by Merritt Clifton
TAIPEI, Taiwan––The Taiwanese legislature, the Legislative Yuan, on January 24, 2015 adopted 25 revisions to the 1998 national Animal Protection Act that are intended to make Taiwan a no-kill nation.
The revisions includes a ban on killing impounded dogs, to take effect in 2017. The ban resembles laws in effect in India, Turkey, and Costa Rica. As in those nations, euthanasia will continue to be permitted for incurably ill or injured dogs.
Wrote Enru Lin of The China Post, “Kuomintang legislator Wang Yu-min, who sponsored the draft revisions, said the two-year delay was included to prevent sudden overcrowding at shelters. During this waiting period, local governments are to cooperate with the Council of Agriculture to prepare for the no-kill policy. Necessary measures include improving shelter conditions and adoption rates, as well as promoting pet registration and spaying and neutering.”
Wang said the Executive Yuan, the administrative branch of the Taiwanese government, had allocated $1.58 billion New Taiwan dollars, worth about $5 million U.S., for improving animal shelters across Taiwan and another $729 million New Taiwan dollars, worth about $2.5 million U.S., for what Lin described as “auxiliary projects aimed at managing the stray population.”
Explained Lin, “Currently, Article 12 of the Animal Protection Act permits the euthanasia of animals held in shelters who remain unwanted for 12 days after a public announcement of capture.”
No-kill advocate responds
Responded Sean McCormack, founder of three Taiwanese no-kill organizations, “New laws to protect animals and preserve life are always welcome, but my concern is that some of the revisions may be overly ambitious: a ban on killing strays, for example, while very well intentioned, may lead to other quite serious animal welfare problems, if all potential consequences are not thoroughly considered and addressed.
“The biggest concern I can see,” McCormack said, “is that animal hoarding, which is already a huge problem in Taiwan, will explode. Pressure will be on shelters to get animals out at any expense, even at detriment to the welfare of the animals the laws were set up to protect.
“It seems the Legislative Yuan has been fairly thorough in addressing pet overpopulation at the source,” McCormack continued, “with measures for improving adoption and neutering rates and increasing animal registration, but it is not clear how the funds earmarked for stray management will be used. We would call for a properly managed, nationwide neuter/return program, which is essential if Taiwan as a no-kill country is to become a sustainable reality.
“I also hope,” McCormack said, “that provisions have been made to put back the new revisions even further should the two-year delay in activating the no-kill law prove to be premature. And it’s not clear if the no-kill policy only covers strays, or if relinquished pets are also protected under the new legislation. I would like to see a non-government committee established to supervise the new procedures and ensure that figures are not being tweaked to disguise unmet goals.
“The other revisions of the Animal Protection Law, targeting breeders and pet stores, more harshly punishing animal abusers, and helping to improve the care and welfare of companion animals, are very welcome,” McCormack added.
Rivalry with Hong Kong
The Taiwanese move toward becoming a no-kill nation may be seen in part as impelled by rivalry with Hong Kong.
Taipei, the Taiwanese capital, is not a city that likes to be seen as trailing Hong Kong in anything. The almost equal heights of the tallest building in Taipei and the three tallest in Hong Kong attest to the intensity of the civic sibling rivalry. The three tallest Hong Kong office towers are actually slightly higher, but the Taiwan tower has six more stories.
The Hong Kong SPCA went no-kill in June 2002, turning animal control duties over to the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department to refocus on doing sterilization and adoption.
Making Hong Kong a no-kill city was the initial goal, but was de-emphasized after later changes of leadership.
Nonetheless, shelter killing in Hong Kong has markedly declined, to just 1.6 dogs and cats killed per 1,000 human residents.
In hard numbers, the Hong Kong SPCA killed 3,607 dogs and cats in FY 2012; Hong Kong animal control killed 10,947. The combined total was about 6,400 fewer than the average in the five years before 2002.
