Stray Dogs Hound Taiwan after Euthanasia Ban Takes Effect

Stray Dogs Hound Taiwan after Euthanasia Ban Takes Effect
Photo Credit: Reuters / TPG

What you need to know

Well intentioned legislation is leading to an increase in stray and abandoned dogs.

Animal rights activists cheered in early 2017 when Taiwan put into place its ban on the mercy killing of stray animals.

A year later people who work with stray dogs say the ban has increased the population of roadside strays, as the government leaves them outdoors to control crowding at public animal shelters. Some privately run shelters report an increase in dogs. All the while, officials are trying new means to discourage abandonment of pets.

Centers for strays run by cities and counties average 80 percent full, the central government’s Council of Agriculture (CoA) says, the same as before the euthanasia ban. But some are keeping head counts down by passing dogs over to private shelters and other nonprofits, a CoA official said.

City and county dog catchers are also leaving strays along mountain roads more often to avoid overburdening public shelters, according to Chiang Wen-chuan (江文全), animal protection section chief with the CoA.

Stretches of roads in the forested mountains outside Taipei teem with strays, some missing their fur. They might form packs to guard spots where dog lovers periodically drop off food. Packs sometimes menace passing hikers or bicyclists.

Animal catchers respond to reports of dogs that threaten people or their property, Chiang said. About 120,000 strays were living outdoors in Taiwan as of the most recent formal count in 2015.

Photo Credit: Ralph Jennings
An 11-year-old volunteer walks a stray dog named Teresa outside the Animals Taiwan shelter in Linkou, new Taipei City.

Overcrowded shelters risk the spread of disease and the odds of fights among dogs, occasionally to the death, said Tim Gorski, the New York-born CEO of The Pack Sanctuary, a private shelter outside Taipei. His shelter has 400 dogs now, up from 300 before the euthanasia ban took effect. Three have died in fights over competition for space.

“Our dogs are stressed. Our dogs are anxious,” Gorski said. “Our dogs fight. We don’t have anyone there at night. Sometimes our staff go in the morning and find a dead dog from a fight.”

The euthanasia ban was passed in 2015 and took effect in March 2017. It gained attention in 2016 after a shelter worker committed suicide, apparently due to the mental fatigue of having to kill dogs on the job.

Five local government-run shelters, including the ones in Taipei and Kaohsiung, were over their ideal capacity as of April 30 after a surge in new arrivals over the previous month, CoA data show. In Taipei, 741 animals were housed in government facilities, reaching 111 percent capacity, while 755 were kept in Kaohsiung, or 116 percent capacity.

The council is spending NT$1.9 billion (US$63 million) from 2016 through this year to improve shelters and overall animal protection.

Continued dumping of strays on roadsides and the specter of overcrowded private shelters have put the euthanasia ban back on the legislative agenda. Lawmakers in touch with animal rights groups are looking for “consensus” this year on whether to change the law again, an aide to legislator Wu Su-yao (吳思瑤) said.

But animal activists suggest that instead of reinstating mercy killings, Taiwan officials should double down on the root causes of abandoned animals: They should stop overbreeding to supply pet shops with popular purebred dogs, some believe, and local government agencies should make it harder to abandon pets.

“We hope that shelters evaluate why so many dogs are coming in,” said Connie Chiang (姜怡如), chief executive officer with the Taiwan Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA Taiwan). “If it’s because of abandonment, then we need to punish that action. We hope they don’t live forever in these shelters.”

Some shelters charge a fee to take a pet from private owners, prompting some to abandon them instead in the mountains.

At a New Taipei City shelter in Banqiao, staffers require that anyone who wants to abandon a pet first post an ad for 30 days to look for a new owner. About one-third of those people find a taker, keep their dogs or do not contact the shelter again, a shelter veterinarian said. The shelter has space for 400 dogs, but was caring for just 200 as of late May.

“The source is the problem,” said Wang Wei-chih, convener of the Taiwan Animal Protection Administrative Supervision League. “If they get discarded on streets or in the mountains, they breed again, so it becomes a vicious cycle.”

The shelter in Banqiao hosts student groups from public schools on Mondays when it’s otherwise closed to the public, with an eye to instilling responsibility in the “next generation” of pet owners, said Chen Yuan-chuan (陳淵泉), chief of the New Taipei city animal protection and division.

SPCA Taiwan advocates for stronger law enforcement based on the chips embedded under dogs’ skins, so that authorities can track owners after any abandonment. There’s no way to remove a chip, and fines for abandonment range from NT$30,000 to NT$150,000.

In May, authorities obtained the legal right to fine an owner right away if a dog is found without a chip. But abandonment remains “hard to prove,” Chiang said, either because the animals have not been chipped or because an owner will say that a pet ran away instead of being abandoned.

Local governments and dog activists encourage prospective pet owners to get dogs from shelters rather than from pet stores. Consumers often prefer stores, because they sell small or mid-sized purebred dogs rather than the larger, mixed-blooded ones normally found in shelters. Smaller sizes are ideal for owners with small apartments.

Local governments and dog activists encourage prospective pet owners to get dogs from shelters rather than from pet stores.

Tim Shen, 46, of New Taipei City, adopted a dog last year from the Animals Taiwan shelter as an “ethical decision.” He got Maia, a mid-sized black dog of unknown age that was abandoned as a puppy and subject to “phobias” just after the adoption, Shen said. One source of fear was men, a particular challenge when he first adopted her.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Tim Shen
Tim Shen poses with Maia, an adopted stray.

Now Maia is friendly to her owner, to people in Shen’s apartment building and to the security personnel at a local bank branch.

“For me it’s a no brainer,” said Shen, a private consultant. “I had a dog growing up as a boy and that was a rescue from a shelter. From my perspective it’s like rooting for the underdog as it were, pardon the pun.”