Dr Jaipal Singh Gill, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), has a pet peeve. He dislikes being called an animal lover.
"I feel it may create an 'us versus them' mentality," he said. It introduces an element of conflict which can't be good for animal welfare. "What it does is it says, 'I'm an animal lover, you're not, so there are some differences between how we view things about animals and animal welfare,'" he explained.
"Do we say we need to be a child lover to advocate for the welfare of children or an elderly lover to advocate for the welfare of the elderly?
"My challenge with the term is that when I tell people I work for the SPCA, a lot of them say, 'You must be an animal lover', or some will say, 'It's because you are an animal lover.'
"People who are termed 'non-animal lovers' may not want to join the advocacy; they may think why should they care. But I think, just like people, animal welfare should be everybody's concern."
After all, Mahatma Gandhi did say that the greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated. This quote resonates strongly with Dr Gill.
"I do believe that protecting animals is a duty that we all share," he said. "And that as we progress as a nation on multiple fronts, standards of animal welfare must be raised too."
"The state of animal welfare in Singapore has improved over the years and we must continue this important work," he said
But Dr Gill, who wanted to take care of animals ever since he was a child, is not resting on his laurels.
He is focused on what more needs be done to reduce animal cruelty cases and improve their state of welfare rather than keep count of how many animals he and his team have saved.
"I definitely remember some of the animals I've helped, but I spend more time thinking about the ones I haven't helped or was not able to. I wish I could have done more," said Dr Gill.
"If you think about the scale of animal suffering out there, it'll never be enough. I think of Singapore and beyond and then I think that the tiny numbers I have helped cannot stack up, so I would rather focus on the ones that are yet to be helped and think about what more can be done."
The 37-year-old started his journey at the SPCA as an inspector investigating animal cruelty and complaints after he completed his life sciences degree at the National University of Singapore.
As an inspector, he saw animals in "extremely neglected states and then abandoned, terribly emaciated; some had skin or ear infections that went untreated".
"You could tell the animal had been in pain and suffering for a while and then just dumped."
The challenging part, he said, is not having evidence to prosecute the person responsible.
"Microchipping and the registration of dogs wasn't as tight as it is now, so (in the past) you could find an animal but you couldn't trace it to the owner. Also, CCTVs to capture evidence were not as widely in operation as they are now."
The frustrating thing is handling cases he couldn't do anything about because people were not breaking the law and refused to listen to him.
"I remember this case… I went to a landed property. The dog was kept in a small cage. From the information we received, it was almost always kept in the cage and subjected to poor welfare," recalled Dr Gill.
"I remember the owner laughing when I turned up at the door because he was so surprised that someone dressed up in a shirt and pants with an official-looking pass came to his house to talk to him about his dog. He said, 'It's none of your business, I'll do what I want'."
In worse cases, Dr Gill has had people threaten to call their lawyers or the police on him.
On his first day as an inspector at the SPCA, he also received a death threat via voicemail after investigating a complaint that a man was keeping many cats in his car.
"The problem of people mistreating animals is a "complex issue", said Dr Gill. "We have seen some cases of animal cruelty committed by individuals with mental health disorder. It is very difficult to try to understand the mind of someone who has abused an animal."
Dr Sanveen Kang, principal clinical psychologist at Pysch Connect, told tabla! that not everyone mistreats animals on purpose. A majority often do not understand the impact of their actions. "These people may be young and they hurt animals because they aren't thinking or because they can't stand up to their friends and peer pressure," said Dr Kang.
"There are also those who might be mad at someone else, like their parents, and kick their pet dog because they can't kick their parents or they may think it's fun to watch an animal run away scared without really thinking about how the animal feels."
However, Dr Kang added there are also those who intentionally hurt animals. "In this case, they enjoy hurting things or do it because it makes them feel powerful and they can use this to control others. Many of these people would hurt other people if they could get away with it. They just choose to hurt animals because animals are more helpless than people."
Though the SPCA sees a good adoption rate, it has had animals adopted by people only to be returned to them. There are people who adopt on impulse, then put up the animals for adoption again after one year or get them as "presents" and lose interest after a while.
Dr Gill noticed that many of these cases involve people who have adopted an animal without fully realising the care it will need.
"While the team at SPCA tries its best to inform them before and during the adoption process, this cannot compare with actually looking after an animal in their own home," said Dr Gill. "We always stress that pets are for life and that one should not obtain a pet unless one can look after the animal till the end."
The SPCA does see returns but, thankfully, these are in the minority. It has many adopters going back to share their heart-warming journeys with their pets, sometimes years after the adoption.
"This fills us with hope for the many lovely animals in our shelter waiting for their turn," said Dr Gill.
"Do we say we need to be a child lover to advocate for the welfare of children or an elderly lover to advocate for the welfare of the elderly?"
- Dr Jaipal Singh Gill
FOUND HIS CALLING AS A CHILD
Dr Jaipal Singh Gill's love affair with animals started when he was in primary school.
When he was six years old, he read a children's book titled I Want To Be A Vet.
"I remember reading it over and over again and decided that this is what I want to do in life," he said.
As a child, he would take stray cats and injured dogs home. From the age of seven, he kept guinea pigs, terrapins and fish. That was also when he experienced his first pet loss.
"My pet rabbit had diarrhoea and I remember taking it to the vet near my home. It got an injection, and I thought it was going to be well again, but it died that night. It was a shocking and tragic experience for me at that age. I thought about how I could have done things differently."
At 14, he turned vegetarian after reading literature on factory-farmed animals given to him by his elder brother.
"That was the beginning of my animal welfare journey. Before that, I was just keeping pets. I realised what the animals went through and thought I wouldn't want to see any animal put through this, so I became a vegetarian."
Gradually, he also persuaded his family members to become vegetarians.
Though he knew he wanted to be a vet, there were no veterinary courses in Singapore at that time. So he decided to do a life sciences degree at the National University of Singapore.
There, he started an animal welfare group and helped organise the first Animal Welfare Symposium in Singapore.
The aim of the group was to engage deeply on animal welfare issues within the student population and beyond.
"At NUS, we have students from law, public policy, social sciences, so we could look at animal issues more deeply and understand the complexities - both in the advocacy and awareness-raising side," Dr Gill said.
The group is now called NUS PEACE (People Ending Animal Cruelty and Exploitation).
After he graduated from NUS, he joined the SPCA as an inspector handling about 70 animal cruelty cases and complaints a month.
After a year, he felt there were many things he didn't know about animals and their welfare, so he decided to go back to school.
"My life sciences degree was good but it was not adequately preparing me for this sort of animal welfare work," he said.
He took a master's degree in animal sciences and rejoined the SPCA as its operations manager for two years before enrolling in a Doctor of Animal Medicine degree course at the University of Melbourne.
He became the SPCA's executive director in 2016.
Said Dr Gill: "I'd like to encourage people to find opportunities to stake up on animal welfare issues and join the community when we call for changes to be made. People can also contribute by donating, volunteering and fostering an animal."