“The ban on euthanasia of stray dogs in Taiwan is a mistake. We were near tears when we heard the news,” Li Rong-feng (李榮峰), founder of an emergency dog rescue group, Not Only Environment (N.O.E.), told the audience of college students. Liu Ji-you (劉晉佑), chief executive of the Heart of Taiwan Animal Care (HOTAC), nodded in silence, a rare moment of agreement between the two during an hour-long panel discussion hosted by Doctor Stray (浪浪博士) on Feb. 12.

The government's ban on the use of euthanasia on stray dogs, which came into effect on Feb. 6, has been criticized for being rushed and short-sighted. With the change in policy, local organizations are struggling to prevent government-funded stray dog shelters from further overpopulation.

In the past few years, the percentage of stray dogs euthanized in government-funded shelters has decreased dramatically; from 73 percent in 2009 to 50 percent in 2012, the numbers halved by 2014 and reduced to 12 percent by last year. However, due to overpopulation in the shelters, an increasing number of dogs have died from hunger and disease.

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Underfunded and understaffed animal shelters were the focus of a documentary “Twelve Nights” released in 2012. The film sparked public outrage over the practice of euthanasia in stray dog shelters in Taiwan and eventually led to the ban of euthanasia practice, also referred to as the no-kill policy.

Estimates of the stray animal population in Taiwan vary – the government says there are around 130,000 strays but animal rights activists put the figure at higher than 600,000. In advance of the no-kill policy coming into force, the government allocated NT$1.9 billion (US$58 million) through to 2018 to boost the standard of animal shelters. The decision followed news last year that a vet in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, had committed suicide on May 5. Her death was reported as linked to her distress at frequently euthanizing dogs.

Still, animal rights activists warned last year that major outbreaks of distemper and parvovirus could spread across shelters in Taiwan within the first year of the new policy.

A last resort?

During the panel discussion held in a cafe in Taipei, Li, 40, who was the director of animal care during the filming of "Twelve Nights," criticized the ban as an act of a “desperate last resort” by government officials under immense public pressure. Many of his colleagues are concerned that Taiwan is not yet ready for such a drastic change in policy.

However, the ban also posed an unexpected opportunity for collaboration between local NGOs and government agencies. When Liu, 32, first visited one of the local islands in Taiwan to practice TNVR (trap, neuter, vaccinate, return), HOTAC was not welcomed by the local government. His organization still went in, but the group was cautious and budgeted for the potential fines they could incur. When the ban came into effect earlier this month, the government reached out to the group to collaborate. The change in attitude appears to have come from a change in policy.

On the issue of TNVR, the two animal rights advocates disagree. Li pointed out during a panel event last year that the practice of capturing dogs can exacerbate the problem; other strays become more cautious and will hide when they see humans approach. According to research, 50 percent of the original stray population would have to be neutered each year in order for the population to disappear after 15 years of the practice.

Liu, whose NGO has been neutering stray dogs for years, argues that TNVR is not meant to solve the entire problem but it is a solution for part of the puzzle. He said that government encouragement of neutering is not enough; problematic dogs should be captured and put into shelters and TNVR should be practiced on non-problematic dogs.

An article by Taiwan Animal News notes three types of stray dogs in Taiwan. The first are wild dogs that have never been tamed and live in packs. These dogs should be the target for TNVR practices in order to reduce their population. The second are abandoned dogs that were once fed by an owner and often lack the ability to survive on their own. These should be captured and adopted-out. The last, are wandering dogs, which are most commonly found in the countryside and often fed by individuals that are not officially registered as their owners. These individuals should thus be approached to register as owners of the dogs and insert identity chips into the dogs.

When asked if they see the potential for collaboration between different animal rights groups, especially for those that disagree, Li explained that “discussions like these are essential, where we can talk about these issues in a relaxed setting and hear what each other has to say.” In fact, Li has visited Liu’s organization previously and from his critiques, Liu has adapted his presentation to include a new Q&A section to answer common critiques of TNVR practices.

While Liu focuses more on the reduction of dog population, Li has recently decided to focus on education. He believes that stray dog issues are fundamentally a human problem and by educating young people they can be empowered to bring change as the leaders of tomorrow. “We cannot take care of others if we don’t take care of ourselves,” he said.

The two-day workshop was hosted by a team of college students, bringing together other students to design innovative solutions for stray dog issues. The co-founders of Doctor Stray, Lucy Lin (林子馨) and Lily Weng (翁欣怡), adopted their first dog, Taylor, from a government funded dog shelter three months ago and jumped right into the issue. They are currently looking for social entrepreneurial solutions.

Editor: Edward White