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(INTERVIEW) Taiwan's unsung heroes: Volunteer stray animal rescuer

2017/01/14 17:22:51


In February, Taiwan will begin implementing a ban on euthanizing stray animals, meaning abandoned pets or animals born as strays will no longer be put to death if they are not adopted from government-run shelters.

Last year, around 70,000 animals ended up at the shelters and each year around 10,000 are put down when they're not adopted, while several thousand more die from other causes, such as injuries and illnesses.

The ban comes after the government has long been criticized for not doing enough to deal with Taiwan's pet abandonment problem.

But over the years, many unsung heroes in Taiwan have been quietly giving their time and energy to helping strays.

One of them, Liza Milne, 42, is from the UK and has lived in Taiwan since age 20. She works as a cram school English teacher in her paying job, but spends the rest of her time as an animal rescuer and volunteer at non-government shelters that save and care for stray animals.

For about 11 years, she volunteered as chairperson, events and sponsorship coordinator, and rescuer of Animals Taiwan -- an NGO that has saved hundreds of sick or injured stray dogs and cats -- found homes for them and cared for up to 70 of the animals awaiting adoption at its shelter, which recently relocated from Taipei to Linkou in New Taipei City.

In 2016, Milne became a full-time volunteer for Mary's Doggies, a shelter that rescues strays and finds homes for them in the United States or Canada.

She does all of this as a volunteer and also takes in abandoned animals at her home, where she's currently fostering 14 dogs and five cats. She recently shared with the CNA's contributing writer Cindy Sui her insight about Taiwan's stray animal problem and her views on the new law.

(Liza Milne and a dog at Animals Taiwan; photo taken by Cindy Sui)

In her own words:

I'm from the south of England. In the back of our house, there were horses, and deer would wander in at 3 o'clock in the morning and my dad would say, "Wake up, look at the deer." He has a great respect for animals.

I didn't know as a child I would do this. It wasn't until I came to Taiwan and saw the strays at 7-Eleven; it was pretty bad. I've always loved animals...but at the time, I didn't understand the plight of animals. When I lived in England, we didn't see stray dogs.

How she got involved:

In the years before I joined Animals Taiwan, I rescued a few animals and found them homes. Others I had to put to sleep due to internal injuries from car accidents.

I rescued two dogs at that time that were hit by cars. With both of them, I heard the screeching of the car, so I just ran over there, but people didn't go to help them. They would look at me like why does the foreigner like animals so much; it's just a dog. I managed to carry the dogs back to my scooter and try to find a vet.

(Photo courtesy of Liza Milne)

(Photo courtesy of Liza Milne)

Then I started seeing dog packs in parking lots. I went to a steak store and asked them if they had leftover steaks and they said yes. So at 10 o'clock at night, I would go there and get the steak and feed the dogs.

I joined Animals Taiwan because I realized as one person there was only so much I could do. By joining a team of likeminded people, I would be able to do so much more. When I first started, I thought I'll just give some money every month or I'll just do a couple of events. I quickly became more involved. In every year that I've been with Animals Taiwan, we rescued around 90 animals.

The problems she has seen:

Some of the main problems in Taiwan are car/scooter accidents. Also gin traps that farmers put out to keep dogs or other animals out of their farmland.

These vicious traps snap down on the dogs' legs and then they can't get them off. They are terrified and in great pain. If left for too long, the leg either rots off or the dogs bite their leg off to stop the pain. More often than not, the leg needs to be amputated. These are all life threatening to animals and take a lot of care and medication to help them pull through. Not all do though.

(Photo courtesy of Liza Milne)

Other problems are fights between male dogs. Also, skin problems are common due to the humidity and dampness of Taiwan. We've had some very serious cases of skin problems where the animals take a lot of time to recover.

(Photo courtesy of Liza Milne)

Others who are also making a difference:

We are lucky in Taiwan that medical care is manageable and there are many vets that will give discounts to organizations. The vets that we use go above and beyond to help the animals that we rescue, no matter what condition they come in.

