Animal rights

Asia for Animals: threats of extinction, caring for animals in Ukraine, animal empathy, and a message from Jane Goodall

© Save the Bears/Peter Yuen.

The CEO and founder of the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre, Wong Siew Te, told delegates at the 2023 Asia for Animals (AfA) conference that time was running out for sun bears in Malaysia. He called for the animals’ protected status to be upgraded in Sarawak.

“Back in 2020 I said sun bears had ten more years,” Wong said on Day 2 of the conference. “If we can successfully save them by 2030 they will live for a long time. If we fail, they will be gone.”

Wong told delegates that the Sumatran rhinoceros was already extinct in Malaysia. It was now the rarest large mammal in the world, he said, with fewer than fifty of the animals remaining in the wild.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists sun bears as a vulnerable species and the population continues to decline. The main causes of the decline are deforestation, hunting, and poaching and the animals are also kept illegally as pets, Wong (pictured left) says. Not only is their meat eaten, their claws and teeth are worn, for example in necklaces, particularly during traditional tribal ceremonies.

In West Malaysia and Sabah sun bears are a totally protected species. In Sarawak, they are a protected species. The penalties for contravening the law are heavier in West Malaysia and Sabah than in Sarawak.

“Education is a must, but it is not enough,” Wong said. “We also need the authorities to enforce the wildlife law, and prosecute and give heavy sentences to the people who choose to break the law.”

© Save the Bears/Peter Yuen.

Wong said that, in Sarawak, the maximum fine for violating the law on sun bear protection was just 10,000 ringgit (about US$2,000) whereas in Sabah it was 250,000 ringgit. In Sabah, the offender can also be imprisoned for up to five years whereas, in Sarawak, the maximum sentence is one year.

“I think Sarawak should amend the law and upgrade the protected status of sun bears,” Wong said.


Animal rescue and care in Ukraine

Photo credit: Save the Dogs and Other Animals.

Also speaking on Day 2 of the conference, Gregg Tully and Liliana Pacheco from the Save the Dogs and Other Animals association in Romania talked about the association’s work to rescue and care for animals in, and from, Ukraine.

Tully (pictured left) told delegates that there was already a big stray dog population in Ukraine before the war.

“When people left, a lot of them left their family pets just roaming the streets, which has created a true disaster of abandoned pets,” Tully said.

“These aren’t life-long street dogs. You think of somebody’s little chihuahua that lived in his house his whole life with no survival skills.

“People fled the country and they left these little dogs just wandering around searching for food, searching for a place to sleep. There are more animals in the streets now than ever in Ukraine’s history. Making it even worse, there’s almost no culture of sterilisation there so these abandoned animals haven’t been sterilised.”

Photo credit: Coralie Maneri.

Tully said the animal shelters in Ukraine were mostly full even before the war and now were all at, or beyond, capacity.

In March 2022, the manager of the Loving Hearts shelter in Odesa contacted Save the Dogs to say her shelter had been damaged in a Russian attack and she couldn’t take care of all the 180 dogs there. Save the Dogs managed to take thirty of them.

“I remember these dogs being so scared, in a new place in the dark,” Tully said. “Some of them had been living in the shelter for years with really no socialisation. We spent a lot of time socialising them before they could be adopted.

“I’m really happy to say that almost all of these dogs have been adopted now except for just a few that still have some behavioural challenges that we’re working to resolve.”

Save the Dogs had staff and volunteers at the southern border crossing between Ukraine and Romania from just a few days after the Russian invasion.

“We were there every day for month, and sometimes more than 1,000 refugees crossed this border,” Tully said. “People had pets just in their arms, or a little dog or a cat tucked into their jackets, and people didn’t have leashes or pet food or anything. It was truly heartbreaking.

Photo credit: Save the Dogs and Other Animals.

“We gave them pet carriers, leashes, food, and other supplies. We gave them advice about the regulations for travelling onward to other countries. And, also, we just simply gave people a safe place where they could sit and think about the fact that they’d just escaped from their home country; they didn’t know if they would ever go back and they didn’t know if they’d ever see their family and friends again.”

Over the month that the Save the Dogs team spent on the border, they helped more than 1,000 refugee animals to stay with their families and donated hundreds of pet carriers and thousands of other needed items.

Pacheco told AfA delegates that, since the beginning of the war, Save the Dogs had sent nearly 1,000 tons of pet food for cats and dogs to more than twenty recognised animal shelters in Ukraine.

