The vet who 'euthanised' herself in Taiwan

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Ms Chien and her dog, Egg Yolk
Image caption,
Ms Chien and her dog, Egg Yolk

A new law banning animal euthanasia is set to take force in Taiwan. It comes almost a year after the shocking suicide of a vet overwhelmed by grief at the plight of stray animals. The BBC's Cindy Sui explores this tragedy.

Perhaps veterinarian and animal lover Chien Chih-cheng was in the wrong job at the wrong time.

"She often worked overtime, rarely took a proper lunch break, and sacrificed her holidays to give the dogs more attention and make their lives better," Winnie Lai, her colleague at a shelter for abandoned dogs in Taoyuan City, remembers.

As a graduate of Taiwan's top university with the highest score in a civil service examination, Ms Chien could have chosen a desk job at head office, but opted to personally care for the many pets abandoned each year in Taiwan.

The shelter's lobby was decorated with pictures of animals drawn by Ms Chien to encourage adoptions, but many of them were destined to be put down.

On 5 May last year, Ms Chien took her own life, using the same drug she used to put down animals. She said she wanted to help people understand what happens to strays in Taiwan.

Image caption,
The shelter Ms Chien worked at finds homes for most of its animals

Taiwan was gripped by anger and soul-searching in the weeks that followed, most of it focused on a life tragically cut short.

But people also asked why frontline workers in Taiwan's battle against pet abandonment were being put under so much pressure.

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In an interview Ms Chien once did with a local TV station CTI, she described the first time she saw an animal put down.

"I went home and cried all night," she said.

But it was media appearances like this that meant she came under personal attack. When it was revealed she had put down 700 dogs in two years, she was labelled the "beautiful slaughterer".

Shelter workers dreaded putting down the dogs, but Ms Chien and others saw this as a better end for the unwanted, ageing or difficult-to-adopt animals than leaving them at risk of disease in overcrowded shelters.

Image caption,
Colleagues spoke about Ms Chien's exceptional dedication to her job

"They called her a butcher… We are frequently scolded. Some people say we'll go to hell. They say we love to kill and are cruel," said Kao Yu-jie, one of her co-workers.

"But people still abandon their dogs. You hear all kinds of reasons: their dog is too mean, or not mean enough, barks too much, or doesn't bark enough."

High kill rate

Taiwan has two main problems when it comes to animal welfare: the number of pets being abandoned and the number of strays allowed to reproduce.

In reality, the situation has improved over the past decade thanks to increased public awareness and efforts by shelters and activists to discourage abandonment and encourage adoptions.

But the number of animals put down remains high and shelters are still underfunded and understaffed. The work is difficult and hours long. In some shelters, half the animals are killed.

In 2015 around 10,900 were put down. And about 8,600 shelter animals died last year from other causes, such as illness.

In the CTI interview, Ms Chien described the process of putting a dog down.

"We first let it take a stroll and eat some snacks and talk to it. Then we take it into the 'humane room'.

"When you put it on the table, it's very scared and its whole body is shaking. But after we administer the drug, it leaves in three to five seconds. It no longer shakes. Actually, it's very sad."

No psychological counselling was provided for the staff. Psychological support in this and other fields is practically unheard of in Taiwan.

The Taoyuan shelter actually had one of the lowest euthanasia rates and highest adoption rates of any shelter.

But a letter Ms Chien left behind when she killed herself suggested her concern for the welfare of the animals had consumed her. Her colleagues attest to this, although experts remind us that many and complex factors lie behind any suicide.

"She put herself under a lot of pressure. She cared a lot about the animals and the pressure from the work affected her," said Ms Lai.

In the letter, Ms Chien wrote: "I hope my departure will let all of you know stray animals are also life. I hope the government knows the importance of controlling the source [of the problem]… Please value life."

The irony of her exhortation to value life was not lost on observers and blame was quick to be handed out.

Newspapers accused the government of "murdering" her, with many saying it failed to come up with effective ways to stamp out pet abandonment or prevent strays from reproducing.

Image caption,
The number of strays being adopted in Taiwan has in fact increased in recent years

Some accused "higher-level bureaucrats" of trying to convince the public that Ms Chien simply couldn't handle her work pressures. But other commentators said that while shelter workers were easy to target, all of society must take responsibility.

Many believe the root of the problem is the insufficient enforcement of a neutering and spaying law.

The chief of the animal protection section of the Council of Agriculture, Chiang Wen-chuan, said a law requiring spaying and neutering only recently came into effect, and doesn't allow staff to impose fines immediately.

And even though staff pay visits to the owners of 60,000 animals each year to urge them to follow the laws, only 30% of the island's 1.7 million dogs have been spayed or neutered.

"We are very short-staffed. All of Taiwan only has 140 animal protection staff," said Mr Chiang. "It's a systematic problem. Ending euthanasia and expanding shelters and staff will not solve the problem."

Some Taiwanese also believe such medical procedures change the personality of their pets. Others want to breed to give to friends or sell.

Short-term measures

Ms Chien already knew, when she died, that a new law was coming into force.

From 4 February 2017, it will be illegal to put down abandoned animals. Budgets have also increased by 40%, there will be more inspectors and now anybody who wishes to abandon their pet at a shelter will have to pay a fee as high as $125 (£100).

Image caption,
As well as increasing adoption, the public are being encouraged to microchip, as well as spay and neuter their animals

The authorities say this is nothing to do with Ms Chien's suicide, and her story, which was simply a human tragedy.

The government has pledged to increase funding and staffing at shelters and provide psychological counselling. But many see these as short-term measures.

Activists want the government to crack down on breeders, implement subsidies for NGOs to spay and neuter, and provide assistance to groups that take in strays.

Perhaps Ms Chien was not the catalyst for the changes, but her love for animals will not be forgotten by her husband, also an animal control worker, and her colleagues - all of whom were left pain-stricken by her death.