Hong Kong has about seven million human residents. Taiwan, as a whole, has 23 million. The rate of shelter killing in Taiwan, as of 2011, was 3.5 dogs and cats per 1,000 people, more than twice the Hong Kong rate, but trumping Hong Kong then, and now, requires little more than continuing to make progress for another few years at the pace Taiwan has already sustained for more than a decade.
Help from the Hong Kong SPCA
The Taiwanese drive to lower shelter killing is actively encouraged by the Hong Kong SPCA. Hong Kong SPCA director Sandy MacAlister and director of animal care Fiona Woodhouse have frequently welcomed delegations of Taipei animal advocates for shelter tours and strategic discussion.
Hong Kong SPCA shelter architect Jill Cheshire’s many innovations are now so widely emulated worldwide that few people remember where they began––but they are still revolutionary to many Taiwanese visitors.
The Taipei region as yet has no gleaming no-kill adoption center, conveniently located and resembling a shopping mall. Neither does Taipei have any totally clean, quiet, odor-free animal control shelter.
While the Hong Kong SPCA is a longtime global leader in demonstrating “best practice” standards in shelter management, Taipei might still be deemed to be 20 years behind.
Yet Taipei has compressed 150 years of shelter evolution in other parts of the world into barely 15 years of increasingly ambitious development, pushed by a generation of young activists with U.S. and Canadian educations, allied with well-connected expatriates.
Hardly any of the present Taipei animal advocacy leaders were involved circa 2000, when McCormack arrived from England.
McCormack, a former bartender who had studied accounting, had no animal advocacy or shelter management background. He came to Taiwan to work in sales, not knowing a word of Mandarin when he arrived, and not knowing anyone in Taiwan.
Already a vegan, McCormack struggled for a year just to read menus and signs well enough to eat. Vegan food is widely available in Taiwan, called “monks’ food,” but is rarely labeled in English.
Becoming a promoter of mixed martial arts cage fighting after his sales career fizzled, McCormack struggled at that, too, but discovered his calling almost by accident as a polite British-accented counterpart of the screen character Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, played by Jim Carey.
Usually looking as sleepless and disheveled as Ace Ventura, racing around Taipei with a van full of animals en route to veterinarians and foster homes, McCormack soon attracted media notice through colorful animal rescue exploits.
McCormack had difficulty at first accepting the donations and offers of help that came his way, but eventually realized “It’s not for me––it’s for the animals.”
In other words, McCormack laughs, “I became desperate enough to accept.”
Asking for help
That mental breakthrough enabled McCormack to start asking for more help, including the help of people with the skills he didn’t have.
“That was every skill,” McCormack admits. “I had a good idea what a successful humane society should be doing, and what attributes our staff should have, but I either had to learn how to do everything on the fly, or find volunteers who could do it. I had the good fortune that many talented volunteers found me.”
The original shelters in Taiwan were, and remain, the shacks of “kind mothers,” as local rescuers are called. Most are older women, but not all. The shacks are basically feeding stations for street dogs and feral cats, with some protection against the elements and sometimes cages for puppies, kittens, and sick or injured animals.
Crudely built with scrap materials, they are typically found back in the bushes near shrines where people dump unwanted pets and litters.
McCormack’s first humane project in Taiwan was encouraging “kind mothers” to cooperate with efforts to sterilize the animals in their care, and to rehome those who might be adopted.
This needs to be done all over the island, McCormack believes.
“The ‘kind mothers’ are going to be finding and feeding animals anyway,” McCormack said, “so we might as well bring them into a program. There isn’t any point in just telling them not to do what they are doing, simply because it is perceived by other people as creating a nuisance. There are ‘kind mothers’ everywhere, and if we can get them to work with us, to get all the animals treated in whatever way they need, we won’t need anyone else to catch the animals or to look after those who can be fixed and returned to a habitat.”
Like most beginning animal rescuers, when McCormack started, he thought first of founding a shelter. Animals Taiwan resulted from that effort. Like many of the “kind mothers,” McCormack and his newfound allies feared becoming overwhelmed by abandonments––so, though they hoped to promote adoptions, they hid, converting an old house into a shelter without signage.