“We are helping more than 4,000 cats and 5,000 dogs and every day that is increasing,” Pacheco said. “This is just the numbers that we get. Sometimes we ask our volunteers how many animals they are helping and they say that they don’t know; that they simply spend all day feeding animals.”

Tully and Pacheco (pictured left) said they were extremely grateful for the help provided by organisations around the world that have been donating funds and/or food to enable Save the Dogs to help care for animals in Ukraine.

“There’s a Romanian pet food company that sells us large quantities of food at a discount and a transportation company that has Ukrainian drivers who have permits to go in and out of the country. So they’re making the transportation possible,” Tully said.

“And we also have a really robust network of shelters and volunteers … our phones are filled every day with WhatsApp messages from Ukraine. It really wouldn’t be possible without them.”

Tully said that, in addition to providing emergency support, the Save the Dogs team was also addressing the long-term crisis of huge numbers of puppies and kittens being born on the streets, who were, he said, “living short lives full of suffering”. Save the Dogs is collaborating with Ukrainian vets to sterilise dogs and cats.

“We don’t need to go out and catch the dogs ourselves,” Tully said. “We raise awareness about the programme through our partners and through WhatsApp. The partners bring the animals to the clinics, they’re sterilised, and they stay in people’s care for at least one night.

“If there are no complications, they return back to their home areas, and then our partners continue to feed them and check on them and make sure there are no complications.”

Save the Dogs is working with five veterinary clinics in three cities in Ukraine. Over the six months that the programme has been running more than 1,000 dogs have been sterilised and the intention is to sterilise thousands more by the end of 2023.

“Even if this war ends tomorrow, there’ll be so many animals on the streets for a long, long time,” Tully told AfA delegates. “We’re committed to continuing this work as long as we can find funding for it.

“Food continues to be an urgent need and we want to continue to provide food support, at least until the economy stabilises. Sterilisations are also severely needed. And we’d like to expand this to more cities and more vet clinics and to increase what we’re doing.”

Photo credit: Save the Dogs and Other Animals.

Tully says Save the Dogs would like, in the future, to be able to expand the partnerships they have developed with the shelters in Ukraine, not necessarily to expand the shelters, but to improve their standards and facilities, “to help them move towards proper dog and cat population management instead of just sheltering”.

There’s a report entitled ‘The Impact of the Conflict in Ukraine on Dogs and Cats’ on the Save the Dogs and Other Animals website.

The emotional, social, and cognitive capacities of animals.

Earlier on Day 2, the animal welfare director for the Animals Asia foundation, Dave Neale, spoke in a plenary session about the emotional, social, and cognitive capacities of animals.

“As time progresses, we’re seeing this not just in the birds and the mammals and the reptiles, but in the fishes and the decapod crustaceans as well,” Neale said.

“We need to use our increasing knowledge of the social, the emotional, and the cognitive capacities of animals to challenge management practices which are causing animals to suffer and, as an education tool, to generate empathy for animals to hopefully influence human behaviour for the better.”

Neale told delegates about crayfish demonstrating spatial learning and memory when presented with a maze. They learned to successfully navigate the maze and remember the route when presented with the same challenge, he said.

Decapod crustaceans had been shown to have a potential for emotional states, Neale said. Research indicated that daily threatening experiences changed the behaviour of shrimp, causing them to select a regular avoidance strategy when they encountered risks and unknown situations.

According to research carried out at Cornell University in the US, fish are far more likely to communicate with sound than generally thought, and some fish have been doing this for at least 155 million years.

The researchers studied ray-finned fish and found 175 families that contained two-thirds of fish species that do, or are likely to, communicate with sound.

The research showed that representatives of several dozen families of fish vocalised in various behavioural contexts such as distress situations and agnostic interactions, Neale said.

Mammals, Neale said, had capacities for reasoning, problem solving, planning, abstract thinking, and being self-aware, and abilities to learn, as well as emotional capacities for empathy and ways of behaving that had been interpreted as moral behaviours.

Neale (pictured left) talked about animals’ social groupings and cultural diversity, communication and cultural transmission among animals, their feelings of pain, fear and anxiety, and their positive feelings and experiences of pleasure and play.

Many species had complex memory capacities and could memorise other individuals, places, and scenarios, Neale said. They could remember previous negative and positive experiences, and individuals they had bonds with that were no longer with them.

