A dog’s life makes a difference
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, July/August 1998:
BANGKOK, TAIPEI, SINGAPORE, JOHOR BARU, JAKARTA–Mai Thai left Thailand on June 13 for a better life in San Diego, but may be long remembered as the dog who bettered the lives of more than a million Bangkok strays, by persuading the city government to propose escalating a subsidized neutering program that already rates among the world’s most ambitious and effective.
With Mai Thai making headlines, Bangkok city government health advisor Supong Limtanakool told a May 30 gathering of 200 persons concerned with stray dog control that he would recommend payments of 50 baht per animal, worth about $2.00, as incentives to animal owners to get their pets spayed or neutered at any of the six low-cost city clinics.
Limtanakool thought the program could be up and running, with official approval, by late summer. This would make Bangkok the first major city in the world to actually pay residents to fix animals, recognizing potential savings in animal control and public health costs.
The San Francisco SPCA pays $5.00 per cat, Rottweiler, pit bull terrier, or homeless person’s pet brought in for neutering, which relative to the U.S. standard of living has about the same purchasing power as 50 baht, but the SF/SPCA incentive is funded strictly from private gifts.
“While Bangkok is already providing free vaccination and veterinary services,” explained Bangkok Post reporter Anchalee Kongrut Uamdao Noikorn, “the new campaign would be a full-scale operation to control the population of stray dogs,” currently estimated at about 1.3 million, among around 3.5 million sharing the city with 5.5 million humans.
At a time of belt-tightening throughout Asia, the proposed neutering bounty is expected to prove both a strong incentive and a money-saver for the city.
“Bangkok currently spends 600,000 baht a year on neutering, eight baht a day to feed and treat strays brought in by dogcatchers, and eight baht per abandoned dog brought in. More than 50,000 stray dogs a year are caught and kept in the city shelter at Din Daeng,” Anchalee Kongrut continued.
To hold costs down, stray dogs are killed if not claimed or adopted within three days. Thanks to the success of the Bangkok low-cost neutering clinics and public tolerance of free-roaming dogs, the Bangkok animal control killing ratio, at just nine per thousand human residents, is nonetheless lower than that of any U.S. cities except San Francisco (4.6), New York (5.5), San Diego (7.5), and Seattle (7.8).
But more neutering still, and fewer strays, could save Bangkok much of the cost of administering thousands of post-exposure rabies vaccinations each year, and of isolating about 10 residents a year who actually develop rabies. Across Thailand, about 14 million people per year require post-exposure rabies vaccination; 70 to 80 people per year die of rabies. Bangkok hopes to point the way toward eliminating rabies, which is still common in much of Asia.
Veterinary Practitioners Association of Thailand president Parntep Ratanakorn wants to add microchip identification to the roster of services provided to dogs at the city clinics. That would cost about 150 baht per dog. Microchipping may be seen, for the moment, as unaffordable luxury. Even the low-cost neutering and vaccination program could be jeopardized by the ongoing economic crisis–but sympathy for homeless dogs occasioned by Mai Thai has helped to keep humane response a political priority.
Despite the fiscal crisis, Bangkok officials seem unlikely to emulate the dog control practices of northeastern Thailand, where dog-eating reportedly caught on after introduction by Vietnamese refugees. Around Tharae city, suppliers long since exhausted the local free-roaming dog population, and now buy all the dogs they can get from nearby villages.
Reported Jiraporn Wongpaithoon for Associated Press in November 1996, “dog meat costs as much as beef” in the Tharae region, and is “also used as a protein supplment for cattle, fish, and even other dogs. The hide,” Wongpaithoon wrote, “is turned into bags and drum skins, while the scrotums become gloves for golfers. Dried penises are exported to China and Taiwan, where some people believe they enhance sexual prowess when consumed.”
Before slaughter, Wongpaithoon wrote, “The dogs are starved for three days to induce submission.” Only then are they “clubbed and their throats slit,” Wongpaithoon testified.
“For a homeless mother of four like Mai Thai,” Anchalee Kongrut wrote in the June 14 Bangkok Post, “a dog who used to survive from garbage bins, nothing could have been worse than the car accident that left her half paralyzed” in December 1997.
“The twist of Mai Thai’s fate began when 16-year-old American student Mina Sharpe,” visiting from Taiwan, “saw a local taxi driver bottle-feed a pup while walking on the street in Huan Hin, Prachup Khiri Khan. “Curious, she asked where the mother was. There, in a field nearby, lay the smelly and dying mongrel. Snuggling near her were three malnourished puppies.”
Mai Thai had suffered a broken back and severe infection, but like the taxi driver who did what he could, Sharpe believes in doing what she can.
Sharpe knows, too, that the inspiring rescue of even one animal can inspire a movement, whereas contemplation of millions all at once can discourage and deter. The taxi driver showed Sharpe a severely suffering canine family. Sharpe saw the chance to help boost humane concerns.
