by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Coast Guard Administration

A NATIONAL CONTROVERSY has broken out, following the euthanizing of 154 cats that were being smuggled into Taiwan on a fishing vessel. The cats, which included breeds such as American shorthair, British shorthair, Persian, Ragdoll, and Russian blue, were worth over 10 million NT. The cats were found in 62 cages on the vessel, which had a crew of five. 

The cats were euthanized yesterday by the Kaohsiung city Bureau of Animal and Plant Health Inspection (BAPHIQ), which is a division of the Council of Agriculture. This took place after animal rights groups called for the quarantine and health inspection of the cats instead of their euthanizing, with NGO Animal Rescue Team Taiwan stating that it would pay for the costs of their quarantine and inspection so that the animals could eventually be put up for adoption. BAPHIQ took the view that the cats needed to be euthanized to prevent the spread of infectious diseases within Taiwan that could affect humans and animals alike. Ironically, yesterday was International Homeless Animals’ Day. 

Facebook post by President Tsai Ing-wen on the incident

In the wake of the incident, BAPHIQ has been criticized for inhumane actions, as well as being overly bureaucratic in failing to consider other options to handle the animals. In particular, many government agencies are seen as often refusing to amend standard bureaucratic procedures or becoming territorial when questioned about these procedures, in seeking to defend their legitimacy even when morally questionable. Apart from issues concerning animal welfare, one has frequently seen such accusations of inflexibility against the National Immigration Agency when handling migrant worker cases. There has been some speculation that BAPHIQ decided to swiftly euthanize the animals, despite the potential for controversy, because of not wanting animal rights groups to intervene in their affairs in future incidents. 

Political reactions to the euthanasia incident have primarily been divided between pan-Blue and pan-Green lines. President Tsai Ing-wen stated that she was upset over the incident, as a cat lover, while blaming the sailors on the fishing vessel for smuggling cats illegally, and considering changing existing laws. Premier Su Tseng-chang defended the cat euthanasia, on the basis of that this was necessary to prevent infectious and diseases from entering Taiwan, as did Kaohsiung mayor Chen Chi-mai, who like Tsai is another DPP politician known for his love of cats. Council of Agriculture minister Chen Chi-chung later called He Zong-xun, the secretary-general of the Taiwan Animal Protection Monitor, and expressed a willingness to engage in dialogue with animal rights groups, as did DPP legislator Lo Chih-cheng. 

Though not having any particular record of note on animal rights, the KMT and members of the pan-Blue camp have lashed out at the DPP. Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je was among those to criticize the Tsai administration on social media, along with New Taipei mayor Hou You-yi. One expects the KMT to continue to try and leverage on the issue. 

Animal euthanizing has become a national-level political issue in Taiwan in the past. The 2013 documentary Twelve Nights sparked widespread discussion of euthanasia facing animals in shelters, detailing how animals in shelters faced a twelve-day countdown before being euthanized in Taiwan. This led legislation against animal euthanasia in shelters to be introduced in 2015, which was implemented in February 2017. 

Notably, campaigning against euthanasia of animals in shelters was common among youth activists involved in the Sunflower Movement. Tsai would reference the issue in a prominent 2016 election ad, the “Walking with Children” ad. 

Facebook post by Taipei mayor Ko Wen-je on the incident

There have been other issues that have led animal rights to become nationally discussed. The killing of a cat named “Big Orange” on the National Taiwan University campus by a student, Perry Chan, led to widespread discussion of violence against animals in Taiwanese society, with some calling for stricter punishments for violence against animals. 

That being said, some discussion of the recent incident regarding the euthanizing of the 154 cats has also touched on how there is a larger public reaction to the euthanizing of cats or dogs, but not other animals. Culls of livestock for animals that humans eat do not usually lead to such large reactions, with Taiwan having seen pig culls in the millions in the last few decades to combat foot-and-mouth disease. There has also been discussion of how the incident reflects the commodification of animals as pets by humans, pertaining to how the animals were treated and disposed of as contraband. 

Furthermore, it is likely that there were other animals euthanized in the past that simply were not noticed by the public, due to lack of reporting. There was little follow-up in the news after the illegal smuggling of 50 chinchillas worth 7.5 million NT in August 2020, for example, though they were also later euthanized.

One does not expect the issue to be settled, even if it is possible that there will be legal changes put into place after the recent euthanasia incident. To this extent, one can expect the KMT to continue to use the issue to attack the DPP, while members of the DPP will openly express a willingness to consider changes, but may still defend existing policy. 

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