The Curious Case of the Dogs on the Flight

The Curious Case of the Dogs on the Flight

What you need to know

Hundreds of dogs are saved from death row in Taiwan each year and sent to the US.

Dog rescuers are appealing for more people, including foreigners on short-term stays in Taiwan, to foster unwanted dogs.

Amy Chen [an alias] is a Tianmu resident who currently has 30 dogs at her house; dogs that were once just days or hours away from being put down.

Each year, thousands of dogs in Taiwan are caught and taken to local government animal shelters. They are often given 12 days before they are euthanized.

“Cruelly,” says Amy, the shelters often put down puppies.

While Amy knows not each one can be saved, she remains optimistic that more can be done.

“Surely we have the ability to save one,” she tells The News Lens.

Amy is part of a growing network of people Taiwan rescuing unwanted and abused dogs, looking after them for months before sending hundreds to new owners in North America. She estimates her group has sent 270 dogs to the US in the past two years.

Despite the well-documented problem of stray dogs and puppy mills in Taiwan, there remains a shortage of people willing to foster dogs – a process that usually just lasts a few months – before they are sent to their new long-term owners abroad.

The rescue

When shelters announce their intention to euthanize a group of animals, groups like Amy’s mobilize. They use social media to find foster homes for as many dogs as possible. When fosterers cannot be found, oftentimes the rescuers decide to take dogs home themselves.

Vets work at discount rates to examine and treat the animals. Still, in some cases, surgery for one dog can cost more than NT$$20,000 (approximately US$620). Once at their new foster homes, dogs are trained (or retrained) and socialized to behave normally. When they are back to full health, the dogs can be flown to new owners in North America.

Apart from rehabilitating and socializing the dogs, the foster process involves working to make the dogs marketable to new owners in the US. Foster owners post photos and videos online, showing the dogs walking in areas, like public parks, and interacting with strangers, demonstrating that they can safely be around children and other dogs.

“We have to prove they aren’t aggressive,” says Amy.

She says that fostering dogs works for people that aren’t necessarily looking for long-term dog ownership, including people on short-term stays in Taiwan. While she encourages people who have had prior experience owning animals to become involved, the group of rescuers are always keen to share their advice with newcomers.

The flight

The groups in Taiwan work with volunteers in the US and Canada to coordinate sending dogs to their new owners. A single carrier – known as an “ambassador” – can take the documentation for dozens of dogs and travels with them to the US.

“We need a lot of ambassadors,” says Amy. These people don’t need to spend money. They just have to spend the time to be able to identify the dogs individually at the airport.

Outside of initial costs involved with rescues, sending the dogs to the US costs about NT$6000 (approximately US$185). China Airlines is understood to offer a discount for rescued animals.

Currently, such flights take place three to four times a month with Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Diego, Portland and Vancouver, Canada, being the typical destinations.

According to Canine Education, Rescue & Adoption (CERA), which works to send dogs from Taiwan to Canada, the dogs that it handles will “have been examined by veterinarians, are neutered/spayed, up to date on vaccinations, and micro-chipped" before they are given to their new owners.

Amy’s story

Amy Chen belongs to a well-known Taiwanese family. She agreed to talk to The News Lens on the condition of anonymity, as she didn’t want the story becoming about her.

In a long interview, punctuated by numerous interruptions as she shows photos and videos of her favorite dogs, Amy often seems close to tears as she talks about the abuse and mistreatment many dogs go through, and also the many that can’t be saved.

She notes that not all strays start life as street dogs. Many come from illegal “puppy mills” – businesses that mass produce pedigree dogs, which the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) describes as “like hell on earth, devoid of any welfare for the animals.”

According to long-time Taiwan reporter Ralph Jennings in a 2007 Reuters article, Taiwan’s stray dog problem began in the 1980s, when the country “saw a boom in pet dogs following economic success. Residents bought puppies, especially fashionable breeds shown in the media, without expecting them to grow bigger, and then abandoned the adult animal on a rural road.”

While Amy has adopted unwanted dogs for the past 25 years, her first time rescuing, fostering and sending a dog to the US was last March.

After the death of one her own dogs, she rescued “Max” from a shelter one day before he was scheduled to be put down. Max had been badly abused and the resulting medical bill totaled to about NT$24,000 (approximately US$740). Within months, he was back to full health and on a plane to the US, and Amy continues to receive updates about him from the new owners.

Since then she has rescued and fostered dozens of dogs. Today, she has about 30 at her house, 10 of which are destined for the US. The others she has decided to keep as they are too traumatized, mentally, physically, or both, to leave.

She enjoys teaching the dogs tricks and takes pride in the transformation they take from being rescued to “graduating” from her care.

“I am more of a teacher than a mother.”

Amy appears to be happily obsessive with dogs and agrees with her friends who say she treats them better than her own son. She tries to quickly forget the dogs she can’t save – removing posts about them and photos from her social media feeds when she’s knows it is too late.

She has bought a van for transporting the animals, hired an assistant, and built several structures at her house for them, including an area to isolate the newcomers when the first arrive. While both she and her husband are retired, she tries not to tell him how much she spends on the dogs.

Amy says while it is always sad to see the dogs go, it is very satisfying to see them living happily with new families.

A lover of arts and “fine things” she sings arias to the dogs as she drives them to the airport. This, she insists, calms the dogs down.

She cries, once back home, but not at the airport in front of the dogs.

A group of dog rescuers and fosterers are meeting at Sprout Cafe in Tianmu tomorrow to talk about their experiences.

Edited by Olivia Yang

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