In championing animal rights, in the operation of animal shelters, and even in caring for animals in general, animal welfare is the most important consideration. But how many of us can explain what exactly animal welfare is- or why it is so important?
According to the OIE* Terrestrial Code, animal welfare means ‘the physical and mental state of an animal in relation to the conditions in which it lives and dies. Put simply, animal welfare refers to the overall state of an animal- this includes its health, safety and quality of life. An animal (wild or domesticated) is said to be in a good state of well-being, per research, when it is;
Able to exhibit intrinsic behaviour; and
Is free from negative emotions (pain, fear, discomfort, etc.)
Proper animal welfare management also includes (and, in fact, requires) disease prevention and vetinary treatment, appropriate shelter management, nutrition, humane handling and (where necessary in food production) humane slaughter. In short, protecting an animal’s welfare very simply means protecting and providing for its physical and mental needs- which then raises the question: WHY is animal welfare so important?
Animals across the globe play major roles as food sources, research material for the development for science and medicine, fashion and entertainment- unfortunately, negative and unethical practices in said fields results in devastatingly cruel cases of animal abuse and mistreatment. It is to prevent or, at least minimise, this that attention to animal welfare needs to be taken seriously. This involves taking into account all elements of animal welfare, such as the Five Freedoms expressed by the OIE– namely freedom from hunger, malnutrition or thirst, from fear and distress, from heat stress or physical discomfort, from pain, injury and disease, to express normal patterns of behaviour. While efforts have been made locally to raise awareness of the importance of animal welfare and to make sure that it is foremost in consideration when caring for animals, the recent pandemic has had a hugely negative impact on the welfare of animals (strays and domestic) in Malaysia- and animal shelters, the frontliners of care and welfare protection for strays have been feeling the brunt of it. Some of these effects include:
A Drop in Donation Rates: Animal shelters, much like any other organisation, require proper funding in order to effectively manage shelter and care for strays under their care, with the biggest expenses being pet food, medicine, and sterilisation. However, animal shelters in Malaysia tend to be “self-funded”, i.e. their founder handles all expenses from their personal finances, or rely on donations from the general public. With the recent epidemic affected sources of income for the general public, many shelters found their already limited financial means drained even further.
Wanting to help- but held back fiscally
Lower Adoption Numbers vs. High Surrender Rates: The Movement Control Order and its extensions, while necessary for public safety, also complicated the adoption process for many shelters. Generally, most shelters attempt to facilitate a meeting between potential adopters and their would-be pets in order to give them the chance to ‘connect’ with them. Being unable to travel to or visit shelters resulted in shelters themselves having a hard time finding potential owners for their residents. Statistics from shelters reveal that there has also been a rise in the number of people surrendering their pets to shelters as, sadly, financial complications from the pandemic prevented them from providing proper care for their pets.
This leads to an additional complication- with a low number of adoptions vs. the number of strays dropped off at the shelter, shelters may run out of room to house them. This forces them to spend on additional forms of accommodation for their stray residents, bringing us back to the initial issue of a lack of finances.
Staff Shortage: The MCO and resultant restrictions also made it difficult for those working in shelters to carry out their tasks in caring for their residents. Shelter staff have needed to work harder to accomplish jobs such as admin work, cleaning and caring for all animals- but volunteers, who helped manage the workload pre-MCO were unable to help out as they usually were due to the restrictions in place. This served as an additional complication in caring for and protecting the welfare of the strays.
Delays on Check-Ups and Treatments: While most vetinary clinincs require appointments, the MCO added on to medical woes for pets and strays. Suppliers for medication and specialised food for treatment either closed down or required permits for operation and distribution- which affected the quality of care vets could provide to pets/ strays in need. In addition, the need for permits to move around as well as restrictions in distance proved to be another bump in the road for vets offering free care for strays- often delaying much-needed medical treatment and assistance.
While it can be disheartening to hear about the impact of the pandemic on animal welfare in Malaysia, there are still some flashes of hope. Numerous good samaritans and organisations have taken the time and effort to continue caring for strays, and to champion the development of animal welfare protection within the country, proving that animal welfare IS being taken seriously by the public.