Within a few years McCormack came to believe that education and advocacy were more critical missions than animal rescue, and that a humane organization needed to be formed to help encourage enforcement of the 1998 animal welfare law.
McCormack had not lost interest in hands-on animal rescue, still an around-the-clock pursuit, nor in sheltering per se, but Animals Taiwan had attracted other people who could operate an animal shelter.
Leaving Animals Taiwan on mostly friendly terms, McCormack next founded the Taiwan SPCA–“or rather,” he says, “I let [twin sisters] Annie and Connie Chiang found it. I do the little bit that I’m good at, and try to stay out of the way while they and our volunteers do everything else.”
The Sanctuary, McCormack’s current project, operated under the umbrella of Taiwan Animals SOS, originated in much the same manner.
While the flamboyant McCormack personifies animal rescue in Taiwan among the expatriate community, the transition of Taiwanese animal sheltering from a globally notorious disgrace to the ambitions of the present really began more than 25 years ago, through the efforts of Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan director Chu Tseng-hung, a Buddhist monk known in the west as Wu Hung.
As quiet and inclined to work behind the scenes as McCormack is outgoing and conspicuous, Wu Hung founded his first organization, the Life Conservationist Association, in 1994.
Sponsored by the late journalist and animal advocate Ann Cottrell Free, who reported on the retreat to Taiwan by the pre-Communist Chinese government that made Taiwan a nation, Wu Hung later in 1994 toured the U.S., visiting shelters while vigorously exposing and denouncing the then-common Taiwanese practice of deliberately locking up problematic stray dogs to starve to death.
This, along with widespread “accidental” poisoning, was done to avoid directly killing the dogs. Directly killing dogs was commonly seen as contrary to the Taiwanese Buddhist tradition.
Wu Hung pointed out that practicing “slow kill” in the name of “no kill” was a travesty of Buddhism.
Responding to Wu Hung, who later took his speaking tour to Europe, the World Society for the Protection of Animals, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the International Fund for Animal Welfare, and the Humane Society International division of the Humane Society of the U.S. had by 1996 all sent investigators and consulting experts to Taiwan.
Each affirmed Wu Hung’s charges, and pressed the Taiwanese government to do something about them.
The initial response of the Taiwanese government, in 1997, was to announce a costly plan to end the controversy and foreign criticism by exterminating all street dogs. Two visiting consultants encouraged the plan by demonstrating the use of pentobarbital to kill dogs, unaware that importing or possessing pentobarbital, at the time, was illegal. One of the consultants also asserted that Taiwan, where up to 93% of the residents observe Buddhism or Buddhist-influenced faiths, needed to scrap the Buddhist life ethic in order to accept routinely killing homeless dogs.
Taiwan moved toward U.S.-type animal control, including killing impounded dogs after a holding period, but the scheme to annihilate street dogs was not seriously pursued.
Instead, Taiwanese street dogs found an unlikely young defender, who rallied new support both in Taiwan and abroad for Wu Hung’s campaign.
American teenager Mina Sharpe, living with her parents in Taipei, formed the Taiwan Abandoned Animal Rescue Foundation at age 12 in 1994 to find U.S. homes for rescued street dogs. As one of the first activists to demonstrate use of the Internet to promote adoptions and rally global support, Sharpe inspired a legion of others.
The passage of the 1998 humane law, the nation’s first, was in part an early triumph of Internet activism. The law forbade dog-eating, rare in Taiwan even then, and addressed individual acts of abuse and neglect, but focused on animal control practices.
But Sharpe believed the 1998 law focused too much on animal control and not enough on animal care. In March 2000, shortly before returning to the U.S. with her family, Sharpe published a cutting critique of the international interventions in Taiwan. She blamed the international delegations for fueling intolerance of street dogs and for introducing the use of gas chambers without ensuring that they were properly used.
Sharpe scolded Wu Hung as well, for acquiescing to the recommendations of international consultants, even when the half-followed recommendations appeared to make the treatment of shelter animals worse.
