Tuesday, November 2, 2021 - 11:13

ON THE WILD SIDE

There may have been a childhood ambition to be vets but somehow law school took precedence. Yet the call to defend the voiceless and those with no safety nets was so strong that they decided to get their hands dirty and go through huge financial sacrifices to serve on the wild side.

(L-R) Ignatius Hwang, Lee Chuen Ling, Noelle Seet and Goh Jia Jie are passionate about improving animal welfare. Theirs is the first in a series of stories on SAL members who go an extraordinary mile for a worthy cause.  

ON THE WILD SIDE

BY FOO KIM LENG

STRAYS NO MORE

Ignatius Hwang

At any one time, Ignatius Hwang and his wife, Michelle have more than 10 dogs under their care; two of their own in their home and up to 10 strays which are housed in rented premises.

The couple moved into Seletar about three years ago and noticed many strays hiding in the forests and decided to feed them out of compassion. “On our first rescue, we managed to save nine dying puppies, nursed them back to health and quickly found adopters for them.” This led to more rescues and in June 2020, Ignatius and Michelle started StraysNoMoreSG, a not -for-profit entity that is entirely self-funded by the couple. 

Ignatius, an energy and infrastructure projects lawyer in an international firm and Michelle, an accountant have not baulked at opening their hearts and wallets to saving dogs in distress. “We rescued our second dog from a vet training hospital in China. She was a small puppy and was used as a guinea pig. Her limbs were deliberately broken in order for vet students to perform surgery.” The couple went through great lengths to bring Le Le (Happiness) back to Singapore and today she is a lively, happy dog.

"On our first rescue,
we managed to save
nine dying puppies,
nursed them back to health
and quickly found
adopters for them."

IG2STRAYS

To date, the couple has rescued about 75 dogs and rehomed 60 plus under their StraysNoMoreSG initiative. “We want to rescue, neuter and rehome as many strays as we can. It’s becoming increasingly challenging to find good and suitable adopters.  The turnaround time for adoption used to be two to three months when we first started, but recently this has taken much longer, around four to six months. All our strays eventually get adopted – it’s simply a matter of time. Our first target is to rescue, neuter and rehome all the strays living in the forests in the Seletar area. We are 80% there. Once the strays are neutered, this will stop the population growth.”

I AM A DOG-TRAPPER

Lee Chuen Ling was an in-house legal counsel in a French bank when she decided in 2014 to take a self-declared sabbatical to volunteer with animal welfare groups (AWGs). “I’ve always loved animals and I want to be able to play what little part I can in saving, where possible, even the smallest creature,” she said. 

She had throughout the years volunteered with various AWGs whether it is fundraising for SPCA, animal rescue at Animal Concerns Research & Education Society (ACRES) or producing her own whaleshark conservation videos.

After almost 20 years in practice and in-house, Ling decided to leave the legal fraternity to spend more time pursuing her interests in nature conservation and wildlife protection and rescue. She joined an ACRES volunteer trip to Lao Wildlife Sanctuary, continued to volunteer at ACRES and helped with an NUS civet project in Pulau Ubin.

CKL
Ling with the dogs at Pulau Ubin

She also contemplated setting up a “lawyers for animal” group to support the good work that AWGs have been doing for animals. “Unfortunately, this did not materialise as I could not find enough like-minded passionate lawyers to take on this cause.”

In the end of 2014, a friend volunteering at SoSD (formerly Save our Street Dogs) asked if she was keen to help start and run a pilot dog sterilisation project on Pulau Ubin as she is an avid cyclist familiar with Ubin having helped with the Ubin civet project. At first she was reluctant as she did not know if she could handle dog rescue work. She had two furkids of her own and she could not bear to see dogs suffering. But she was ready to take on any challenge, especially since the Government policy then was the culling of stray dogs.

Ling’s sabbatical turned into a seven-year mission to push for the success of a Trap-Neuter-Release-Manage (TNRM) programme which had been a huge game-changer for stray dogs in Singapore. She even ended up adopting a third furkid from Ubin.

Trap Neuter Release Operation by SOSD.
Trap Neuter Release Project. Source: SoSD Facebook

As SoSD’s TNRM Manager, Ling worked with SoSD volunteers, external trappers, vets and groups of volunteers around the island to trap, neuter and manage the population of stray dogs commonly and lovingly known as “Singapore Specials”. From more than 170 strays on Pulau Ubin, the team managed to bring it down to 50 dogs when the project was completed after two years in 2016.

Ling’s work begins with taking a census of the dog population, prioritising which dogs to trap, deciding which trapping method works for a particular dog, documenting the results of their work in reports to the Animal Veterinary Service (AVS) and SPCA and discussing with the stakeholders how to address issues which crop up along the way.

“I work with an incredible team of staff and volunteers in SoSD who look after the trapped dogs at shelter and try to rehabilitate and rehome the dogs earmarked for rehoming. For dogs which are released, feeders are important in monitoring the whereabouts and wellbeing of the dogs. Some dogs need to be trapped a second time for SOS cases.”

In the end of 2018, a five-year TNRM programme was officially launched by Mr Desmond Lee, Minister for Social and Family Development and Second Minister for National Development. Ling’s work was highlighted by Minister Lee who acknowledged her dedication in working behind the scenes in often tough and difficult conditions.

She did not only stop at Ubin but went to other types of TNRM sites on mainland Singapore such as a construction site, an industrial estate, a residential area and military land (to name a few) to suss out the  challenges each presented and how it can be addressed.

 

As a corporate lawyer, Ling was used to drafting derivative documents in an office environment. “My current job is hands-on coolie work - designing and building corral traps and the actual trapping of dogs. I also liaise with the relevant authorities, deal with complaints and educate the general public about strays and their plight.

