SINGAPORE: Pest control companies may fall short when it comes to proper handling of wildlife, an industry association acknowledged after incidents involving claims of mishandling and criticism from the public.
"We have learnt from past incidents that we are lacking in the handling of wildlife," a spokesperson for the Singapore Pest Management Association (SPMA) said on Sunday (Sep 13) in response to queries from CNA.
"We see criticism positively and constructively. If there are really issues, we will then have to do our best to resolve the issue. If there are incompetencies, we also would do the necessary to improve the training to increase competencies," said the spokesman for the SPMA, which lists on its website more than 50 pest control companies as members.
This comes after a YouTube video uploaded last Wednesday showed pest control officers allegedly mishandling a python while removing it from a drain in Jurong West.
Wildlife rescue group the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) criticised the officers for disregarding animal welfare by stepping on the snake and tugging at it aggressively, citing the footage.
A similar incident made headlines in January last year after a pest control firm was criticised for the way it handled a 3m-long python outside Tang Plaza in Orchard. The former Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority investigated the incident and determined that officers did not mishandle the snake.
READ: 'No malice or cruelty': Pest control company Anticimex rejects claims of mishandling snake at Tang Plaza
ACRES deputy chief executive Kalai Vanan told CNA he has seen cases where pest control companies mishandle snakes, bats and monitor lizards.
The National Parks Board (NParks) told CNA it will investigate any feedback on mishandling, adding that the public should call its Animal Response Centre for cases involving injured, distressed or trapped wildlife.
"NParks engages animal management companies to assist in handling these cases," said Dr Benjamin Lee, director of wildlife management research at NParks.
For such cases, Mr Kalai said people should call ACRES or NParks and not pest control companies, noting a public perception of reptiles as "undesirable" pests.
"As we grow into a city in a garden, it is important that we start raising awareness about our urban wildlife," he said. "We cannot achieve that with pest control handling wild animals as it associates wild animals with being pests."
PUBLIC SAFETY A PRIORITY
But the SPMA said public safety is a priority in any operation, regardless of the animal. While there have been local incidents of snakes biting people, ACRES has said these remain rare.
"I agree that the handling of wildlife is a science, something that only a handful of experts are proficient in," the SPMA spokesperson said. "However, in view of public safety, more people are to do the necessary to protect the general public."
The SPMA said pest companies have handled snakes, monitor lizards, geckos and "pest birds" like mynahs, crows and pigeons. However, it said wildlife calls are less frequent than those involving general pests like mosquitoes or cockroaches.
To prepare for wildlife handling, the spokesperson said staff attend handling courses conducted by regulatory bodies, and seminars where professionals share skills.
"Staff are provided the necessary equipment, as advised by the professionals or regulatory bodies," he added. "When handling the subject of the call, the pest management professionals do the necessary as taught."
The spokesperson acknowledged that staff still might not be adept in handling wildlife as it is not "ingrained" in their skillset.
"Training is one thing, but without practice, the training will also be laid to waste," he stated. "Of course, there is always room for more training and education, not just in wildlife handling, but in everything we do."
NParks' Dr Lee said the agency has introduced a new Animal Management Professional Certification Programme to raise industry standards and train animal management staff in ensuring public and personnel safety as well as animal welfare.
SPMA said it worked with NParks to conduct the course, which comprises basic, elective and advanced modules that cover professional handling of wildlife, including reptiles. The first run of basic module started in August.
"All animal management companies and non-governmental organisations are invited to attend these upcoming training courses if they are dealing with wildlife," Dr Lee said.
TRAINING HAS NOT WORKED
While ACRES said it welcomes training and education to improve the situation, having pest control officers handle wildlife "goes against the whole concept of having a biophilic city, because (the) public will view wildlife as pests".
"The first step to solving this problem is to start cultivating respect and appreciation for our native wildlife," Mr Kalai said. "This cannot be achieved when the public associates wildlife as pests."
Mr Kalai said pest control companies have in the past have been given training, and that this concept has failed. He said he has also met pest control officers who are not keen on handling wild animals.
"They are often forced to handle by their superiors or clients. This often leads to unconfident handling which can result in both the animal and handler getting injured," he added.
Mr Kalai said pest control companies are profit-driven businesses with a job scope that involves "destroying vectors and pest animals".
"Those two elements cannot fulfil the need to handle protected wild animals," he stated. "Clients and agencies like town councils should not push their pest control companies to handle wildlife too."
"SCARY AND DANGEROUS"
One pest company told CNA it refers calls involving wildlife to ACRES, even though its website indicates that its services cover snakes.
"Sometimes, (pest control officers) are new and if it's unprofessionally done, it can cause a big problem," said Mr Titus Raj, who runs Ultimate Pest Destroyers by himself.
"Nowadays, people will just take a picture and put in on Facebook, and that reflects badly on the company."
READ: Python spotted in toilet at Upper Thomson shophouse on 2 separate occasions
Mr Raj said pest companies could choose to handle wildlife despite a lack of training as they are contracted to clear an area that includes general pests and reptiles like snakes. Officers could handle snakes wrongly and get bitten.
Ultimately, Mr Raj said he will not handle snakes unless he gets proper training.
"If you are talking about a python, it's too big," he added. "It's very difficult to handle it alone. Sometimes they will be very wild, whereby they are very scary and dangerous."
COMPASSION KEY TO HANDLING WILDLIFE SAFELY
ACRES' Mr Kalai said pest control companies should only deal with vectors or pests, adding that it takes "skill, knowledge and compassion" to handle wildlife safely.
In a Facebook post last Thursday, Member of Parliament for Jalan Besar GRC Josephine Teo shared how NParks sent an officer and a research specialist to a block in Boon Keng after residents reported bats flying into their homes.
She said NParks staff assured residents that the bats were not a danger to public health, and shared about their importance in the ecosystem. They also introduced practical measures to deter the bats from flying in.
READ: Boon Keng residents told to hang 'shiny objects' at doors, windows after finding bats in flats
Mr Kalai said allaying public fears and educating people on wildlife encounters are some ways of achieving a biophilic city, where occupants interact or feel closely associated with other forms of life in nature.
"Promoting co-existence to minimise conflict situations, proper planning of developments, informing residents moving to new properties adjacent to nature areas ... is the key to achieving a truly biophilic city," he added.