BULACAN, Philippines – It’s three o’clock in the afternoon and the familiar smell of dog food, cooked meat and rice wafts through the air.
Dozens of dogs begin to wag their tails and bark in anticipation and in unison, as their keepers pile food onto each dog’s plate.
During this time, the cats wait patiently to be fed inside their enclosure.
That’s how a regular afternoon goes at the Pawssion Project in San Jose del Monte, Bulacan, a small hideaway that Malou Perez set up in 2019.
Its twin shelter, located in Bacolod, was the first to see the light of day.
“Pawssion started in October 2018 because of dogs on ‘death row’ at Bacolod City Pound,” she says.
Stray dogs and rescues that are not adopted or claimed are often turned down due to lack of space and resources at local pounds. “When I saw the [Facebook] post dogs on death row like any other animal lover i have shared the post; but I didn’t really [anything] about it, because at the end of the day, 50 dogs is 50 dogs.”
After a visit to the pound, Perez was quickly convinced that she should take them in. “I just wanted to save these dogs,” she says.
The SJDM shelter was born thanks to another Facebook post, this time about 106 dogs on death row in the city.
As of mid-2022, Pawssion Project-Bulacan was home to over 400 dogs and 100 cats, all rescued. Along with its sister shelter, Pawssion Project is home to over 600 cats and dogs.
Either way, Perez says she initially had no intention of setting up permanent locations. But the stray dog problem was a case of force majeure that always made him change his mind.
“You know, the problem is too overwhelming to be solved by one organization alone. The main problems are overpopulation, lack of animal welfare education and responsible animal ownership.”
“The Philippines currently has around 13 million stray dogs. It’s just impossible to save them all. It’s impossible.”
Echoing Perez’s woes, the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) released a statement in June on the state of animal homelessness in the country.
“Animal homelessness has reached a crisis point in the Philippines. While countless dogs and cats struggle to survive on the streets, hundreds are euthanized every month at city pounds,” said Jason Baker, senior vice president PETA campaigns.
The group is appealing to anyone “with the time, energy and space to adopt a cat (or dog) from a rescue group or animal shelter.”
The statement comes with the launch of the group’s poster campaign calling on Filipinos to give cats “a second chance at a better life,” according to June’s Adopt-a-Cat.
Local government units have the power to impound stray animals and regulate the keeping of animals in homes or as part of a business.
“If this law were fully enforced, there should be no stray cats or dogs in the country,” says Dr Glofezita Lagayan of the Bureau of Animal Industry (BAI) via email.
But not everyone agrees.
Linda Bansil, a 46-year-old animal rescuer from Pasig, believes stray animals shouldn’t suffer the consequences of not having a home.
“It’s a fight against animals because they just exist on the outside,” she says.
“Not all animals have owners, not all cats have homes. We were born on Earth, which is inhabited by cats and other animals. How can they say ‘no stray cats’ ?”
Bansil, along with her friend and rescue partner Dada Mendizabel, practices Trap-Neuter-Return or ‘TNR’ for cats, a process where stray animals are trapped for de-sexing and then returned to their habitats.
“TNR is an effective way to control the wandering population in the most humane way possible. Pounds and shelters will have fewer animals to rescue, feed, house, etc. Fewer reasons also for rescuers to admit [animals] home, because there are fewer lifeguards.
In addition to TNR, Bansil and Mendizabel are also rehoming rescued animals through a Facebook page they created.
BAI’s Dr. Lagayan, however, says a trap-spay-return program would not be feasible, as it would contradict the law. The agency maintains that all animals should be kept in homes or other establishments.
One particular reason for this is the transfer of rabies – a viral disease that can cause brain damage and possibly death – to humans through contact with an infected animal.
A raging problem
In the Philippines, about 200 deaths are due to rabies each year, according to BAI data. Interestingly, the country’s anti-rabies program and law focuses more on dogs.
“According to the World Health Organization, dogs are the leading source of human rabies deaths, contributing up to 99% of all rabies transmission to humans,” says Dr Lagayan.
“In addition, the global and ASEAN target for rabies is ‘Zero human deaths from dog-mediated rabies by 2030’.”
The fear of rabies is still very much with us, Perez says, which only adds to the stigma surrounding stray animals.
“People think rabies is innate. That’s basically why people who don’t understand it immediately call the pound to round up strays if they see strays in their area. Because they think when that dog or cat will bite their child, or will bite them, they will get rabies,” she said.
But while the government is offering free rabies vaccines for pets, it is only addressing one side of the problem.
“The only project for strays right now is the rabies vaccination. So how does that solve the overpopulation problem? That’s our problem,” adds Perez.
His hopes for animal welfare are not lost, however.
She says greater involvement of LGUs would be key to solving the stray animal crisis, as “they have the prerogative to allocate budget for animal welfare”.
New approaches to the long-term question
The problem of stray animals may be a growing concern, but the response and unconventional methods to address it are also on the rise.
The Quezon City LGU announced in March that stray dogs – rescued or returned – will also be trained as service dogs, such as emotional support dogs or bomb detection dogs. It comes as an alternative to the city’s efforts to rehouse the animals at its Animal Care and Adoption Center.
QC also offers free microchipping, where a small chip is implanted into an animal’s body for identification purposes. Microchipped and registered animals will be easier to reunite with their owners
Owner registration is required afterwards, to help locate the pet’s custodian, in case the pet is taken away from home.
Back at SJDM, Bulacan, the town vet will also be implementing the same technology, says Dr. Arvin Agapito, the town vet.
“We are just waiting for a meeting with the local Board of Health for approval. But we have already identified a barangay for initial implementation,” he says.
“Dog capture will still be in place. It’s just to regulate pet owners to register their pets with the city,” the doctor adds.
Dr. Agapito believes that this project will not only regulate the pet population in the city, but also increase responsible pet ownership among city residents.
“Dogs shouldn’t be penalized. It should be irresponsible pet owners who should be penalized. That’s where we’re headed. Our main concern is just funding,” says Dr Agapito, who admits that the funds for city veterinarian projects were to be temporarily deprioritized, to respond to the city’s COVID-19 response.
In addition to the city veterinarian’s plans to implement microchipping, the department also organizes free kapon (sterilization and sterilization) activities. One of his kapon projects was in partnership with Malou Perez’s Pawssion project, where the town vet provides free deexation to shelter rescues.
One last plea
Perez is calling for better terms in how Filipinos treat stray animals.
“I think a lot of what’s going on right now is really the lack of education and empathy for these stray animals. And people think that we’re superior, that we run the world, and that these Animals are not allowed to live here. . I think that’s the main problem.”
“For me, I would understand if you don’t like them. It’s okay. Just don’t hurt them.”