There are signs that animal shelters are struggling to keep up with the number of stray dogs in Taiwan, just months after the government banned the euthanasia of animals at its shelters.

Animal shelters have experienced an influx of animals since the “no kill” policy was introduced on Feb.4, and more dogs are being left on the street, says Zhang Hui-min (張慧敏), founder of New Taipei City New Life Pet Shelter Association.

“I have noticed more dogs in the shelters so I often adopt more than I intend to because the environment is so horrible in there. I cannot leave them inside only to die from a disease,” Zhang says.

Estimates of the stray animal population in Taiwan vary – officials say 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 last year allocated NT$1.9 billion (US$58 million) through to 2018 to boost the standard of animal shelters.

Animal rights advocate Zhang Hui-min.

Policy-roll out

Almost 8,000 stray dogs were euthanized in Taiwan in 2016. On May 5, 2016, a vet in Taoyuan, northern Taiwan, committed suicide; her death was reported as linked to her distress at frequently euthanizing dogs.

Leading up to the “no-kill” policy, the percentage of stray dogs euthanized in Taiwan’s government-funded shelters has decreased dramatically in the past few years; from 73 percent in 2009 to 12 percent by 2016.

Still, due to overpopulation in shelters, an increasing number of dogs have died from hunger and disease. 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.

During a press conference on Dec.15, 2016, then agricultural minister Tsao Chi-hung (曹啟鴻) said government shelters will practice neutering on the stray animals and release them back to their place of origin – commonly referred to as the practice of trap, neuter, vaccine and return (TNVR) – to limit overcrowding in the shelters.

However, statistics released on Feb. 28 show that 27 percent of the government shelters have exceeded their maximum space capacities. Yilan County has taken in almost 50 percent more strays than space permitting. As “maximum space capacities” is a new category in the government statistics, it is unclear whether this reflects a worsening situation or an improvement.

Zhang said that she has noticed more abandoned dogs on the streets in recent weeks.

“Last weekend, we rescued five full grown mix-breeds from the streets close to our shelter. They were probably used as guard dogs for a seasonal farm and abandoned at the end of the season,” she told The News Lens in March.

Zhang believes the no-kill policy leads to people rationalizing abandoning their dogs, and it doesn’t help that “drop-off” fees at government shelters are only NT$2,700. The dog shelter she founded in the rural area of Pingxi (平溪), east of Taipei, seven years ago keeps approximately 500 dogs and is still adopting more.

Liu Jin-you (劉晉佑), chief executive of Heart of Taiwan Animal Care (台灣之心), told TNL that after the no-kill policy was introduced, government agencies have become more proactive about stray dog issues. But due to a lack of supporting measures, resources are becoming exhausted. He worries that government agencies will become overwhelmed by the number of dogs in the shelters and begin to capture fewer stray dogs.

Adoption drive fails

Taiwan Dr. Dog (台灣狗醫生協會), a nonprofit that trains and certifies therapy dogs, foresaw these issues a year ago when it launched The Stray Animal Stars program, aiming to train and adopt out strays.

However, the program has achieved limited success, reflecting apathetic public attitudes and short-sighted government policies.

The program was initiated for the public to recognize the value of strays and to increase adoption rates. The organization hoped to promote the concept of “adoption, cultivation, and zero abandonment.” Though well-intended, the program faced major funding challenges and found few people were interested in adopting mix-breed dogs most commonly found in shelters. Almost a year has gone by, yet only 10 of the 20 dogs in the program have been adopted.

Researchers believe that properly trained and certified therapy dogs can assist with physical therapy, help children with autism and encourage the elderly to socialize, among other things. Taiwan Dr. Dog was founded in 2001 and has since successfully trained more than 300 dogs. The group currently freely provides a dog therapy service to 45 organizations in Taiwan, including special needs schools, nursing homes and hospitals.

“If people see that humans and dogs can develop a different kind of trust then perhaps they will realize the value of stray dogs and be less likely to abandon them,” said Teng Hui-chin (鄧惠津), project manager of the Stray Animal Stars program.

Teng’s team obtained partial funding from the Taipei City Animal Protection Office for the program. In support, Taipei City Mayor Ko Wen-je (柯文哲) appeared in a short advertising video clip featuring trained therapy dogs in a mock meeting. The clip has accumulated 76,000 views on YouTube since it was uploaded in April 2016.

An online crowdfunding drive was launched that month to raise the remaining funds, but only 10 percent of the NT$3.6 million (US$110,000) goal was reached.

“We still went forward,” said Teng.

Teng and her fellow dog instructors selected 20 potential therapy dogs from Neihu’s Taipei Animal Shelter (內湖收容所). Because of the lack of funds, they had to eliminate certain parts of the program, such as home visits prior to adoption, but promotion efforts were not cut short.

Professional photographers were hired to capture the dogs in action and the team set up a website with detailed descriptions of each dog's personality and qualities of its ideal owner.

“We would promote at every opportunity; whether it was a government sponsored pet fair or school workshop,” said Teng. “If there was a venue, we were there.”

“Originally we thought there would be enough people interested, so we planned to select the most suitable owner through phone interviews.”

But the calls did not come in.

People would browse the group’s website but few went out to adopt, and Teng’s team realized that “people weren’t interested in adopting mix-breed dogs.”

If dogs were adopted, the owners were not always keen on the training programs — 10 dogs were adopted of the 20 selected and only three came back with their new owners for dog therapy training.

“Normal training programs only last six months but since these are adopted stray dogs, we need to build a good foundation of trust between the dog and its owner,” said Teng. Many owners cannot commit to the amount of time demanded or are simply not interested in the volunteer work which follows the training.

The program is scheduled to end on April 10 when the funds will dry up.

“If there are other organizations or businesses that would like to sponsor us in the future, we would welcome such partnerships.” “But right now, we can only work with what we have. After all, we are just a non-profit,” said Teng.

Read more:
The Curious Case of the Dogs on the Flight
Is an Animal Welfare Storm Brewing in Taiwan?
First Political Party Dedicated to Animal Protection Founded in Taiwan

Editor: Edward White