Sunday Inquirer Magazine / Sunday Inq Mag

‘Hey, pare, let’s save the whales’

By Alya Honasan

Posted date: July 22, 2007

MANILA, Philippines - Is it because going vegetarian is so chic? Is that World Wildlife Fund panda logo just too darn cute? Or do pictures of stray dogs being carted off to a Benguet market just break your heart?

The fact is, it’s become politically correct, fashionable, and downright cool to champion animal rights. Animal welfare groups now have more donors to tap, but also more groups with specific causes to “compete” with, whether it’s saving the whale shark in Donsol or rescuing the askal (stray dog) down the road.

“The politically correct term now is asPin or asong Pinoy,” points out Anna Hashim Cabrera, program director of the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS).

When Cabrera started volunteering for PAWS in 1997, only about ten people came to the group’s annual pet blessing; last year, there were about 250 people and 400 pets. “When we put up our animal shelter in 2000, people said we were crazy,” she says of PAWS’ rehabilitation and adoption program for abandoned and rescued dogs and cats. “Now our adoption rates have soared from less than one percent to 50 percent. There is such a clamor for ‘animal’ stories that we actually have media calling us up every week for either a TV or magazine interview.”

The growing popularity of the cause in the country explains “why PETA Asia-Pacific came to the Philippines,” says Rochelle Regodon, campaigns manager for the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the largest animal rights group in the world. “I think it’s all about education, and I think that we are a hip cause because we’re honest and we present things in a direct, easy-to-understand, and sometimes even fun and exciting way.”

It has helped that environmental issues like global warming and the threatened extinction of charismatic species like tigers and polar bears have been the stuff of news, the topic of discussion, and the subject of scientific research reported in mainstream media. Regodon credits the Internet for making people so much more aware of what’s happening. “The groups that we’re fighting against (among them the meat and dairy industries and cosmetics companies that test their products on animals) have the economic power to spin their image with high-budget ad campaigns, and it’s very difficult for a charity to combat that message. The Internet has made our message easily accessible to people. In addition to advancements in technology, more people have become educated about animal suffering in general. Twenty years ago, people didn’t think that fish could feel pain, but now we know that they do. Ten years ago, people didn’t think that being vegetarian was healthy, but now people know it’s one of the best things you can do for your health.”

Which is not to say that everybody is getting it right, of course, just like it is wrong to assume everyone who owns a dog, for example, knows how to take care of it. “People come up to me all the time and say, ‘You’re from PAWS? I love dogs!’—and then they want a shelter animal to breed their dogs with,” Cabrera says.

Animal overpopulation is a serious problem, and the spaying and neutering of pets is a main battle cry of PAWS. “It’s for your pet’s own well-being, and your contribution to society, that your pet will not add to the number of unwanted animals out there,” Cabrera says. Yes, even if you can afford it, or you think a particular breed is cute, or it’s worth a lot of money, or makes for a fabulous accessory, like Paris Hilton’s Chihuahua.

But it’s still a bit of a stretch from simply feeling sorry for the poor dead whale, to taking concrete steps to understanding the problem and contributing to its solution—a solution that doesn’t have to mean excluding one interest in favor of the other. “There are a few who understand the important ecological role of wild populations of whales, turtles, or dugongs, for instance,” says Lory Tan, President of WWF Philippines. “However, I believe that it may still be an emotional thing for the greater majority of Filipinos. When we discuss natural resource management with communities, sometimes we still get the response, ’What is more important? People or whales?’ This is very revealing.”

“I think that Pinoys are no different from the rest of the world: there are those who get it right away, and those who have to be educated,” says Regodon. “There are some who don’t see the suffering of the animals around them, and there are others who do.”

In a country where people like their adobo, one of PETA’s biggest hurdles is working against preconceived notions of what an “animal rights activist” or even a “vegetarian” is. “But stereotypes are just that: stereotypes. Being vegetarian and caring about animals has nothing to do with politics—it’s just about compassion for animals. PETA does not subscribe to the belief that caring for animals is just for the poor or the wealthy, the educated or the uneducated. Compassion for animals is universally understood.”