Neale cited the example of hens. “We know they’re incredibly social animals; we know that individuals will develop incredibly strong bonds with other individuals,” Neale told AfA delegates.

“These individuals will synchronise their activity. Individuals will feed together, they will preen together, they will roost together, they will sleep together; two individuals doing the same thing on a daily basis together.

“They have their own language, they have their own postures, their own behaviours … and a huge range of vocalisations, which have been understood by other hens within their social group.”

Hens communicate socially and referentially, Neale said. “They’re communicating specific information about things happening within their environment to others within their environment. There’s an intentionality to the communication that they’re delivering.”

Hens are maternal and protective of their young, Neale told delegates. “Mothers will go out of their way and maybe even risk their own lives to protect their young,” he said.

There was “emotional contagion” among hens, Neale explained; “the potential for empathy between themselves and other individuals, particularly between the mothers and the chicks, but also between individual adult individuals”.

Hens were known to enjoy life if they had the opportunity, Neale added, and the chicks in particular were known to play socially.

“They have great memory abilities. They can store information. They can recall that information. They can create mental images in their heads of things which are not existing at the same time, but that they are aware of.

“They have the ability of perspective taking. They can anticipate things are going to happen in their environment. They can even deceive other individuals.

“They’re self-aware animals. They use logical reasoning to be able to solve problems. They use transitive inference.”

In behavioural research, hens have also shown the ability for basic arithmetic, counting abilities, and the understanding of proportions, Neale says.

“They can anticipate the future. They can delay their gratification. They have the ability for self-control,” he told AfA attendees.

Pigs, Neale said, also developed incredibly strong social bonds with each other.

“They recognise each other visually,” Neale told delegates. “They recognise each other just through their scent so they would know another individual is close by even if they can’t see them.

“They have an incredible language; their own language. They use behaviours. They use their vocalisations. They use facial expressions to give information to other pigs in their social environment.

“They’ll use smells to be able to pass information to other individuals. They understand each other. They’re maternal. They’re protective of their young. They respond to the needs of their young and they have specific vocalisations directed towards their young.”

There are 19 categories of pigs’ vocalisations, each containing many different vocalisations, Neale told delegates.

Pigs enjoy play, Neale says. They learn from each other socially, have great memories, can store information and recall it, and can learn about spatial situations and memorise those situations, he adds.

They also have episodic memory, he says: “the ability to know the what, the when, and the where about a situation and recall that information later on”.

Pigs can also delay gratification, Neale says, and they have visual discrimination. “They can recognise individuals,” he said. “Some are good problem solvers, and they have perspective taking.”

Neale also told AfA delegates about research done with goats, who, he said, were incredibly inquisitive and intelligent animals, who could solve very complex problems.

Initially, some experiments involved giving the goat a reward for working out how to solve a problem, but it was discovered that the goats would carry on solving the problems even when there was no reward. “They actually want to be challenged,” Neale said. “They are a cognitively complex species.”

A message from Jane Goodall

The renowned primatologist, anthropologist, and conservationist Jane Goodall sent a recorded video message to delegates at the 2023 AfA conference, which was relayed at the end of Day 2.

Goodall said attitudes to animals varied depending on the culture and the way children were brought up,to love bullfighting or hate it, for example; to stroke a dog or throw stones at it”. For some people, she said, animals were simply things that could be owned, studied, killed, and eaten; for others they were companions to be loved.

“And, unfortunately, they may be loved in the wrong way, with no recognition of their true needs, like the songbird in a cage; the little dog carried around dressed in a jacket to match the owner’s outfit,” she told delegates.

“Many dogs are left alone shut in a house all day. They often they don’t get enough exercise. Often they’re not let out enough, and often they may be trained with harsh punishment. On the other hand, they may be pampered and spoiled and thus become obese.”

Goodall talked about dogs who have been bred for certain characteristics, which, she says, has resulted in unintended cruelty.

“Flat-faced dogs like bulldogs and Pekinese have trouble breathing,” she said. “Boxers have been bred to have narrow hips so many purebred females can’t give birth naturally and need caesareans.

“German Shepherds get hip dysplasia and dachshunds get back problems. And then there are the puppy mills, where bitches are forced to have one litter after another, typically in cramped and unhygienic conditions with little if any exercise.”