 

“One of the main bottlenecks in TNRM is trapping elusive dogs. Sometimes it takes a few minutes to trap a dog, sometimes 4.5 years! At times, it involves going into the forested areas at night, setting up cameras to record their movements and waiting for hours before they appear for trapping.” Along the way, Ling has learned to develop her own dog trapping skills especially when there are not enough trappers. When asked what is her day-job, Ling will often say, “I am a dog trapper!”

“But the work will never end unless the source of strays is also dealt with,” she says. “The project had a lot more to do with managing humans than dogs. At a few TNRM sites including Ubin, when the project was completed, people start bringing in new dogs with intentions to breed and mainly keep them as guard dogs. This mindset is widespread not only on Ubin but on mainland Singapore.

“You need lots of people management skills to deal with kampong minded folks who claim to own the dogs yet do not exercise responsible pet ownership. They will usually not bring the dogs to the vet when sick or injured and will abandon them when they no longer need them. These dogs are untraceable as they are usually never licensed. This the biggest challenge. I had to be tough with such dog ‘owners’.”

SOSD3

"If these dogs do not have a voice, I will try my best to lend them mine
- for as long as I am able to.”

Part of her job requires her to work with the relevant authorities to push for rules and regulations which support and complement, and not go against, the TNRM programme, in order for it to be successful at the end of five years. “There is still a lot of work to be done but I am happy to have contributed to pushing for the change of stray dog management policy from one of culling to sterilising the dogs and then either rehoming them or releasing them. If these dogs do not have a voice, I will try my best to lend them mine - for as long as I am able to.”

GOING UNDERCOVER

NwithDog

 

"...I will continue to
share my passion
with other lawyers
in the hope that
some of it
rubs off on them.”

As a litigator, Noelle Seet was familiar with defending the rights of her clients. After more than 10 years in practice, she found her dream job as an advocate for animal welfare.

It was not an easy decision to leave legal practice but for someone who had always been dedicated to animal welfare causes since her early years, working at ACRES was a dream. “It is still the most fulfilling job I’ve had to date. Wildlife in Singapore is under-represented. ACRES is a rare local organisation that lends these animals a voice, rescues them and educates the public about them,” said Noelle.

Noelle joined ACRES as a Head of Campaigns & Communications in 2014. The advocacy skills honed in litigation were valuable especially after ACRES launched an Animal Crime Investigation Unit (ACIU) in early 2015 to investigate animal cruelty and wildlife crime. “My experience in criminal law definitely aided me in forming this unit – from understanding the elements of the offence, knowing the evidence needed for prosecution, to formulating the processes and documentation with a view to prosecution."

To collect evidence, prepare statutory declarations and case briefs for the then, Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority (AVA), the ACIU went undercover to successfully expose shops in Singapore illegally selling certain wild animal products and wildlife traffickers selling endangered or exotic animals on e-commerce platforms. Undercover investigations were also conducted at pet shops and farms in a bid to improve the animals’ living conditions.

“We referred substantiated animal cruelty cases to the then AVA and, in working closely with the AVA, caught several sellers of exotic animals, including sellers of Asian leopard cats and endangered animals.”

Noelle also wrote several position papers. The more notable ones were for the trap-neuter-release and management (TNRM) of stray dogs as a humane alternative to culling, and the use of sniffer dogs to detect wildlife and wildlife parts at borders.

Following the white paper, the Jurong Town Corporation successfully launched the TNRM programme on Jurong island in 2014. Noelle supported the trapping of stray dogs, even into wee hours of the morning, and visited companies on the island to help staff understand the to-dos and not-to-dos with stray dogs.

She is heartened to see that since August this year, sniffer dogs have been used at border checkpoints to detect the smuggling of endangered animals, and items such as elephant ivory and pangolin scales.

 

NS

 

After more than two years at ACRES, Noelle is now an in-house counsel. She continues to support ACRES as Vice President of its Executive Committee and campaign for animal welfare on various fronts. “An ongoing campaign from my time in ACRES is also embedding the concept of co-existence with local wildlife into the public psyche. I will continue to share my passion with other lawyers in the hope that some of it rubs off on them.”

DEFINITELY NO REGRETS

One of those whom Noelle influenced was Goh Jia Jie, a Senior Associate at FC Legal Asia LLC. Growing up, Jia Jie aspired to be a vet and volunteered at shelters during his secondary school days. “Before the amendments to the Animal and Birds Act were made in 2015, there was no real political will in the advancement of animal causes. Based on publicly available statistics, the number of animal-related offences prosecuted at the time was low, and I suspect it was partly due to the lack of resources being diverted to enforcement efforts. Public sentiments then were that AVA was not doing enough. As such, when I was doing my diploma in law, I thought of how the law could be used to help animal causes.”

Jia Jie did a Diploma in Law at Temasek Polytechnic and went on to read law at the University of Liverpool. Unlike other law students who applied for internships at law firms, Jia Jie chose to spend a summer break at ACRES on an unpaid internship.

 

"...when I was doing my diploma in law, I thought of how the law could be used to help animal causes.”

JJ
Jia Jie in the attire that he wore every day during his internship at ACRES

He assisted Noelle with the drafting of research papers, took part in undercover investigations and went to Jurong Island to trap dogs under the TNRM programme. He travelled for 1.5 hours to get to work every day, worked in jeans and black t-shirts and enjoyed himself thoroughly. “Definitely no regrets,” he said.

While his legal practice makes it challenging for him to volunteer actively, Jia Jie continues to monitor news and developments on animal welfare, participate in public consultations and contribute articles to voice his opinions on certain issues. He is heartened that inroads have been made for the better protection of animals and there is a growing interest in animal causes.

 

END

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