On a sunny Friday morning, more than 30 people gathered in a meeting room at the Yunlin County Council.
They were from all walks of life: activists, students, government officials and county councilors from opposing parties, but they were there for one reason: to improve animal rights in the county.
The four councilors signed their names on a poster, pledging to improve animal rights. The participants then took turns to speak about their concerns, which ranged from the lack of convenient animal adoption information and damage to the natural habitat of pitta birds, to reports of dog meat consumption in the county.
“If we don’t tackle the problem at the source, we will have a never-ending stream of stray dogs and cats that need adoption,” said Ho Tsung-hsun (何宗勳), a long-time social activist who established a committee last year to organize such meetings around Taiwan.
“The biggest problems with animal protection occur at the local level, which is why it is important for local councilors to stand up,” he said.
Ho, executive officer of the Taipei-based Life Conservationist Association, said his committee hopes councilors can pressure local governments to take steps such as improving animal shelters, introducing greater oversight on implanting identification chips in pet animals and cracking down on illegal breeding farms.
Those issues have not been dealt with effectively, said Ho, a former employee in the advertisement sector and an activist of 20 years.
There are about 2 million cats and dogs in Taiwan and it would not be hard to provide all of them with identification chip implants, he said.
So far, 127 councilors from 20 counties have pledged support for animal rights, and similar meetings have been held in 14 counties and cities over the past five months, he said, adding that the tour will continue.
Animal rights groups have long accused local governments of not effectively implementing the 1998 Animal Protection Act (動物保護法) and have criticized the supervision of the Council of Agriculture, the act’s central managing body.
In response, the council last year released a report for the first time on the number of animal abuse cases that were either reported to the authorities or investigated by the local governments themselves, and listed the punishable offenses in each county and city.
This year’s report showed that citizens reported 8,626 cases last year, while local governments investigated 43,283 cases of possible neglect, failure to register pets and illegal behavior in the pet industry.
Penalties were meted out in 365 cases, and 10,439 cases were resolved without penalties. Taoyuan County issued the most fines, followed by Taipei and New Taipei City (新北市).
The council said that some local governments are less effective in terms of law enforcement because they lack the manpower to carry out investigations. It urged local governments to allocate more resources to animal protection.
Ho also said that some of the most common problems his committee has heard on the tours include concerns over conditions at animal shelters and the a lack of manpower to enforce regulations and take care of animals in shelters.
“It all comes down to the will of the government leaders,” he said, adding that it will be a long road.
Ho, who was the secretary-general of the Taiwan Environmental Protection Union from 2004 to 2007, said the animal rights movement in Taiwan was progressing slowly and has not yet evolved into an organized movement like the country’s decades-old environmental movement.
There are not many animal rights groups in Taiwan and many animal rights activists are mild-mannered dog and cat-lovers and volunteers, compared with the highly vocal environmental activists, Ho said.
This is because issues such as industrial pollution and nuclear safety have a more direct effect on human lives, so the parties involved are usually more outspoken, he added.
“Only in a progressive society do people start thinking about animal rights,” Ho said.
Ho’s activism has included work on issues such as clean elections, environmental protection, educational reform and community-building.
Ho nevertheless predicted that deaths at animal shelters in Taiwan could be stopped within a decade.
He said adoption rates for stray dogs and cats are rising, while shelter deaths are declining in areas such as Taipei, Greater Tainan and Greater Kaohsiung.
“It is not a pan-blue or pan-green issue,” Ho said.
Furthermore, animal rights is not an issue that involves the interests of large corporations, he added.
“I think it will be easier to address than environmental, labor or women’s rights issues,” Ho said. “We will do it one county at a time.”