FEATURE/Brutal cat killing reveals Taiwan's struggles in animal protection
By Lee Hsin-Yin, CNA staff reporter
After 11 days of intensive care, Tea Tea (茶茶), a white tabby cat in New Taipei City, finally succumbed to his injuries on Aug. 28. He endured 13 hours of hell on Aug. 17 when his owner repeatedly doused him with boiling water and beat him so hard with an umbrella that it bent.
Tea Tea was nothing more than a tool for the suspect, surnamed Lee (黎), who had filmed the torture of the cat he had kept with his ex-girlfriend, to try to force her to reconcile.
Fan Shu-hsien (范舒閑), who rushed to the rescue of Tea Tea, along with animal lovers like her and local police, told CNA that she could not bear the sight when she arrived. Tea Tea was scalded so badly that he had lost much of his fur; his bare skin was exposed and his ears were curled due to severe burns.
"It was heartbreaking. My heart hurt so much when I went over this," Fan recalled, weeping.
The gruesome news has gone viral on social media and prompted a public outcry calling for imprisonment for Lee, but experts say it is difficult to seek heavy punishment on animal abusers under Taiwan's animal protection law.
Limits in law
"I have not seen any case of animal cruelty result in penalties that cannot be commuted to fines," said Lu Chiu-yuan (呂秋遠), an animal welfare advocate and lawyer who is representing Lee's ex-girlfriend in filing a lawsuit against him.
According to the Animal Protection Act, killing, deliberately hurting, or causing injury to an animal can lead to a jail term of up to two years and a fine of between NT$200,000 to NT$2 million (US$6,440-US$64,400).
However, many considered the punishment rather light because in Taiwan, if a court sentences an offender to a jail term of up to six months for an offense that carries a maximum of five years, the sentence can be commuted to a fine at a daily rate of up to NT$3,000.
Soon after Tea Tea's owner's case, a petition was launched on the Public Policy Online Participation Platform - which allows citizens to propose policy suggestions to the government - urging Taiwan to follow other countries and adopt stricter punishment for animal abusers.
The petition has collected nearly 44,000 signatures as of Sept. 10 - well above the required threshold of 5,000 signatures in 60 days - so the government agency in charge of animal protection has to respond in two months, or by Oct. 27.
Petitioners have argued that Taiwan's animal protection law is outdated, citing examples from major countries in dealing with similar issues.
The United States, for instance, passed a federal ban on animal cruelty in 2019, which outlaws purposeful crushing, burning, drowning, suffocation, impalement or other violence causing serious bodily injury to animals.
Under the country's Preventing Animal Cruelty and Torture Act, violations could result in a fine and up to seven years' imprisonment.
The petition is now being reviewed by Cheng Chu-ching (鄭祝菁), chief of the Animal Protection Section at the Council of Agriculture (COA), the central authority responsible for such cases.
However, the situation is more complicated than what the public thinks, Cheng said.
It does not make much sense to compare Taiwan with other countries since the government structures and resources allocated to the matter are very different.
"We have to set our priorities so we can utilize our authority, because the fact is we are seriously short-staffed," said Cheng, whose unit - still listed under the Department of Animal Husbandry at the COA - has only six full-time members.
Cheng pointed out that from a legal perspective, three major amendments had already been made to the Animal Protection Act between 2015-2017 to impose heavier penalties on animal abusers, mainly in the wake of a shocking serial cat killing case.
The case involved Chan Ho-yeung (陳皓揚), a then-National Taiwan University (NTU) student from Macau, who brutally killed two cats - Big Orange (大橘子) and Ban Ban (斑斑) - in 2015 and 2016.
Back then, the maximum jail term for animal abusers was one year, with a fine of between NT$100,000-NT$1 million. It was not until 2017 that the penalty was doubled.
Regardless, the judge did not hand down the heaviest possible penalty on Chan. In the ruling in 2016, he was given two concurrent six-month sentences for the two offenses, with two fines worth NT$150,000 and NT$250,000.
In the end, Chan only needed to pay NT$350,000 and served a 10-month jail term, with the latter commutable to a fine of NT$600,000.
Things or beings?
"The fundamental solution lies in a legal status being granted to animals so that they are not treated merely as an object," said Chen Yu-min (陳玉敏), deputy chief executive of the Environment & Animal Society of Taiwan.
Once the law states that animals are no longer objects, judges would have a stronger basis to impose heavier sentences, she said.
Better protection of animals could contribute to better protection of humans, Chen argued, pointing out the strong link between cruelty to animals and violence toward humans.
"Think of Tea Tea's tragedy, think of what could have happened to Lee's ex-girlfriend if she had given in to his threat and gone back to Lee that day," Chen said. "She could have been the one tortured instead."
Besides the legal aspect, there is the issue of enforcement, according to Fan, Lu and Chen.
According to government data, there were 6,462 animal cruelty cases reported between 2018-2020, but only the offenders in 161 of the cases, or 2.5 percent, were punished under the Animal Protection Act.
The low conviction rate was a result of improper law enforcement, namely a lack of animal protection police, animal advocates said.
According to Cheng's office, there are three categories of people, either full-time or part-time, handling the country's animal protection affairs - animal shelter staff members, veterinarians stationed at the shelters, and so-called animal protection inspectors.
As of April 30 this year, there were only 102 full-time and 72 part-time inspectors across the country, whose legal status is vague.
In the case of pets, it is one thing for inspectors to be given the right to "check" on owners reported as abusers, and another thing to carry out these inspections in practice.
"The inspectors can't break in during a case of emergency, can't arrest people, and do not have enough knowledge and power to collect evidence," Chen said.
This comes back to Cheng's point about government structure. She said the staffing of animal protection inspectors falls under the authority of local governments, while a special animal police unit will require intervention from the Ministry of the Interior.
"Where we can practice our maximum influence as a central policymaker is to work with local governments in training these inspectors and setting the best possible standard operating procedure for them to improve their ability in handling animal cruelty cases," she said.
It also requires a higher level of civic participation, including the help of animal groups, to raise awareness about animal protection and curb abuses, according to Cheng.
Lu agreed with Cheng about the challenges faced by animal protection personnel, and that they deserve higher legal status, more resources and greater power.
"Any mourning and sentiments you write for Tea Tea online will not change anything," Lu said. "We need to take action now by pushing lawmakers to put forth better laws."
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