Controlling the number of strays should not be limited to only dogs but should apply to all animals, says Adrian Lee.
Popular culture often depicts rabies as an incurable epidemic where billions die in a post-apocalyptic world.
Rabid dogs such as Cujo and Old Yeller are portrayed as killers that snarl and foam at the mouth before tearing its victim apart limb by limb.
Fictional human characters too aren’t spared, for death becomes practically inevitable after a rabid dog’s bite.
Rabies has also been metaphorically used to serve as a criticism towards issues such as environmental degradation, genetic mutation or neglect in society.
While rabies is transmitted through the bite of an infected mammal, the dog is often the most likely source and transmitter of the rabies-causing lyssaviruses virus.
The virus affects the nervous system and brain and an infected human would develop flu-like symptoms, fever, headaches, excess salivation, drooling, paralysis, hallucinations or even death.
While it is reported that 55,000 people worldwide have succumbed to rabies, the disease is in fact preventable through proper vaccination.
Also known as “mad dog disease” to many Malaysians, rabies remains somewhat familiar yet so foreign to many.
While the World Organisation for Animal Health declared Malaysia rabies-free in 2012, the response towards the recent rabies outbreak in northern Malaysia proves to us that “prevention is better than cure”.
As such, there is much debate about curing the symptoms but this ignores the root cause of this outbreak.
For now, quarantining infected dogs and culling of strays en masse is argued as the most effective measure to contain this outbreak. Many have praised the authorities for their swift action in prioritising human lives.
Animal lovers and animal welfare groups prioritising animal lives, however, argue that such methods are ineffective, inhumane and cruel.
Surely, we’re all too familiar with video clips depicting how strays are caught, battered, killed and dumped according to “standard operating procedure”.
Malaysian and international NGOs then offer free anti-rabies vaccinations while petitions, slogans and campaigns mushroom on social media and in the press as the number of culled strays rises from the hundreds to thousands.
The sudden outcry in preserving the lives of strays is indeed ironic. The problems of strays resulted from these lives being unwanted, discarded and abandoned in the first place.
For years, many have turned a blind eye towards the problem of strays.
The number of strays is in itself alarming for it is reported that more than 50,000 dogs exist in Penang alone, with strays making up half of this figure.
The rabies outbreak therefore tells of a larger overall problem: the lackadaisical attitude of many Malaysians towards animal welfare.
For decades, strays have been a sight for sore eyes. Many strays were pets once loved and desired but abandoned due to sickness or disease or discarded once their degree of “cuteness” waned and faded.
The streets then become the most convenient dumping ground to discard these animals for shelters are just too bothersome to their owners.
Pets are often abandoned based on the thinking of their owners that preserving the life of a sick or unloved pet is not worth the time and money for they are after all, just animals.
A domesticated animal released into the “wild” causes problems such as aggressive animals attacking humans, uncontrolled breeding and diseases.
Short-term measures of culling to restrain the rabies outbreak don’t guarantee the eradication of strays. After all, the number of strays will increase again once the culling ends.
Long-term measures such as proper education and enforcement measures would be more effective in controlling the problem of strays.
Educating Malaysians to better understand the responsibilities, risks and financial costs before owning a pet and to adopt from shelters can be the first steps taken.
Lessons in loving and appreciating animals need to begin at a young age for many remain unaware or ignorant about what “animal cruelty” really is. Greater awareness about animal neglect and cruelty must be created, for animal abuse and exploitation remain prevalent.
Vaccinating pets should be made compulsory. An understanding that the benefits of sterilising a pet outweigh the perception of it being cruel and sadistic needs to be formed.
Authorities should also employ the method of capturing, containing, neutering, tagging and releasing as a more effective measure to control the breeding of strays.
Also long past due is the legislation punishing convicted animal abusers and pet owners who abandon their pets in places other than shelters.
Perhaps like in popular culture, the current rabies outbreak is Mother Nature’s criticism about our neglect towards animals and the uncontrolled number of strays.
The outbreak could be controlled through long-term plans such as vaccinating, proper education, sterilising to control the number of strays, and effective enforcement.
Surely, the authorities are aware of the financial plight, space constraints, lack of personnel and resources faced by animal shelter homes managed by organisations or individuals.
The number of strays roaming the streets could be properly controlled if authorities provide these much needed resources, including space and financial support, to these shelters. Or why not build a state-financed animal shelter?
Controlling the number of strays should not be limited to only dogs but should apply to all animals. After all, it’s not very appetising or hygienic when the tail of a stray brushes against our legs while eating at a food stall.
Animals are God’s creatures with feelings and emotions. They should be respected, loved and nurtured. There do not exist stupid pets. There only exist ignorant and irresponsible owners.