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  Straits Times Forum 23 Jun 06
Take a strong stance against animal smugglers, abusers
By Louis Ng

THE death of an Alaskan malamute because of neglect in January last year. The torture of a kitten in November last year. The reckless abandonment of pet tarantulas in February this year. The poaching of flying lemurs in our nature reserves in March. These are clear signs of problems in our society and the way we treat and view animals.

What are the reasons behind such acts still being committed in a developed and progressive country like Singapore? There are laws in place which criminalise the above acts, but the question is: Are these laws a sufficient deterrent?

For the past few years, the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres) has been campaigning for improvements to existing legislation. The Government has responded positively.

The Endangered Species (Import and Export) Act was repealed and re-enacted this year to strengthen deterrence and enforcement to combat the illegal wildlife trade. Under the Act, offenders dealing in or trafficking endangered species now face a fine of up to $50,000 for each scheduled species or imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years, or both, compared to previous maximum penalties of a paltry $5,000 fine and/or a year's jail.

The increased fine of $50,000 per species is undoubtedly one of the highest in the world. A concern, however, is that the fine is capped at $500,000.

Dr Amy Khor, an MP for Hong Kah GRC, raised this in Parliament in January: 'I would like to ask the Minister of State why there is a need to cap the penalty to a maximum of $500,000. 'If these illegal traffickers continue to commit such offences, despite the hefty penalties, why should the law help limit the financial risk they face upon prosecution?'

At first glance, it would seem that hefty fines and jail terms should act as a strong deterrent to those committing offences against animals. The heavy penalties are, however, often only good in theory.

In practice, offenders are seldom slapped with the maximum sentence. The owner of the Alaskan malamute was fined $3,000 out of a maximum of $10,000 and/or a one-year jail term. Similarly, David Hooi, who pleaded guilty to torturing a kitten, was sentenced to just three months in jail. More recently, a man caught smuggling over 2,000 turtles was fined $20,000 and jailed for five months, despite the fact that he could have been fined $500,000 and/or jailed for two years.

From the standpoint of a lay person, it could, therefore, seem that not enough emphasis is placed on protecting animals or clamping down on offenders. Even when laws are improved, clauses are added to ensure that penalties are not too high.

Take the case of the highly lucrative trade in dealing in endangered species. If the chances of getting caught are low and if one faces minimal penalties if one is unfortunate enough to get caught, then how effective is the deterrent?

Perhaps the culprits who tried to poach the flying lemurs, who are still at large, knew the minimal risks involved and decided to break the law.

If the public perceives that the Government is not placing much importance on animal protection issues, then they may feel inclined to take a light view of such acts. If this is indeed the public feeling, then this has serious implications.

While legislation is important in creating a society where mistreatment of animals is unacceptable, awareness is equally important. A lack of awareness that animals are sentient beings and the subsequent lack of compassion towards them would certainly be factors that contributed to the recent spate of animal abuses.

There is no doubt that Singapore is a leading country in Asia in terms of economic development and standard of living.

However, it is questionable as to where we stand in terms of attitude towards and treatment of animals. Many of us are taught from an early age how we are different from animals, rather than what we have in common with them. So most of us grow up accepting the idea that animals are to be used for our own ends.

The recent cases of animal abuse, although extreme, perhaps illustrate this underlying problem in our society. Compassion towards animals is a pertinent issue.

There have been many new insights in recent years about the link between cruelty to animals and violence towards humans. Several studies have revealed a significant association between acts of cruelty to animals in childhood and serious, recurrent aggression against people in adulthood.

On our part, Acres has held more than 80 roadshows and talks in Singapore in recent years to create much-needed awareness on animal welfare issues. We are optimistic that attitudes towards animals are changing here and an increasing number of Singaporeans are supporting our work.

At our roadshow this month, in just three days, more than a thousand signed our petition to declare that animals matter, that they can suffer, and that we have a responsibility to end cruelty towards them.

While this is encouraging, our concern is that change may be too slow, and that as I type the last few paragraphs of this article, thousands more animals may have been abused or exploited for human gains.

The Government needs to take a strong stance against animal smugglers and abusers. It needs to show the public that these issues are important and play an active role in creating a society where compassion towards animals is the norm.

We need to nurture a society where animals are treated with compassion and respect. All of us have within ourselves the ability to relate to other living things with compassion. We can choose to be kind instead of cruel.

We can choose to be non-violent. We can make cruelty-free choices about what we eat, wear, do and buy that will make a positive impact not only on animals, but also on people, the environment and our own health.

As stated by Gandhi in his famous quote: 'The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated.'

The writer is president and executive director of the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres). louis@acres.org.sg

Guest writers alternate with Chua Mui Hoong in this weekly column.

Slingshot attack: Baby flying lemur put to sleep by Radha Basu The Straits Times 30 Mar 06
Flying lemur and baby shot down at MacRitchie by Radha Basu The Straits Times 22 Mar 05
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