Investing $400 for care and boarding of Mai Thai and family at the Thonglor Veterinary Hospital in Bangkok, Sharpe found U.S. homes for the puppies, arranged for her grandmother to foster Mai Thai until she could be placed in a good permanent home, and had a special wheel constructed to enable Mai Thai to get around–temporarily, Sharpe hoped. Now in the U.S. Mai Thai is receiving physical therapy, in hopes she may walk again.
The Bangkok Post and other Thai media followed the story for months. Mai Thai became a national symbol, and Sharpe a heroine to millions of Thais who love animals.
Sharpe had a point to make–as forcefully as possible. She was appalled when after a 1997 visit to Taiwan, Humane Society of the U.S. vice president for companion animals Martha Armstrong declared that the dog surplus there can only be reduced by breaking down the influence of Buddhist reverence for life, introducing U.S.-style high-volume shelter killing. Armstrong organized workshops to teach dog-killing by means of sodium penta-barbitrol–while complaining that the drug is not even available in Taiwan at lethal strength.
Sharpe wrote to ANIMAL PEOPLE to protest. “As an American living in Taiwan for the past four years,” she explained, “and having devoted most of that time to helping strays, founding and running the no-kill Taipei Abandoned Animal Rescue Foundation,” which she began in October 1994, at age 12, two months after her arrival, “I feel there is absolutely no reason for mass killing to be practiced here. The real answer is to put money toward mass
spay/neuter programs for all strays, and toward developing proper animal shelters and humane societies.”
American actor Steven Seagal also advocated low-cost neutering during a May visit he made to Taiwan on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. But Sharpe has done much more than talk.
Working with minimal outside support, Sharpe and a few volunteer helpers have already treated 300 to 350 dogs via the Yang Ming Veterinary Hospital in Taipei, which gives them discounted treatment and free boarding for animals under care, and have set up an ambitious World Wide Web site for T-AARF: http://www.toapayoh.com/taarf/<<.
“All dogs in our program are spayed or neutered prior to being adopted,” Sharpe stipulates. “Additionally, our vet offers reduced-cost spaying and neutering to our clients, as well as free spaying/neutering to street dogs we bring in to be castrated and put back on the streets. These dogs are kept approximately a week in our kennel, during which time they are neutered, vaccinated, tagged and microchipped with our number. Should they ever be picked up, our name would be recognized, and we would get the dog back to put back out.”
The lives of Taiwanese street dogs are often far from ideal, and Sharpe recognizes that releasing the dogs is only a stop-gap–but she returns them exclusively to locales where they seem accepted. Each T-AARF-treated dog then becomes an ambassador for fighting overpopulation, neglect, and cruelty by cultivating rather than opposing the Buddhist life ethic.
Sharpe’s approach mirrors the highly successful Animal Birth Control programs in effect in many major cities of India. ABC has worked so well in Bombay, Delhi, Chennai, and Jaipur that the Animal Welfare Board of India and national government in December 1997 accepted the abolition of animal control killing by 2005 as an official goal for the nation. Neuter/release of either dogs or cats, however, runs directly contrary to the official policies of PETA and HSUS.
After PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk visited Taiwan and denounced the treatment of stray dogs during a book promotion tour, Taipei authorities reportedly proclaimed that all dogs must be microchipped, with fines of up to $600 for owners of dogs found at large.
The crackdown coincided with allegedly escalating instances of animal abuse by street gangs during initiation rites. Shen Jung-chen, director of the Animal Protection League of Taiwan, asserted that from January through May 1998 she had collected 107 eyewitness accounts of youths torturing and killing dogs and cats within the greater Taipei area. Many of the attacks were documented by local newspaper coverage.
While aware of the abuse cases, Sharpe is skeptical about the alleged imposition of microchipping, the net effect of which would likely be to reduce the number of Taiwanese willing to claim dogs. “Since this is the first I have heard of it,” Sharpe said when told about it by ANIMAL PEOPLE, “I’d say that while PETA might think a microchipping requirement now exists, it either does not, or is so little known that no one obeys it. Even if it was in effect, or came into effect, with so many dogs and so little backup, I’d expect it to have little effect on what we do.”
Sharpe’s longterm hope is to place all the dogs T-AARF handles in good homes. Currently, adoptive homes are scarce in Taiwan. Therefore, promoting the adoption of Taiwanese dogs by Americans via the T-AARF web site, Sharpe has arranged for U.S. visitors to take more than three dozen dogs back with them, for relay to the adoptors.
The U.S. interest helps to tell Taiwan that these dogs’ lives have value, and that the small, intelligent dogs who predominate in Taiwan can become coveted pets.
(Contact T-TAARF c/o 800 Chung Shan N. Rd., Sec. 6, Shihilin, Taipei, Taiwan 111, Republic of China; firstname.lastname@example.org<<.)