Monday, February 4, 2013

The Ethics of Dog Rescue

It is the Chinese New Year period. 

It should be jolly and festive, but more than anything, we've been feeling like big bad guys. 

For some reason, during this time of the year, the number of requests for us to take in dogs is higher than any other.

Do we reject dogs, you ask us. We are sorry to say, we reject requests for us to take in dogs on a regular basis. Far too regularly, we feel. 

Florence always takes it upon herself to be the bad person, to be the one who says no. But if you know Florence like we do, we can tell you that behind every emphatic rejection beats a heart fiercely protective of those she loves. This includes every dog currently under the roof of Gentle Paws. It takes courage to say no, to prevent overcrowding, to stem the practice of dogs being left on our door step, to protect the well-being of our existing dogs. Florence often laments that she is common enemy no. 1. But in my heart of hearts, this straight-talking, task-oriented skinny monkey of a lady is a hero. 

So let me give you an insight into the type of requests that we receive and the skinny on what we really feel. 

1. If you don't take in the dog, we have no choice but send it to SPCA. 

This is not a request. This is a thinly veiled threat. What you're asking of us is to take on a 8-12 year responsibility. We need to know the situation, be provided with information and pictures and consider whether we are in a position to take in the dog in question. We need to know that you have tried but that nothing worked out. We don't want to be your first option, we can only be your last resort. Telling us that we have two choices - to help or see the dog die - is not an incentive for us to take in the dog. We do understand that the dog is the innocent victim and we should rise above the unpleasantness and focus on the well-being of the dog. But the truth of the matter is, we are almost always full house and this mode of communicating most certainly does not help in our decision making process. 

2. There are a few stray dogs near my house and I am afraid the authorities would come capture them. Can Gentle Paws take them in? 

We love stray dogs. Wee does stray feeding every day and through the days, weeks and months, he has built a shaky but growing bond with the dogs in that area. Some are closer to him than others. His persistent presence in their lives and the way he continues to bring them food each day be it rain or shine have managed to crack the wall around their wary hearts just a little. Yet, it is still not enough to lure them close enough to touch, let alone capture. 

Stray dogs are beautiful, hardy and vulnerable all at once. The greatest trouble is that they are also so very smart. So, unless you have built up a solid relationship with the dogs in question and short of bringing in the necessary equipment, it is impossible to bring them in, no matter how hard you try. It also won't change things if we were to go down personally to the site. We are mere strangers to these dogs, invaders to their land. The chances of them shunning us like the plague is almost 99% certain, no matter how dog friendly we may look or smell! 

So to this email, our usual response will be to enquire... what are the chances of the authorities coming? If the dogs look comfortable where they are, they aren't creating a ruckus and it looks like someone is feeding them, our advice would be to... leave them be. Shelter life is not all it is made out to be. Some strays who are used to roaming the world might not adapt well to the shelter. So let them enjoy their environment. Do not interfere artificially and remove them from their home if you aren't prepared to watch over them for the next decade or so. 

3. I've had the dog for five/seven/nine/eleven years but I can no longer keep him. (i) I just got married/pregnant and my parents-in-law are not comfortable with a dog around. I don't want to wreck my relationship with them. (ii) I am emigrating in a month and I can't bring the dog along. (iii) My parents are squabbling over the dog and threatening divorce. Could you please take my dog into your shelter? He is healthy, toilet trained and good with people. 

Angry? Yes, every time we get an email like that, I feel a big sense of injustice for the dog wash over me like a great uncontrollable tidal wave. How can anyone give up a friend of five/seven/nine/eleven years? The longer the relationship, the greater the injustice. 

Okay yes, sometimes there are very adequate reasons for giving up the dog. Perhaps your child is allergic and has been having serious asthma problems as a result of the fur. You do not think you can provide proper care for both your child and dog. We respect your decision. But you owe it to your dog to find a second home for it - a shelter is simply not the option. 

