints made the news.
Pet cremation providers do not require a license from the AVA, and yet do not have a surefire way of ensuring that pets belong to those who order their cremation.
Again, it’s starting to sound like the disposal of pets, just like the disposal of goods, require little thought and therefore little action against wrongdoing, a good reason to enlist the instincts and muscle of animal welfare groups who have animal welfare at heart.
SOME WAY TO GO
We have some distance to cover before we become a nation with the highest standards of animal welfare.
The Platinium Dog Club tragedy has brought some of these issues to light, but we have others we need to deal with – such as tighter regulations for the sale of pets.
Jurisdictions, like California’s, have passed laws to prohibit the sale of dogs, cats and rabbits in pet stores unless the animals are from a rescue organisation. This will also drive pet owners to find their pets straight from a sustainably sourced and ethical pet farm.
Animal welfare groups are always ready to work with the authorities, so that we can work towards a Singapore which is better and kinder to its animal friends. It’s time to allow us to step up and do more.
Dr Siew Tuck Wah is president of SOSD.