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  Today Online 3 Nov 06
Wild about wildlife: Acres
Acres chief talks about dolphins, polar bears, death threats
and his beef with the Singapore Zoo

HE MAY have given up meat and seafood and forsaken a "well-paying job", but Mr Louis Ng has never seen his actions as being extreme.

Measured, articulate and passionate about animal rights, the 28-year-old who heads the Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres), tells SHERALYN TAY (sheralyn@mediacorp.com.sg) that he's no tree-hugging hippie--just someone working to give animals a voice.

Acres has been a vocal advocate for animal rights. You've taken on the zoo, Haw Par and even the Agri-food and Veterinary Authority. Some might say you're too uncompromising.

We've always wanted to be vocal because we are trying to bring about a massive mindset change in Singapore. It's easy to tell someone not to kick a dog or throw a cat down a building, because it doesn't affect their lives.

But most of the things we campaign for directly affect people's lifestyles. I know a lot of people think we are uncompromising. But if you look at the work we've done in the last five years, we have compromised on a lot of issues and we are only confrontational when we have to be.

Many say that Acres only wants publicity, but what we really want is to sit down and talk about the issue to solve it--it's less stressful for us and it saves us money spent running a campaign.

In all instances, we try to approach and work with the (parties) positively first. For example, with Haw Par, we had a meeting with them (about concerns over the pink dolphins at Sentosa's Dolpin Lagoon). They said they would look into the shows and recommend stopping all unnatural tricks. But when that didn't happen, we went all out to confront them and ask why changes hadn't been made.

Acres often plays up the "human" side of animals in its campaigns. Some critics say this is misplaced logic as animals and humans are different.

When we wanted to start an animal rights group, we were afraid we wouldn't even get registered because there is such a negative connotation to it. People think we'll climb up trees so they don't cut them down and chain ourselves to zoos.

But at Acres, whatever we do, we always base it on scientific evidence. We don't just say a dolphin is suffering, we publish a 100-page report to show why and we back it up with evidence.

So, to answer your question, today animals and humans are no longer considered different. We used to say only humans used tools, but even beavers use tools to build their dams.

Or we used to think only humans have language, but how about Washu, the chimp that learnt American sign-language? When Washu had a miscarriage, her pregnant caregiver, Cathy, also had a miscarriage. When Cathy came back, Washu signed: "Where's baby?" And Cathy signed: "Baby dead." Washu signed: "Come hug." That one story tells us so much about animals--they not only have the same emotions, but they are willing to extend it to other species, which is what Acres is trying to do.

New Zealand has given the great apes basic human rights so, there is no more animal testing on them. The global movement is progressing to recognise these rights.

Is it true you got death threats following an undercover operation?

Yes, but we knew when we started this, there would be a strong reaction. The wildlife trade is a billion-dollar industry and our aim is to end it. Of course, traders won't be happy with us. But I won't comment on the threats, just to say that somehow they knew where we were going.

How would you characterise Acres' relationship with the zoo?

It is one of honest disagreement and, in a way, like a forced marriage. The zoo may not be happy with us because we are trying to change some things that have been there for decades. At certain times, we agree to disagree and we move on from there.

We make compromises too, like with the polar bears. We first spoke to the zoo in 2004 and we understood the zoo's constraints; the bears were suffering, but we gave them two years to do something.

The repatriations that Acres has done, with the vervet monkey and Asha the Rhesus macaque, we could not have done it without the zoo. They built the crates for us and housed the animals, without charging us.

What is Acres' stance on zoos?

We don't say close all zoos down, we make a distinction; there're good zoos and bad zoos, and we hope to help the bad zoos become better. Singapore has probably the best zoo in Asia.

We don't agree with animal performances that make use of unnatural behaviour. I am totally supportive of the animal shows in the London Zoo, which have the animals performing natural behaviour where the public learns, for example, how a ring-tailed lemur uses its tail to balance itself. What value is there to have an orang utan playing dead?

You have a degree in Biology and a Masters in Primate Conservation--why give up a lucrative career to become an activist?

The turning point was when I went to the zoo to learn about helping animals and I got very close to Ramba, a baby chimps used for animal photography. You could tell from her eyes she didn't like the photography.

So I ran my first campaign. When Ramba was released back into her enclosure--she hadn't seen her mum for three years--the first thing she did was run to her mother Suzie, and they started to groom each other.

At that point, I realised that I wasn't going to be a millionaire but there was a million dollars just there. The animals don't say thank you, they never do, but it's a good feeling--not that it matters--knowing I can make a difference in the life of another sentient being.

You don't still earn $500 a month, do you?

I earn $1,400 now. All Acres staff start with $500, it's a way we test (our staff). We don't want someone who is here just because that person loves animals, the commitment must be there.

What is the significance of starting the Acres Wildlife Rescue Centre?

The rescue centre was a nightmare. We worked on it for so long, and at every point, we were almost so near, someone would say sorry, this site is not available.This is the sixth site and we finally got here after two years.

We are trying to raise about $1 million for the construction and one year of operating costs.

That Admiralty Secondary School has adopted the centre, to have got some 400 students involved in volunteering, that is a big step. When these kids go back and tell their parents our message, that's 1,200 people already.

To raise funds, Acres is holding its Free to be Wild event at The Atrium outside Plaza Singapura, from 11am to 9pm, today and tomorrow. Details at www.acres.org.sg

ACRES needs support for Wildlife Rescue Centre Email from Louis Ng 22 Sep 06
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