Managing animal hoarding not a straightforward affair, say animal welfare groups

SIAU MING EN Today Online 15 Jul 17;

SINGAPORE — In the three-room Yishun flat, there were 39 cats caged up and caked in faeces. When the authorities raided the place last February, it was overrun with cockroaches, and many of the cats were malnourished; 12 later died.

Just last month, in a separate case, more than double the number of cats — 94 — were kept in an even smaller place, a two-room unit in Fernvale Link. But although this was believed to be the biggest cat-hoarding case here, these felines, compared with the earlier case, mostly did not have as severe medical conditions.

The two cases reflect the differences in animal hoarding behaviour, which has cropped up in Singapore from time to time. While animal welfare groups interviewed said they have not seen more of such cases, they said managing the problem was not as straightforward as criminalising the act — laws were enhanced three years ago.

They noted that it may be unfair to be tougher on hoarders based on the number of animals, since whether the animals are well cared for is more relevant — even as rehoming all the rescued animals could take animal welfare groups up to a year or longer. And why these individuals hoard and how to prevent them from relapsing into the behaviour are more important, they added.

Hoarding is generally classified as a disorder when an individual has difficulty discarding their possessions, among other things. It can be a symptom of people with certain mental illnesses, such as Schizophrenia and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

Dr Kelvin Ng, a consultant at the Institute of Mental Health, said while they do not have much information on animal hoarding specifically, some characteristics of animal hoarders are that these are animal lovers who feel that they are providing adequate care to the animals they are keeping, even though they may not be.

Statistics from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority of Singapore (AVA) showed there was one case of animal hoarding in 2015, 11 cases last year, and five cases as of June this year. Most of these cases involved cats or dogs. Only one case involved mice and rabbits.

Ms Veron Lau from Cat Welfare Society (CWS) said: “I don’t think it’s getting worse or better, it’s just a perennial issue that simply existed in our society. It’s just a matter of when they are discovered.”

CWS defines cat hoarding as having more cats than the number they are reasonably able to care for. Rescuers or fosters, for instance, can have several cats but are able take good care of them, noted Ms Lau, whose group handles seven to 10 hoarding cases a year.

Mr Ricky Yeo, president of Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD), said the first indicator for his group, which handles one to two such cases a year, is whether an individual keeps more dogs than he is allowed. In public housing flats, owners can keep only one dog from a list of approved breeds. In private housing, up to three dogs are allowed.

But Mr Yeo said the dog’s state of health, and whether there are signs of abuse or neglect are taken into consideration before they classify it as a case of hoarding.

While there are regulations for the number of dogs a household can keep, there are no similar regulations for smaller pets.

President of the House Rabbit Society of Singapore (HRSS) Betty Tan said her group handled one case of animal hoarding each this year and last. In April this year, HRSS and other animal welfare groups rescued 23 rabbits and over 100 mice kept in a Tampines flat.

While animal welfare groups have varying approaches, the AVA noted that hoarding of pets “may also cause public safety, nuisance and hygiene issues to the community”, apart from the welfare of the animals.

If animal welfare is compromised, pet owners can be fined up to S$15,000 and/or jailed 18 months under the Animals and Birds Act.

Another challenge is ensuring that hoarders do not relapse and hoard animals again.

One way to do so is for animal welfare groups to partner grassroots and voluntary welfare organisations to keep tabs on hoarders in their estates.

The costs of sending these animals to the veterinarian, which can range from about S$100 for rabbit sterilisation to close to S$1,000 for more serious cases, can also put a strain on the groups’ resources.

Rehoming the animals also takes time, at times, more than a year.

Even then, some of these animals stand almost no chance of being adopted if, say, they sustained serious medical conditions while they were hoarded.

For instance, 14 cats from the Yishun case are still with CWS.

“Even though now they are very plump and very cute, people are afraid of (their) medical conditions ... and it’s true because of the severe emancipation they suffered previously, a lot of them have very high cancer markers,” said Ms Lau.

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