Features writer ARETHA LOH spent one back-breaking – and heartbreaking – day volunteering at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

"Features writer ARETHA LOH spent one back-breaking – and heartbreaking – day volunteering at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) Singapore."

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I’m peering into a cattery with six cats lounging among the blankets, stuff ed toys and scratch poles. Standing there in yellow protective boots, I convince myself (naively) that all I’ll have to do today is scratch them behind the ears and feed them. Oh, and maybe walk a pooch or two. 

That idea vanishes as quickly as a cat does from a bath. After a brief hello from animal care officer Gin, I’m sent into a room full of dirty animal cages, together with two other volunteers. There’s plenty of heavy-duty cleaning to do, and only a few standing fans to cool us down.

At home, I have a 14-year-old silky terrier named Max, but trust me, cleaning up after one dog doesn’t prepare you for a scrub-down of 27 animal cages decorated with soiled litter trays and poop-crusted surfaces.

By cage number three, I’m breaking a sweat and slightly grossed out. After two hours, I’m done – and officially beat. How does Gin do this day in, day out? She tells me that she usually takes half a day to do the cleaning by herself. It’s back-breaking work looking after the 160 animals in the SPCA.  

By midday, that number jumps to 161. The kaypoh journalist in me watches as an MPV pulls up to the SPCA. A well-dressed couple in their mid-50s get out and dump a whining poodle at reception, together with a pile of pooch toys and products. 

“He’s too hyper,” the husband explains. I’m surprised he didn’t realise that most puppies are naturally hyper and usually settle down after their first birthday. I discover that  this poodle is only six months old!

The words that follow shock me even more. “Maybe our next one should be a senior dog?” the man suggests to his downcast wife. Wait. They’re thinking of getting another dog after chucking this one out?  “I don’t think you are ready for another pet,” the receptionist interjects, with just a hint of disapproval. She’s taken the words right out of my mouth. In fact, she is too kind. I would have given them an angsty lecture about responsible pet ownership. Maybe a slap or two. 

Watching the poodle whimper as it is carried away to the quarantine area breaks my heart. However, it’s a common sight at the SPCA. 

I talk to Dr Jaipal Singh Gill, the centre’s acting executive director, who tells me gut-wrenching stories. 

There’s Lucius the cat who was adopted, only to be deposited back at the SPCA shortly after his owners had a baby. They were afraid he would scratch their infant. 

There was a bunny who was abandoned in an open field in Bedok. He had been left in his cage without food or water. By the time two schoolgirls discovered him, he was drenched by the rain, covered in his own faeces and home to hundreds of crawling maggots. Some of the maggots had even burrowed into his skin, resulting in such a severe infection that he had to be euthanised.

Then there was the woman who kept her three dogs in individual cages, stacked atop one another, for hours on end daily. When Dr Gill questioned her during a home inspection, she barked, oblivious to the irony of her response: “Excuse me sir, my house is not a zoo. I can’t have animals running around all day.”

During feeding time at the SPCA, I notice a dog that doesn’t dare to move or make eye contact when I enter her kennel. Pooches like her may have been ill-treated and now fear humans asa result.

I’d always thought the main challenge of animal welfare groups was funding. Now, I am starting to see that the larger problem is the attitude some humans have towards pets: that they are something you can “throw away” or neglect once you tire of them. 

Amid the gloom, it’s uplifting to know that there are people who care. 

At the entrance of the SPCA, I spy an old photo of Gin, who couldn’t have been a day over 25 when the picture was taken. I learn that she’s dedicated the last 28 years of her life to caring for every single animal that passes through these gates. And she does a superb job.

She watches me closely as I handle and feed the animals. When she sees me fumbling with a bunny, she teaches me the proper way to pick it up. “Scoop it up by placing one hand under its torso and pull it close to your body. Rabbits have very weak skeletal systems, so you need to handle them carefully,” she says. 

The day slows down after lunch – the animals go into a “post-lunch coma” and visitors roam the adoption area (open from 11am to 4pm daily). It’s too humid to do anything else, so I chat with the other volunteers. Some are students, others are in between jobs, and a handful are expat wives.  

I’m touched that they are willing to come all the way to Choa Chu Kang week after week to care for animals that don’t belong to them. A middle-aged Chinese lady says she comes because she likes dogs, but doesn’t have space for one at home. 

Another volunteer doesn’t own a car, but commutes for about 1½ hours from Pasir Ris every week to spend time with the animals. 

These people are more than happy to make a weekly trip just to clean up animal urine and poop. I honestly don’t know if most pet lovers (myself included) would be willing to do that, so it says a lot about their dedication.

On June 18 and 19, the SPCA will hold a grand opening of their new premises at 50 Sungei Tengah Road. There will be games, guided tours, and opportunities to learn about animal welfare. 

For tips on how to decode your dog’s behaviour, download the digital edition of Her World from the Apple App Store or Google Play.

My Reading Room
My Reading Room
My Reading Room

It takes money to keep the SPCA going. The animals need to be fed and utility bills need to be paid. You can use Giro if you want to donate to the centre on a regular basis.

Don’t worry, it’s not all about cleaning cages and poo. You can walk dogs, man the shelter and phones, and more. Visit http://www.spca.org.sg/helpus_volunteer.asp for more information. 

Don’t head for the nearest pet store; go to a shelter instead. Also, encourage your friends to adopt pets rather than buy them.

Speak Out
Policymakers respond when people speak out. Support petitions by local animal welfare groups, or write to your MP about pet issues that concern you.

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