Sharpe in 2006 was twice convicted of hoarding animals at addresses in southern California. Her personal influence in Taiwan was transient. But, in her wake, Wu Hung’s work was supported by an every-growing cadre of young Taiwanese with laptops, cell phones, and an inclination to challenge the status quo.
Leaving the Life Conservationist Association to form EAST, Wu Hung continued to critique Taiwanese shelters––and found plenty to criticize The Taiwan Council of Agriculture, for example, in January 2009 disclosed that around 1,000 dogs at shelters in four counties were poisoned by aflatoxin fungi that accidentally contaminated locally manufactured food. The maker, Ji-Tai Forage, recalled and composted 29 metric tons of “Peter’s Kind-Hearted Dog Food,” produced only for shelter consumption.
The incident, while apparently genuinely accidental, inevitably evoked memories of the “accidental poisoning” era.
Typhoon Morakot in August 2009 reportedly killed as many as 7,000 dogs at 10 overcrowded animal control shelters in Kaohsiung and Pingtung counties, along the south coast. The Central News Agency later found that in actuality the ten shelters housed about 1,000 dogs among them, of about 100 dogs were killed or lost.
But there were reportedly several severely overcrowded and haphazardly funded private shelters in the area.
In November 2009 Wu Hung reported that 83% of Taiwanese townships still relegated animal control duties to garbage collectors. Wu Hung documented and exposed many examples of neglected municipal shelters, animals left without food or water, and animals given food that was unfit for consumption.
Wu Hung further noted that many badly designed shelters were wrapped in canvas and plastic sheets to try to stop the winter winds.
Shelters in the Taipei suburbs of Tucheng, Yingge, and Hsindian prohibited EAST from taking photographs.
Neglect & design issues
But only a few months later I was able to personally verify many of the problems that Wu Hung pointed out.
At the Life Caring & Animal Rescue Organization “hospital” in Yingge about two dozen dogs, several with debilitating injuries, sprawled on dirty rags in the reception area. Two of the healthiest dogs were chained to the wall in a manner that prevented them from lying down.
Other animals were in cages or carriers. Most of the multi-floor building consisted of rooms of animals in wire-bottomed cages, without resting boards, usually without bedding, in filth and darkness. Many were so closely caged that they could barely move.
A government shelter on a tea plantation outside Hsindian was situated so far up a steep, winding road as to be almost inaccessible to all but the most determined visitors. The shelter design was conceptually flawed because all male dogs were kept in one large open area, with all female dogs in another. Intended to prevent breeding, this practice also meant that the larger and more aggressive dogs were able to monopolize the apparently inadequate food rations. One German shepherd had been removed from the run for male dogs for food aggression, and was instead kept in a wire-floored cage barely larger than himself.
The Zhonge shelter, almost as remote, was built to a close approximation of U.S. animal control norms atop an overgrown former landfill. The Zhonge shelter featured an agility course, but the unworn grass where dogs should have been wearing grooves demonstrated that it was rarely used.
Correctly understanding that maintaining air exchange is essential to keeping a healthy shelter environment, the architects who built the Taipei Animal Shelter in ShiJr installed huge fans at one end of the kennel blocks that created a constant draft, especially for the dogs housed closest to the fans. Besides chilling dogs in cold weather, the fans sucked any airborne diseases through the entire kennel area.
Concluded McCormack of the national no-kill strategy, “If adoption rates are to improve, then public animal shelters need not only to be improved but also relocated, as Taiwanese animal pounds are usually hidden away far from the public eye, very often on the property of garbage dumps. Proper recording and reporting of shelter statistics is also a must, as I know from my own recent experience that adoption and killing rates provided by the authorities do not match those of staff or volunteers working on the ground.
“Teething problems are always to be expected,” McCormack finished, “and while I do have reservations that the revisions might not be entirely thorough, overall I am very happy to see these changes in animal welfare law. Taiwan should be proud of its continued and impressive advancements in how it treats its animals.”