Companion animals and raising animal welfare consciousness in Southeast Asia

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2001:

Companion animals and raising animal welfare consciousness in Southeast Asia
by Sherry Grant, cofounder, Bali Street Dogs Foundation

Westerners are often appalled by the plight of animals in Asia and the other less developed parts of the world. It is unimaginable to most of us, for example, how orangutans, Sumatran bears, tigers, many bird species, sharks, tapirs, and sea turtles have been poached to the verge of extinction for meat and body parts, and the disregard for animal suffering evident in any marketplace is an even more immediate shock. Police and public officials often benefit from the illegal traffic and the cruelty, and are thus less then enthusiastic about enforcing whatever laws exist.

Western organizations attempting to remedy the situation constantly run into both official and cultural indifference. Many good efforts, while successful in the short run, continue only as long as the outside funding lasts. Once those resources are gone, things quickly return to their former state.
Much of this problem is economic. In the U.S., too, we see more animal abuse and neglect during hard economic times and in poor neighborhoods. Pet-keeping and concern for animals are luxuries to many Asians, outside of their experience and therefore outside of
their consciousness. Animal protection organizations can do little about the economic situation in Asia, but we can meanwhile work to eradicate cultural bias against animals. And cultural biases must be changed first, or even with economic improvement there will be no
improvement in how animals are treated.

Most American children grew up with pets in the family and cannot remember a time when pets were not in our lives. As our animals were our friends, we would no more tolerate cruelty towards them than we would tolerate mistreatment of our human companions. Through our early positive relationships with pets, we formed a cultural concept of animal rights, which became the foundation of the sociopolitical movement that for more than a generation now has been reconstructing the whole human/animal interface.

Once you establish the concept of an animal as an intelligent being with feeling and compassion, then you can never again endure an animal’s unecessary suffering. All life becomes precious. This idea is built into the major Asian religions, but because an early companion relationship with animals is often not established in Asian homes, some whole cultures are casually tolerant of animal cruelty. I believe that encouraging families to keep pets will be as important in raising animal welfare consciousness in Southeast Asia as it has been in the U.S.

This is not a quick fix. We are talking about changing attitudes which have evolved over thousands of years. It may take a generation to see major improvement. The logical place to begin is to place pets with children, but implementing a “pets with children” strategy is much harder than it sounds. While the child may be the avenue to get the animal into the home, the ultimate decision maker is the adult.

Humane education

In Indonesia I have seen several cases where puppies were adopted by children and, although not allowed to live in the house, were treated as outdoor pets. The children began to develop relationships with the animals similar to those of their U.S. counterparts. But after a few weeks, when the puppies became more demanding, they were taken away by the parents and dumped on a nearby beach or in the jungle.

This also happens with birds, who are acquired but not taken care of, and die after a few days or weeks. The owner merely replaces the dead bird with another bird, and the cycle repeats itself. In these cases the owners view the birds or animals much as we would think of cut flowers: disposable decorations that are replaced when wilted.

It is easily forgotten that these were the norms of pet-keeping among many Ameri-cans only a generation or two ago. The transformation that is still underway in the U.S. can begin elsewhere through the same process of humane education. This requires more than just presentations to schools. The oldest U.S. humane societies often gave refuge to orphans and abused children before they sheltered animals, and the U.S. method of screening pet adoptors through questionaires and interviews evolved directly out of the methods used to screen homes before allowing the adoption of a child.

This approach can inhibit successful adoptions, if the attitude of the adoption agency is that almost no family is kind enough or responsible enough to deserve a pet. However, over time, countless direct discussions among prospective adoptors, their families, and humane workers have ensured that millions of Americans are now well-informed about animal care and the responsibilities of pet-keeping. Post-adoption follow-up visits and help offered to families who have problems with a pet have also proved invaluable in the U.S., and will be as useful in the rest of the world.

While informed veterinarians can certainly help to advance humane values, vets in the developing world cannot be expected to take the lead role. I have found in Bali and elsewhere in Southeast Asia that veterinary skills tend to be limited. As in the U.S. a generation ago, most were educated to do agricultural work. Attention to animal welfare beyond utilitarian considerations is not part of their training, and some are actually insensitive to animal suffering.

A key part of encouraging successful pet-keeping must accordingly be working to improve veterinary skills and teach vets about animal welfare issues. Our approach via the Bali Street Dog Foundation is to educate and involve local veterinarians, and introduce them to new pet owners. The incentive for the veterinarians is the additional income to be earned from treating pets, who enjoy a higher standard of care than has been traditionally given to animals. As veterinarians become advocates for animal welfare, they enable us to spend less time on basic teaching. Their participation helps to establish humane values throughout the community, making hands-on humane work more sustainable over the long run.

I do not mean to suggest that programs which deal with the current suffering of animals are only of secondary value. The work of the Bali Street Dog Foundation centers on animal rescue and sterilization. Such hands-on programs must continue and expand. But we must not forget that over time, the public example set by helping each animal can do more to relieve and prevent animal suffering than the direct care we provide.

[For further particulars about the Bali Street Dogs Foundation, contact Sherry Grant c/o JI. Duyung Gang 1 #9, Sanur, Bali 80228, Indonesia; telephone 62 -0-361-286226; fax 62 -0-361 -282105; e-mail <>; web site <>.]
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