Goodall noted that an increasing number of animal welfare groups had been pressuring Crufts, the organisation that awards prizes to best-of-breed dogs, to change its standards, and puppy mills were gradually being closed down.

She also spoke about the pain and suffering endured by animals used in laboratory research and those on bear bile farms.

“There are still many highly intelligent primates bred in captivity or even captured from the wild and subjected to painful experiments,” Goodall told delegates.

“And just think of the millions of dogs, rats, mice, cats, and a whole variety of other animals, who are imprisoned and subjected to repeated painful procedures. And what makes this all the worse is that all these animals are sentient beings capable of feeling frustration, depression, fear, and pain.

Fortunately, Goodall said, more and more scientists were concluding that most experiments on animals were contributing very little towards cures for disease in humans. Moreover, there was increasing research about alternatives to the use of live animals.

Rhinos were being pushed towards extinction by a demand for their horns, Goodall said, and the scales of pangolins were also believed to have medicinal value. “Tigers were nearly exterminated in the wild, in part by the demand for their bones for various concoctions,” she added.

“There are now tiger farms where the big cats are bred and live in barren and totally unsuitable conditions. Donkeys are killed for the gelatine made from their skin, which is used for many Chinese traditional medicines.”

It was the Asian black bears, or moon bears, as well as brown bears and sun bears that suffered the most, Goodall said, because they were kept in such tiny cages that often they couldn’t even turn around or stand up.

“There, often for life, they must endure the very painful process by which bile is extracted from the gallbladder,” Goodall said.

“Unlike horn and scale that have no medicinal value, this isn’t true for bear bile, but pathology reports have shown that bile from sick bears – and these imprisoned bears are often sick – is often contaminated with blood, puss, faeces, urine, bacteria, and even cancer cells. And so there’s a very real risk that users will get sick.

“And there is a medicinally approved alternative that is synthesised in the laboratory.

Echoing Dave Neale’s morning presentation, Goodall talked about animals’ abilities. Rats, she said, could learn to perform an agility test that challenges the skill of dogs.

African giant forest rats were known as hero rats because they could be trained to detect landmines left over from civil wars, Goodall said. Their fantastic sense of smell detected the TNT explosive way under the ground so the mine could then be defused, she told delegates.

Crows, Goodall said, could solve very complex problems and parrots could learn hundreds of words and use them in the right context.

Goodall talked about an African grey parrot who made complex patterns on paper when given a pencil, some great apes loving to draw or paint, and Pigcasso, the famous pig from South Africa whose paintings are sold for thousands of dollars.

She listed numerous examples of the kindness of animals, and their playfulness: a cow chasing after a football, mooing in excitement then hitting it back with her nose to her owner so that he could throw it again; a pet duck who loved to play her toy piano and play-chased with two small dogs; and a wild crow on a sloping, snowy rooftop, who flew with a tin lid to the top of the roof and stood on it as it slid down, and repeated this at least five times.

Goodall talked about a therapy horse who was allowed to choose which rooms he would enter in the hospital he visits once a week.

“On this occasion he walks, with his handler, right up to a man lying very close to death; a man who showed no emotion of any sort since his admission,” she recounted. “The horse gently blows on his face, then just stands very close. The patient gazes up and now there are tears on his cheeks.”

Goodall notes that, for some people, animals are a way to reconnect with nature,a doorway into our innermost animal selves”.

She says that she became a vegetarian after reading Peter Singer’s book ‘Animal Liberationabout factory farms and she became a vegan after learning about the torture endured by dairy cows and laying poultry.

“It’s extremely important to reduce the demand for wildlife and wildlife products, for factory farmed meat, for overbred dogs and so on,” Goodall said.

“The main message for all of us is that every individual makes a difference every day and we can choose what sort of difference we make. Cumulatively, even small ethical choices on behalf of animals will move us in the right direction.”

Goodall’s humanitarian and environmental Roots and Shoots programme for young people now exists in 69 countries.

On the left, Jane Goodall is pictured with Wong Siew Te.

This year’s AfA conference was held under the banner ‘Education and Engagement Bring Change’ and the organisers were the Asia for Animals Coalition and the Sarawak Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SSPCA).

Coverage to come of Day 3 of the conference, plus reports about the role of grassroots collaboration and education in ending the dog meat trade, the work of We Animals Media, and the positive effects of using species victim impact statements to address wildlife crime. 


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