Taipei animal rescuers tap Pacific Rim rivalry
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, March 2010:
TAIPEI, TAIWAN–Taipei is not a city that likes to be seen
as trailing economic rival Hong Kong in anything–and that tends to
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.
Now fundraising to build a state-of-the-art Taipei animal
adoption center is gettiing underway with quiet descriptions to
affluent and influential people of what Hong Kong did ten years ago.
The adoption center may be built by Animals Taiwan, or by a
coalition of organizations, perhaps with government help. The
details have yet to be negotiated. But there is agreement among the
Taiwan animal care and advocacy community that the time to do it is
Hong Kong SPCA director Sandy MacAlister and director of
animal care Fiona Woodhouse have recently given grand tours to
several delegations of Taipei animal advocates, with more scheduled
to visit soon. The Taipei visitors expect potential funders to
follow, as word circulates about what they are seeing.
Hong Kong SPCA shelter architect Jill Cheshire’s many
innovations are now so widely emulated that few people remember where
they began–but they are still revolutionary to the Taiwan 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. Taipei might still be deemed to be about 15 years
behind global “best practice” standards.
Yet Taipei has compressed 150 years of shelter evolution in
other parts of the world into barely 15 years of increasingly
ambitious development. The fast-growing Taipei animal advocacy
community shows no hint of losing momentum. To the contrary, as
more is done, more is expected, pushed by a generation of young
Taiwanese activists with U.S. and Canadian educations, allied with
Hardly any of the present Taipei animal advocacy leaders were
involved a decade ago, when Animals Taiwan and Taiwan SPCA founder
Sean MacCormack arrived from England. MacCormack, a former
bartender, had no animal advocacy or shelter management background
either. He came to Taiwan to work in sales, then became a promoter
of professional mixed martial arts cage fighting.
Twin sisters Connie and Annie Chiang, who coordinate most of
the Taiwan SPCA activities, were then in grade school. Animals
Taiwan board member Faye Angevine, the Taipei antique dealer who is
now the biggest current Animals Taiwan funder, was not yet involved
in organized animal work. Most of the other key volunteers, staff,
and major backers of the fast-growing constellation of Taipei-area
animal welfare organizations were in Taiwan and concerned, but had
yet to bring their abilities and resources together.
MacCormack admits he was an unlikely galvanizing personality,
but he was also an unlikely sales person and fight promoter, not
knowing a word of Mandarin when he arrived, not knowing anyone in
Taiwan, and having no background in martial arts. Already a vegan,
MacCormack 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.
Struggling in the cage fighting business, MacCormack
discovered his calling 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 newly rescued animals en
route to veterinarians and foster homes, MacCormack soon attracted
media notice through colorful animal rescue exploits. Easily
recognized on the street, MacCormack had difficulty at first
accepting donations and offers of help, but eventually realized
“It’s not for me–it’s for the animals.”
In other words, MacCormack laughs, “I became desperate
enough to accept.”
That mental breakthrough enabled MacCormack to start asking
for more help, including the help of people with the skills he
didn’t have. “That was every skill,” MacCormack 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 to be found back in the bushes near shrines where people
dump unwanted pets and litters.
MacCormack’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, MacCormack says. “The ‘kind mothers’
are going to be finding and feeding animals anyway,” MacCormack
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 just
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 MacCormack
started, he thought first of founding a shelter. Animals Taiwan
resulted from that effort. Like many of the “kind mothers,”
MacCormack 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 MacCormack 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.
MacCormack 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. Animals Taiwan will also soon have the opportunity to
relocate and rebuild to better specifications, “with a real
architect,” MacCormack suggests, since the original site is slated
for government redevelopment.
Leaving Animals Taiwan on mostly friendly terms, MacCormack
founded the Taiwan SPCA–“or rather,” he says, “I let Annie and
Connie 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.”
While I visited, Annie and Connie Chiang spent nine-hour
days introducing visitors to the Taiwan SPCA at a pet fair,
alongside representatives of Animals Taiwan and half a dozen other
relatively young animal rescue groups; helped to coordinate
fundraising dinners on back-to-back nights, featuring a galaxy of
local celebrities who volunteered their time and talents; and
coordinated my visits with volunteer translators to most of the
animal shelters in the Taipei area.
The Chiang sisters also found the volunteer translators,
using social networking web sites, and directed bewildered drivers
to the shelters by cell phone.
MacCormack did the driving in the rugged mountains rising
abruptly from the edges of Taipei. At the wooded southern edge of
Yonghe, near where the roads end, MacCormack stopped to offer help
to a man who recycles junk and feeds half a dozen mangy dogs.
MacCormack explained everything that could be done, with Taiwan SPCA
help, to cure the dogs.
The man had one question: could the Taiwan SPCA have the
dogs sterilized, too?
“Of course,” MacCormack assured him.
“That would not have happened even five years ago,”
MacCormack said later. “Offering to fix the dogs would have been
seen as interfering in the life process. Now people ask for our