Home's no place for wildlife in Singapore

Law penalises those who keep wildlife as pets; AVA assesses them case by case
Ang Yiying, Straits Times 20 Jan 10;

PET shop retail supervisor Justin Low 'lost' a member of his family last month - to the zoo.

It was a young Asian small-clawed otter, a female he had hand-raised for seven months. MuMu, as it had been named, was loved - even by the family's Jack Russell terrier - but Mr Low, 27, knew it was time to let the otter go.

The zoo was better placed to give MuMu supervised care, a community of other otters and a big outdoor play area.

Releasing MuMu into the wild was not a good option, he realised, as it was hand-raised and probably incapable of surviving there.

For the zoo, getting an otter from a member of the public is unusual, as are the common palm civet and the Malayan pangolin. It receives fewer than 100 donations of wild animals from the public a year, most of them snakes, monitor lizards and green iguanas.

Under 10 per cent of animals turned in by people were kept as pets, said the zoo's assistant director of zoology Biswajit Guha; most were found and handed over soon after because the donors did not know what to do with them.

Many of those who take the trouble to find out how to care for these animals and then do so - like Mr Low - may not be aware that it is against the law to keep wildlife as pets.

But Mr Goh Shih Yong, spokesman for the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA), said that if a person comes forward voluntarily to give up the animal, it may exercise compassion. The AVA will consider how the person came to possess the animal and handle the matter case by case.

Mr Guha, explaining the pitfalls in keeping such exotic animals as pets, said they are meant to live in the wild and to learn survival from their parents and the pack.

Also, when these animals hit sexual maturity, they may become aggressive. They may also bring diseases and parasites from the wild to a domestic setting.

Mr Low said he did not think about breaching the animal-protection laws by taking the otter into his four-room HDB flat in Kallang, where he lives with his parents and brother.

He said: 'At that time, I didn't think about it. I just wanted to save it.'

His friend had found it weak and hungry on a grass patch outside Changi Airport's Terminal 3 last April; Mr Low believed it to have been abandoned in a botched smuggling bid.

He took it home, fed it low-lactose milk and put it in a box lined with towels.

His online research into otter care began almost immediately. He moved it into a big cage supplied it with squeaky toys, and gave it the run of the house when the family was home.

He bottle-fed it milk meant for kittens every three to four hours, and gradually introduced tinned cat food, and then dry cat food.

He even provided the otter with a 'pool' - a plastic container into which he put live fish, to sharpen its taste for hunting.

He had planned at first to look after it - with the help of his family and girlfriend - only until it was strong enough to be handed over to the zoo, but the otter stayed for seven months.

'After a few days, it bonded with us,' he said, adding that he kept it longer to minimise the stress it would undergo from a move to yet another new environment.

It turns out he did right.

Ms Lesley Wright, the webmaster for the World Conservation Union Otter Specialist Group, an international group of conservationists he was in touch with, told The Straits Times that since he was already raising the animal and it had bonded with him, it was better that it stayed with him for a while until it was more independent and better able to make the transition to the zoo.

The zoo said the donated otter, now about nine months old, is doing well in quarantine, after which it will be paired up to start a family of its own.

Mr Low said that it was hard for him and his family to let go emotionally: 'It's pretty sad. MuMu was like our kid.'

Penalties for keeping wildlife as pets
Straits Times 20 Jan 10;

KEEPING a wild animal as a pet is illegal in the eyes of the law. Under the Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act, an individual found keeping illegally imported wildlife may be fined up to $50,000 per species, up to a total of $500,000, and/or jailed up to two years.

An individual who kills, takes or keeps any wild animal or bird other than pest birds such as crows, mynahs and pigeons may be fined up to $1,000; the wild animal or bird will also be forfeited.

Despite the penalties, 13 cases of wildlife being kept as pets in homes came up last year, up from eight in 2007 and six in 2008.

The penalties for smuggling wild animals into or out of the country are no less stiff.

The law gives the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) and enforcement agencies, such as the Immigration and Checkpoints Authority, the power to run investigations into this form of smuggling.

Anyone found guilty of smuggling protected wildlife can be fined $50,000 per species, up to a maximum of $500,000, and/or jailed up to two years.

The number of wildlife smuggling cases doubled from six in 2007 to 13 last year, with the most commonly smuggled animals being Asian arowana fish, reptiles and ornamental birds.

The AVA said one or two smuggling cases have come to light at the airport each year in the last few years.

The individuals involved were fined between $100 and $5,500.