That’s why both Regodon and Cabrera would like to see more spaying and neutering of animals. “And less eating of them,” Regodon adds. “We would like people to think about how their actions affect others.” Also, Cabrera warns against establishments “that claim to be pro-preservation, pro-environment, but are actually doing more harm than good for animal welfare”—such as popular animal shows whose main stars are getting sick and dying.

In line with WWF Philippines’ main thrust of marine mammal conservation, Tan is aspiring for a better understanding of symbiotic relationships, and how people and animals can co-exist sustainably. “I’d like to see a more widespread understanding of wild populations and marine mammals. For example, how to maintain the health and productivity of fish stocks, on which 40 million Filipinos depend as their source of protein.”

Though not all Pinoys might realize it just yet, the bottom line is that fighting for animal welfare is now less a matter of sympathy than survival. “Animal welfare is not forcing people to ‘like’ animals,” says Cabrera. “Animal welfare is not even about animals per se, but teaching people to respect and value all forms of life.”

And that, definitely, includes our own. •

So you want a dog

Questions you have to ask yourself—again and again—before taking home that cute furball

1. Are you committed? “Having a pet is like having a child,” says PAWS’ Anna Hashim-Cabrera. “You cannot give up on your child when difficulties come.” Unless you’re planning to entrust the pet to the househelp, keep the poor thing in a cage, or tie it to the gate (in which case I strongly exhort you to get a pet rock instead), be ready to change your life—your lifestyle, your sleeping habits, even your priorities. A pet is a living thing, and is not something you can dump in the garage when you tire of it. Trust me, though, this could be one of the best investments in your happiness that you could ever make.

2. Do you have the space? If you live in a small apartment, unless you make time for daily exercise, it would be downright cruel to keep a big dog like a German Shepherd or Labrador, which requires room to run and play and can do serious damage in confined spaces. Be realistic about what kind of pet you can accommodate.

3. Do you have the time? Do you work 12-hour days, take frequent trips out of town, and like late nights out with friends? Then unless there’s somebody who stays home to care for the pet, it’s highly unlikely you’d make a good pet owner. Demands on your time include trips to the vet, taking walks, waking up to let the dog poo outdoors, and general attention and bonding time. Otherwise, a dog will feel lonely and bored—and can become destructive.

4. Do you have the money? A pet can be expensive to maintain, especially if you want to give it the best of care. A good 20-kilogram bag of dog food can cost upwards of P1,000, and a big dog like a Labrador can easily wolf down half a kilo of dog food a day. Then there are vet bills, annual vaccinations, shampoo, flea and heartworm medicine. As with everything in life, you could cut corners, but you might be compromising the animal’s health. Don’t get a pet if it will dent your finances.

5. Can you handle the mess? Are you a clean freak who gets upset by dirt or won’t abide by hair on the sofa? Then get a fortune plant. Allergies are less of a problem, as some breeds like Bichon Frisés and poodles are actually hypoallergenic—that is, their fur won’t make you sneeze. But you shouldn’t mind getting licked, shouldn’t squirm at the sight of poo, and shouldn’t always worry about a dog being “dirty,” because when properly cared for, they can be cleaner than some people!

6. Can you handle the responsibility? As Cabrera says, “You can’t force anyone to ‘like’ animals.” In other words, you and your pet will be living in an imperfect world where many unenlightened people still think dogs are scary or filthy. Be ready to manage your pet, keep it under control, clean up after it, and spay or neuter it to help curb animal overpopulation. In line with this…

7. Would you consider adopting? Before you go shopping for a dog, remember that there are already dozens of sweet, wonderful asPin out there that could use a home. Visit the animal rehabilitation center of the Philippine Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) in Quezon City, tel. no 475-1688, The dog of your dreams may already be waiting for you. Alya B. Honasan

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