With animal shelters full, millions of stray dogs and cats roam the Philippines – but one clinic is offering a solution
- A small veterinary clinic in Manila is trying to stem the tide of stray animals being killed needlessly by providing free mass desexing programmes
- Many strays are abandoned family pets who end up in filthy city pounds described as houses of horror, where they are often shot dead
Scrawny cats sleeping on rubbish piles and mange-ridden dogs limping along the street are common sights in the Philippines.
Twelve million stray cats and dogs roamed the nation in 2019, according to the Philippines Animal Welfare Society. Each year, many thousands of the animals are euthanised in pounds or die of disease, hunger or wounds resulting from fighting.
One small veterinary clinic in Metro Manila is trying to stem this tide of strays with free mass desexing programmes, conducted as often as three times a month.
With local government funding, and the help of volunteers, the eight vets from the Philippine Pet Birth Control Centre Foundation clinic provide safe and speedy desexing procedures: the removal of part or the whole of an animal’s reproductive organs.
Vet and clinic founder Maricelle Licuanan, 41, says some strays in the Philippines were born on the streets, while others are abandoned family pets.
“Once these animals become an inconvenience to the owners, they are neglected or tossed onto the streets. Most of them are intact [unsterilised] so they mate with other strays and more unwanted animals are born. Sadly, it’s a never-ending cycle,” says Licuanan, whose clinic desexed more than 60,000 animals between March 2017 and July 18, 2020.
There are no laws requiring pet desexing in the Philippines and few owners understand the health and welfare benefits of the practice, which helps in disease prevention and behaviour control – such as reducing aggression and limiting problems with roaming and territorial marking.
As well as free mass desexing, the clinic offers low-cost neutering operations for the pets of poorer people in the community. These operations cost between 600 and 2,000 pesos (US$12 to US$40) for animals weighing under 15kg (33lbs), regardless of the breed.
Licuanan and her foundation have been pushing for low-cost spay and neuter services since 2017 to help reduce animal abuse and eradicate the potentially fatal disease of rabies.
According to the World Health Organisation, the Philippines is one of 10 countries where rabies continues to be a public health problem, despite the Anti-Rabies Act of 2007, which requires a system for the control, prevention, spread and eventual eradication of human and animal rabies.
“Around 100 to 200 Filipinos die of rabies each year,” Licuanan says. “These are senseless deaths because the disease is preventable and there is a reliable and safe solution.”
Despite being a common procedure, and standard in the developed world, desexing has been controversial in the Philippines. Many Filipinos see it as unnecessary and cruel because they consider the sex organs integral to the animal’s well-being. Yet animal welfare advocates point out that in developing countries like this Southeast Asian nation, poverty often leads to pets being abandoned.
“I am not saying that desexing should be a standard policy in the Philippines, given the economic realities of pet owners and the budget deficiency of the government,” Licuanan says. “But if you are truly a responsible pet owner, you must know that desexing is not cruel to animals, but it actually can save lives in the long run.”
A House bill to repeal the current Animal Welfare Act now stands before Congress. New measures include the creation of an Animal Welfare Bureau, attached to the department of agriculture, and heavier fines for violators of animal cruelty regulations.
Malou Perez, 30, is the founder of Pawssion Project, a Filipino dog rescue charity, and she believes letting animals die on the streets or shooting them dead in pounds is far more cruel than having them desexed in a painless operation.
“Based on the Animal Welfare Act of the Philippines, it is legal for city pounds to euthanise unclaimed dogs by gunshot,” she says. “The government authorises this because using a firearm is cheaper than using other procedures.
“When I went to the pound in 2018 to rescue dogs that were about to be executed, I saw how horrible the situation was,” she adds. “I was standing right next to a hole where the dogs were to be buried. It was very traumatising. I remember fiddling with my phone to distract myself from the dogs whimpering out of desperation and anguish. I had to go into the cells to calm them down. It was awful.”
On the day of Pawssion Project’s first rescue, Perez and her colleagues were only able to save half of the 25 dogs that were about to be put down. To date, the project has rescued about 500 dogs.
Experts say only a small percentage of pound animals are ever adopted; most are euthanised.
A financial adviser by profession, Perez describes city pounds as houses of horror where animals are subjected to emotional and physical trauma.
Under most local ordinances in the Philippines, if stray animals are not claimed or adopted within three days, they will be euthanised. Thousands of animals wait on death row in these facilities every week. Perez calls this a harsh reality that people should acknowledge.
“It is unfortunate that dogs have to go through this while people turn a blind eye to the situation,” she says. “It’s really upsetting to bear the sight of the dogs cramped in a filthy, poorly ventilated and enclosed area … Most of them are starved to the point of death. But we have to do it. Can you imagine seeing them taken out of the chamber one by one only to get shot?”
Perez believes that the Bureau of Animal Industry has not fully addressed the growing welfare issues caused by the failure of local governments to comply with official guidelines.
“The mandated minimum set of standards of care and handling of the animals is not even met in most pounds because most LGUs [local government units] do not have the financial capacity for it,” she says. “There has been a lack of regulation and supervision from the government. They are not able to keep track of the situation. We do not even have a law that regulates dog breeders.”
Perez started Pawssion Project to both rescue neglected animals and increase awareness among Filipinos about the reality faced by strays and the importance of kindness to animals.
“The overpopulation of strays in our country is really bad and we recognise that sheltering is not the solution,” she says.
“Our goal is to have people on board with our advocacy. It will take more than a lifetime to rescue all of them so each of us must do our part. A surprising fact is that even purebred dogs end up in shelters due to overbreeding. This is something we are responsible for. Why should the animals pay the price?”
Perez currently manages two dog rescue shelters, one in San Jose Del Monte City, Bulacan province, and one in Victorias City, Negros Occidental province, which together house around 250 animals. The shelters rely on donations so resources are limited.
“We constantly receive requests to rescue animals from pounds, from the streets, and we even get calls from owners who want their pets taken,” she says. “But we cannot save them all. Our expenses do not end with rescuing. We have to feed them, rehabilitate them, take them to the vet because most of the dogs that we rescue are sick and we do not want to run the risk of them infecting the other dogs in the shelter.”
Rescue is a short-term solution, according to both Perez and Licuanan, and the only long-term and humane way to control populations of stray dogs and cats is through targeted and affordable desexing programmes, along with local governments recognising the problem and taking action.
Perez says responsible pet ownership in the Philippines will require a combination of robust legislation, public awareness and education.
“We need to awaken the consciousness of Filipinos not only by posting campaigns on social media but by implementing laws that would penalise irresponsible pet owners,” she says. “We should lobby for stronger and more effective animal welfare laws.”