Why animal welfare volunteers in Singapore find their 'thankless' job tiring and drop out

More stray returns, lower adoption rates, and negative public response are some of the reasons animal welfare volunteers are fatigued.

Lesser adoptions and more returns causing volunteer fatigue at animal welfare groups (Photos: Causes for Animals - Singapore/Facebook)
Lesser adoptions and more returns causing volunteer fatigue at animal welfare groups (Photos: Causes for Animals - Singapore/Facebook)

SINGAPORE - For volunteers at local animal welfare groups, getting to work is not a struggle.

The physical labour of trapping and sterilising, walking and feeding cats and dogs and cleaning kennels is something they relish.

"I think commitment to the animals is not so much something that we struggle with, because a lot of us enjoy working with animals," said Christine Bernadette, co-founder of Causes for Animals.

Yet, why are more volunteers finding the job "thankless" or "pointless and tiring" in recent times?

Yahoo Southeast Asia had a chat with local animal welfare groups to find out what are the current challenges they face, and why more volunteers report feeling fatigued.

More returns and lower adoption rates

As lots of people were working from home, the COVID-19 pandemic saw a spike in pet adoption, said Bernadette.

With Singapore in an endemic state, more people are heading back to the office and travelling, resulting in plummeting adoption rates and more dogs stuck at shelters, she said.

Life changes such as marriage, pregnancy, finding a new partner who does not like animals, moving to a smaller apartment, and having kids are some of the other circumstances that have led people to return adopted dogs and cats.

"I think people are less resilient to changes in life circumstance, and they decide they don't want to keep the animals they have adopted," she said.

Bernadette also cites "lack of time" as to why more animals are being returned to shelters.

Dogs have also been returned by expats who have lost their jobs or returned to their home country due to COVID-19, said Lisa Neo, a fosterer from Action for Singapore Dogs (ASD).

Most adopters also have a general preference for adopting younger animals, to avoid facing hefty medical bills that come with caring for older animals, she said.

Caring for older animals with medical or behavioural issues

In recent times, Neo has noticed older dogs, with medical and behavioural issues, being returned to the shelter.

Sick dogs require round the clock medical care which can be time consuming for volunteers, and a deterrent for potential adopters.

Volunteers will need to clean wounds, conduct injections and take the dogs for reviews at the vet. More severe cases require drips for at least two to three times a day.

Whilst on the phone, Neo had been at a vet for over four hours, awaiting the results of a fostered dog that needed a blood donation.

The day before, she had been at the clinic from 2 to 10pm, as vets struggled to find a matching donor.

Another challenge emerges when shelters receive dogs that have not been trained for positive social interactions with people, she said.

Dogs that have a "liability risk" due to bite history, rarely get rehomed again, she shared.

The shelter has a responsibility from giving away dogs with a bite history, leading them to be kept in isolation in solo kennels.

"If one doesn't go out, another cannot come in. In that case, we'll become hoarders," she jokingly said.

With limitations in resources, priority goes to budgeting for medical treatment over behavioural training.

Volunteers face growing stress, longer hours and mounting responsibilities, as they tend to the needs of sick, elderly, and behaviourally challenged animals.

Difficulty retaining long term volunteers

The routine of having to train new volunteers repeatedly after older ones leave causes fatigue for Wendy Low, vice-president of ASD.

She noticed the trend of younger volunteers dropping out when they get busy with work or family.

"Once they start, they kind of feel trapped because they cannot skip bringing meals to the dogs. If they want to go away for holiday, they have to find someone to take their place."

Fiona Foo, volunteer head of HOPE Dog Rescue, shared her struggles with getting committed volunteers, and those with experience.

People who volunteer are usually in between jobs, going through a breakup, or awaiting enlistment for national service. They tend to disappear once they get busy, find a date, or realise volunteering is tiring, said the 54-year-old.

As the animal welfare group takes in dogs that are sick or handicapped and often dying, extra care is needed.

Neo said that Singapore Specials are "not usually very friendly" and can be "skittish and fearful" as they take time to trust people.

"The minute you enter, the dogs will start barking at you, which can be intimidating for first-timers," she added.

Inaccessible and unconducive shelters

In addition, Neo said that the animal shelters located at The Animal Lodge (TAL) along Sungei Tengah Road are rather inaccessible, with no direct access via public transport.

The cemented facility at the TAL have been likened to a "concentration camp" and "a magnet for sound", adding to the stress of volunteers, said Bernadette.

"When one dog barks, it echoes through the facility. Imagine a thousand dogs barking?"

The facility also houses commercial dog breeding besides the animal shelters, which Bernadette finds ironic.

According to her, the whines and cries of newborn puppies can also often be heard.

"I think a lot of the volunteers who come to volunteer also find it a bit of a turnoff because of the sounds, the sights, and the smell," she said. "If you come here and see certain things you don't really want to see, maybe you wouldn't stay."

Negative public response to sterilised stray animals

Negative responses from the public have also tired out volunteers, said Bernadette.

Residents, office goers and security guards, who are uncomfortable with the presence of stray animals, would question the groups when they return animals that were picked up and sterilised.

They would say things such as "why are you returning these animals?" and "they don't belong here".

"It's just very draining because a lot of times what we want to do is to help the animals," she said.

"We want to help you manage the population of the animals, so that there won't be more animals born to suffer on our streets."

With most shelters at almost full capacity, new strays have no place to go and have to be left on the streets.

"After launching a nationwide sterilisation programme, we (as a society) go right back to euthanasia of a healthy dog because it's in the way of the general population," she said.

Rapid urbanisation had also led stray dogs to venture into residential areas like HDB estates. However, concerned residents with children find the dogs "dangerous" and "threatening".

"People forget the dogs were there before they got their nice BTOs. We are actually the intruders in their space."

She calls for a wider societal acceptance of stray animals, citing Bali as an example of dogs having a sense of belonging with the human community.

Dogs would lie outside shops and on beach cafes in Bali. This is different than Singapore, where Bernadette has noticed a different response.

"If someone sees a stray dog, everybody will panic and nobody wants to hear them, even though it's been in the community before you," she said.

People forget the dogs were there before they got their nice BTOs. We are actually the intruders in their space.Christine Bernadette, co-founder of Causes for Animals

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