Education key for animal welfare, says SPCA’s new acting executive director

Dr Jaipal Singh Gill plans to organise more discussions on animal ethics and welfare for SPCA Singapore. He also tells Channel NewsAsia being called a "crazy animal person" is not a bad thing.
Ray Yeh Channel NewsAsia 10 Feb 16;

SINGAPORE: Newly appointed acting executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore Dr Jaipal Singh Gill is no stranger to the organisation. He started out as an inspector with the animal welfare charity in 2008, responding to complaints of animal cruelty cases. Two years later, he became its operations manager. In 2011, he decided to go to Melbourne, Australia, to pursue his degree in veterinary medicine.

“We learnt about animal behavior, animal health and disease, animal management and animal welfare at the vet school, and I plan to use those skills and experience that I gained as part of my work here,” said the 33-year-old vegetarian.

Dr Gill spoke to Channel NewsAsia at the SPCA’s brand new complex in Sungei Tengah about his vision for animal welfare in Singapore.

Q: Have you always loved animals?

When I was a young child, I used to visit the SPCA shelter at Mount Vernon and I really enjoyed spending time with the animals there. I also used to rescue kittens or dogs I found on the street. One thing I always wondered was why there were so many unwanted animals at the shelter. And why animals were sometimes treated as lesser beings, even though they are sentient like us. They have the ability to experience sensations such as pain, and emotions such as fear and joy.

I find the suffering of any sentient being troubling. And long ago I made the decision to be part of the solution.

Q: What are some of the most common misconceptions people have about owning pets?

Our inspectorate receives about 70 complaints every month. Some of those are cruelty cases where animals have been intentionally harmed, but the majority are animal welfare cases, where a pet owner has done something or has omitted to do something that has led to the compromise of the welfare of their animals.

When I was an inspector, we used to receive a lot of complaints about dogs kept in cages, or confined on leashes for extended periods of time. It's a problem we still see today. Speaking to pet owners made me realise that there’s a mindset that that's how animals are meant to be kept, or they cannot find any other solution to a problem like poor toilet training or destruction of furniture.

A lady who lived in this very big terrace house had three dogs in cages stacked on top of another. When I asked her why she kept her dogs this way, she said: "My house is not a zoo, I cannot have animals running all over the place."

We also see rabbits, for example, being kept in really small cages, because people think that's the way they're supposed to be kept. Or they're kept on wire mesh flooring that can harm their feet. Or they're fed poor diets of only carrots. I've seen that before when I was inspector.

A lot of these things actually stem from a lack of awareness of how to look after your pet. Nobody wants to harm their pet. People love their pet. A lot of them treat them as family. It's not about pointing fingers and accusing people. It's about how can we help you; how can we give you the resources, the support, the education, to be better pet owners?

Q: More education is required then?

Education should start from young, as long as a child can understand the way the world works. Here, we have very young children coming through our gates and we try to reach every single one.

But I think education is something that can happen at all levels. We have education programmes for adults, as well as children. This is an ongoing, continuous process. We don't expect change like this to occur overnight. but we have to start somewhere.

Q: Do you think we’re doing enough for animal welfare here in Singapore?

The animal welfare scene in Singapore has changed drastically over the years. Many years ago, the main group serving animals in Singapore was the SPCA, In the last couple of decades, it's been very heartening to see many different animal welfare groups join the movement. I think this evolution of our society is a very positive change, showing that we now think not just for ourselves, but for others.

The state of animal welfare in a country is determined by many different things. It's determined by the culture of the people, the religion, socioeconomic factors, the politics. All these things come together to influence how animals in the society are treated.

I've seen great changes to animal welfare in Singapore since I joined the movement about 10 years ago. However, there is of course, a lot still left to be done.

Q: You’ve lived and worked overseas. What can we learn from other countries?

There's no country that's perfect in their animal welfare policies, but you can see some good things coming out of different places.

For example, something I hope to see done here at some point soon, is the restriction of sale of pets. In Singapore, we're always told that Singaporeans are not reproducing fast enough, we have a fast ageing population. With our companion animals, it is the exact opposite. We have a massive pet overpopulation problem, largely due to indiscriminate breeding, and an uncontrolled pet industry.

So some of the lessons we can take from overseas where they have implemented systems where they ban or restrict the sale of pets in their countries, this is definitely something we can learn from.

That being said, I feel that here in Singapore we can also lead, we can be the trendsetters in animal welfare for countries in Asia and beyond.

Q: Do you think there’s a lack of animal welfare discussions in Singapore?

Back in vet school, I used to organise animal ethics discussion sessions where we used to sit around fortnightly and talk about all sorts of issues to do with animal welfare and the use of animals in society. One day we're talking about animals in agriculture and farming, the next week we're talking about whales and dolphins in captivity. We talk about overpopulation of pets, the use of animals in teaching. There were disagreements of course, but that's the fun of discussing these issues.

I also organised the debate where I got the people who are pro the use of animals in agriculture to argue against people who were against the use of animals in agriculture. But we swapped it around, so the people who were against the use of animals in agriculture would argue for the use of animals in agriculture, and the other way around.

We also used to screen documentary films, and have speaker night sessions where we bring in people who are experts in animal welfare to talk to the students.

That's something I hope to revive here at the SPCA. It is very important to discuss issues. Animal welfare issues are complex, they involve many different facets and there sometimes is not one right answer. It's very healthy to bring in different sides of the debate, have that discussion, and then find a solution that works for everyone involved, of course, keeping animals at the forefront of that decision.

Q: Recently, we’ve seen some high-profile animal cruelty cases happening in Singapore. What are your thoughts on these cases?

The recent spate of cruelty that we've seen in Singapore is very disheartening. Groups like ours, including the Government, have done a lot to try and prevent these things from happening. We need to say that this is absolutely not acceptable, we need to put in all the resources, find every way we can to prevent cruelty from happening in the first place, but then also finding the perpetrators and bringing them to justice.

However, what we understand from reading works done by experts in psychology and psychiatry is that, if you talk about outright cruelty to animals, or outright intentional harm of an animal, there seems to be a particular sort of person with a certain background that ends up doing those acts. It's not the average person on the street that goes out to intentionally harm animals. So a lot of these people sometimes also require care, and they require support themselves. They may be dealing with certain mental issues that require society to support them.

Q: People sometimes refer to animal welfare activists as “crazy animal lovers”. What would you say to these people?

Emotion and passion can be used positively. I, myself, when I was dealing with animal cruelty or welfare issues on the ground, got emotional at times. You see an animal suffering and that is an emotional issue. I had a lot of trouble initially coping with the work, because I used to see suffering on a daily basis. But it's something you work through and try to overcome, and then you get on with the job. But I do empathise with people who come to the table with a lot of emotion. If we can use that positively, we can enact great changes in Singapore.

Labels will always be thrown around. Activists or "crazy animal person" - these are people with a heart, and I think this sort of mentality should be encouraged, for the current generations and also for the future generations. That's why our education programmes is one of our key services and something I plan to push and expand beyond the current work we do. Only with education and building a more compassionate and empathetic society can we ever progress as a nation.

Q: Some people also argue that we should care for other people first, not animals.

I tell people that I work in animal welfare and they sometimes ask: “Why don't you care about people? Why don't you look after people welfare first?” My answer is always: “Why can't we do both?”

Many times, the lives of animals and people are intertwined. When you improve animal welfare, you improve people welfare. If you improve the welfare of your society, the welfare of animals improve. I think the fate of humans, animals and the environment are closely connected, and I think we should care about all of them and not just one.

- CNA/ry

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