Taiwan (now) has hundreds of people working tirelessly and unnoticed by the public to help the plight of the stray animals. Many of these people not only give up their free time, but can also end up giving up their jobs and homes to care for the hundreds of dogs and cats that they have rescued.

(A vet and a volunteer at Animals Taiwan ; photo taken by Cindy Sui)

(Volunteers at Animals Taiwan; photo taken by Cindy Sui)

I joined Mary's Doggies this year (2016) full time because I decided Mary could use my help more. The work I do there is similar to what I did at Animals Taiwan. I help her with the various Facebook pages, rescues, fostering, sponsor program, fundraising and anything else I can help with.

Most of the dogs she rescues get re-homed in the U.S. or Canada. Mary's Doggies just this year (2016) has rescued over 150 dogs and found homes for just as many. She also helps other organizations from down south (mainly Taichung) find homes for their dogs in the U.S. too, so she re-homes around 300 dogs a year.

Why she helps animals:

Why do I do what I do? I love animals! I want to help as much as possible. I think people should do what they love doing and I do love doing what I'm doing.

There are good times or bad times when we're not able to rescue or an animal passes away. We have success stories when an animal gets adopted and we get the photos back from the families. And when I go to our boarding facility and the dogs are barking and wagging their tales and are so happy to see me, I realize this is the right thing I'm doing.

I really wish the government would step up. I feel the local community is doing more for the animals than the government is. That's not the way it should be.

A lot of the pet stores around Taiwan are actually illegal. The government will only go there if you report it. It says all of Taiwan's animals have to be (micro) chipped (to hold the owner responsible for abandonment), but a store can sell an animal without chipping it.

The government is focusing on catching the stray animals, but you've got to stop it where it starts. There are a lot of problems that I feel the government is closing their eyes on.

(Puppies crammed into a cage awaiting adoption at a government animal shelter; photo taken by Cindy Sui)

(A dog placed in a viewing room hoping to get adopted at a government animal shelter; photo taken by Cindy Sui)

What she thinks of the new law:

In 2017 Taiwan plans to become a no-kill country, meaning any dog surrendered or caught by the government will not be put to sleep within 12 days, but be held for adoption.

I am not an advocate of this plan at this time as I feel Taiwan is not ready for this as of yet. There are 100s of 1000s of stray/homeless animals in Taiwan and all private and government shelters are bursting at the seams.

With the no-kill policy, I feel people will become more complacent about giving up their pet to shelters. Also the overcrowding issue is huge, quarantining animals, supervising animals and giving the adequate medical care to the animals will become impossible.

If an animal brings in Parvo/distemper/giardia or any other contagious disease into the shelters, without the proper quarantining, it will spread very quickly throughout the shelter and kill many of the animals, especially young or sick animals which are most susceptible.

What she thinks the government should do:

I believe the government needs to first focus on encouraging people to spay and neuter their pets, by giving them incentives. This will seriously impact the amount of animals born on the streets.

To give a quick example, we recently were asked to help with a dog which was adopted from a government shelter as a puppy and never spayed. She then proceeded to have six puppies, four of which were female. The owner is still refusing to spay the mother dog and gave up the four female pups to people willing to take care of them.

If these people hadn't stepped forward to help the puppies, they may have been dumped in the mountains and then in turn would have produced six to 16 puppies each within a year, meaning in one area in a short amount of time, there could be 24 to 64 new dogs.

I believe encouragement is the key, as well as helping the private shelters, helping the people who feed the stray dogs, helping communities wanting to have community dogs and helping people who adopt animals.

(Photo taken by Cindy Sui)

(Photo courtesy of Liza Milne)

End note:

The Council of Agriculture's animal protection section says along with the ban on euthanasia, they are increasing the budget to hire more animal control workers to spay and neuter strays, and enforce micro-chipping rules. All shelters will also ask anyone who wants to abandon their pet there to pay a fee, though the fee is relatively small in many cases.

Activists, however, say much more needs to be done to encourage pet owners to spay or neuter their animals and to fine them if they don't. And while public awareness is rising, they say more efforts should be made to encourage people to adopt instead of buy animals.