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Jaipal Singh Gill
DOG person. Cat person. Jaipal Singh Gill doesn’t care which way you swing. Even if you’re neither, the 33-year-old Executive Director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) feels it shouldn’t stop you from caring about the welfare of animals – from preventing abuse of domestic pets to cruel practices in livestock or chicken farms." Mr Gill comes to SPCA at a time of greater awareness of animal abuse and a growing number of organisations devoted to saving and rehoming stray dogs and cats. Their emphasis on rehoming flies in the face of SPCA’s age-old euthanasia policy, which is what Mr Gill hopes to change during his tenure – to move towards a no-kill directive not just for the association but nationwide. And in the process, help to literally turn Singapore into a humane society.
Why do you hate the term ‘animal lover’? I always cringe when people say, “Oh, you work for the SPCA, you must be an animal lover.” My definition of an animal lover is one who enjoys being around animals, but it doesn’t translate into them caring about animal welfare. I’ve often met people and asked them, “Have you ever volunteered at an animal shelter or done any animal welfare work before?” And they would reply, “Oh no, I’m not an animal lover.” And I always say, “That shouldn’t stop you from caring about the welfare of animals.” There are lots of people out there who don’t enjoy being in the company of children, but surely they won’t say they don’t care about their welfare, either.
How did you become interested in animal welfare? I’ve had pets since I was seven. Guinea pigs, terrapins, dogs and fish. Except cats. My mother didn’t like them and said I had to choose between her and a cat – I chose the cat but that didn’t work. But like I said, having pets isn’t the same as looking after their welfare. You see, I grew up in a loving middle-income family and my grandmother lived with us. I thought everyone lived the same way until my mother took me on one of her home nursing visits when I was 11. It was an eye-opening experience to see how not everyone had the same life as I did. It awakened my interest in social work. When I was 14, my older brother returned from his studies in Australia and lent me some literature about the treatment of factory animals. I realised there was a world of suffering out there I never knew about and wanted to do something about it.
You became vegetarian. Yes I did. Within a month. I didn’t exactly convert my family, but they did so pretty soon after. I started volunteering at the Vegetarian Society, helping with outreach and raising awareness about the plight of farm animals. When I was in NUS in 2004, animal welfare wasn’t really on the agenda so I started a Students Animal Welfare Group and that’s pretty much how I decided on my career.
Can you be non-vegetarian and care about animal welfare? Absolutely. The welfare argument isn’t about not using animals for food and everyone becoming vegetarian or vegan, but about not causing them harm. There are things done today in the agricultural industry that, if they were done to dogs or cats, would be considered abuse and cruelty and be charged under the law. But if you do it to a farm animal, it’s considered standard industry practice. I think a lot of people don’t know that, or their thinking would be very different. There could be vegetarians who go out an buy a pet from a puppy mill. It’s all about raising awareness.
Why SPCA, with its kill-policy, when you could have joined/started any other organisation that doesn’t euthanise pets? That’s a good question.This is my fourth year with SPCA – in the first couple of years, I was quite affected by our euthanasia policy. I still am now, but I realised that running away from the problem is not going to solve it. Euthanasia isn’t an SPCA problem; we didn’t create it. We’re shouldering the burden that’s been placed on us to deal with the problem, which is pet overpopulation. It’s very easy to go no-kill overnight. We just say, “Sorry, we’re at capacity and we can’t take any more animals, you can do whatever you want with it.” But that’s not the stance we’re taking. That’s why I’m here – because I can see the potential of us being able to tackle the problem at its root and reduce euthanasia to zero. In fact, we’ve just launched “Getting to Zero” whose aim is to get to zero euthanasia of healthy animals in Singapore. It’s a bold goal but one that we believe in very strongly because a healthy animal that’s euthanized is one too many. That’s something we want to see capped to zero.
What’s the plan for Getting to Zero? It’ll come into effect in 2017. Because it’s such a big and complex problem, the solutions will be spread out over the year in four phases. The first is promoting adoption, because the more people adopt, the more lives will be saved. The next phase will be promoting responsible pet ownership. Third is to get people to be more accepting of street dogs and cats to reduce culling, and the last is to deal with the pet industry, especially breeding. What are the chances of success? In the last five to 10 years, animal welfare in Singapore has come a long way. The landscape has changed entirely. I think that’s very positive. I’m seeing a lot more people, youth especially, stepping forward and wanting to be a part of this movement. So I see a bright future for animal welfare and I’m really glad to be a small part of that process.