You can post on adoption websites like crazy, updating your posts once very few days so that it would be on the top of the list and hard to be missed. The Rehomers and LostPaws are some useful sites to look to, just to name a few. You can start a website, use social media, make flyers, posters, send a desperate email to every friend on your contact list, place your dog on temporary home boarding until you find a suitable alternative. Our point is... there is always something you can do, short of writing to a shelter to take your poor dog in. 

If your dog is a small little frisky Maltese or other toy breeds, our shelter is most certainly not the place for it! Much to our trepidation, most of our medium to large sized dogs get a wee bit too excited when they catch sight of these teeny little ones. If your dog is old or sick, then even more so, the shelter is simply not the place. The onus becomes even greater to do something to secure a second home. 

If letting your dog loose in the streets is even an option for you, then we are speechless. And let us tell you, we've been rendered speechless quite a number of times. 

We are not speaking from a moral high ground. I most certainly do not think I am the kindest, most virtuous person ever to walk this earth. Because plainly, I am not. But when we are put in a dilemma whether or not to rescue these dogs, it can get so frustrating. What makes one dog more worth rescuing than another? Why should we reject a request for us to take in a dog out on the streets to save another dog whose owner is turning it in to the authorities? How do we value one life over another?

What really is the ethics of dog rescue? 

How do we set a criteria on when we should take in dogs and when we shouldn't? I have had futile discussions with Florence over this a number of times. We have been unable to come up with an answer. 

Add an uncertain future to the matrix of factors to consider when taking in new dogs and you've got a big headache and a sleepless night as I am having now. As you can see, the more I write, the more impassioned I become. 

If we are able to look into our crystal ball and see a semblance of stability and some hope of relocating at the end of 2014, we would most gladly take in more dogs. Unfortunately, the situation now is hazy, to say the least. No news has been released on land that has been set aside for the Pet Industry once the current area has been reclaimed for re-development. What will happen to the current place where more than a thousand dogs call their home? What will happen to our dogs at the end of 2014? 

The only back up plan we have is to rent kennels at private pet boarding businesses to house the dogs in until their final days and how long are we able to sustain that? To do so, we have to keep the number of dogs we have as low as possible - which means that the most responsible thing to do right now is to stop taking in dogs. Florence pointed this harsh truth out to me ever so starkly which I found extremely unpalatable. 

Rescuing, rehome, rescuing. It's a self-affirming cycle. A driving factor for us to find homes for the dogs is so we can rescue more dogs. That is part of the joy of dog rescue. The presence of so many limiting factors threatening to render this well-traversed cycle topsy turvy is discouraging. 

As the familiar Singaporean refrain goes... What to do? Perhaps instead of trying to save more dogs physically, the wisest thing to do right now is to divert my attention on finding out just how we can secure a new site in two years' time. And even if we don't rescue more dogs - then so what? We have rehomed almost 50 dogs the past two years. We have another 30 on our hands, for whom come hell or high water, we vouch to take care for the rest of their lives. That's 80 lives for which we made a difference. While that's a drop in the huge ocean out there, it's something

Ghandi once said that... In gentle ways, we can shake the world. This is Gentle Paws, creating our small ripples in the great big world of dog rescue. For every rejection we make, we do so with an extremely heavy heart. No dog deserves to die. If you see the pictures that we receive, the innocent faces of the dogs staring out at you with no clue of their impending fate, perhaps you would get an inkling of the temptation we get to take in every single dog and the greater courage it takes to walk away. 

Good night. 


  1. Well said. To the point exactly. They are all go to sleep at night thinking they saved a dog after a rescue. Everyone want to rescue, nobody wants to rehome or tend to them after the rescue.

  2. Really don't understand how can any human abandon their pets esp dogs after being with them, the bond n all...super heartless!!

    1. I totally agree with you on the heartless part. Perhaps that's why I am still single... none can accept me + 4 dogs and 10 cats! :) But I'm much happier now than when I had none of them!

  3. Foster the dogs out lah!

  4. There is a saying that if you know what you are doing is right, be worried but dont be afraid. Gentlepaws is doing it right!


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