Seán McCormack founded Animals Taiwan and more recently the Taiwan SPCA. He talks with The Wild East about how Jane Goodall inspired his life’s work, his recent work and successes, and some of the (mostly positive) current trends in Taiwan regarding animal protection.
By Trista di Genova, The Wild East
Trista: What happened in that fateful meeting between you and Jane Goodall? Can you talk about your experience with her?
Seán McCormack: I was fortunate to enjoy a three-hour meeting with Dr Jane Goodall in late 2004, while she was holed up in her hotel room with all her engagements canceled, due to what turned out to be a mild typhoon. She had learned from mutual friends that I rescued and rehomed animals, and asked me questions about the situation here. She then suggested I start an organisation to get all these like-minded individuals working together to truly make a difference. I was incredibly inspired, as Jane had been a lifetime hero of mine, and I immediately went on to Forumosa.com and told everyone there I was starting an animal-rescue organisation as a ‘mission from Goodall’, and several of those who responded ended up co-founding Animals Taiwan with me. I often get to meet Jane when she visits Taiwan, and she is always interested to hear about my latest projects. I’ve been honoured to receive a couple of hand-written letters from Jane encouraging me to carry on making a difference and always offering her support. I feel incredibly lucky to have such an inspiring person motivating me to keep going.
Trista: How have Animals Taiwan and animal rights, for lack of a better term, improved or changed in past few years since I last interviewed you?
Seán: Animals Taiwan seems not to have grown since I left in 2008; in fact, things seem to have scaled down somewhat, as they no longer offer 24-hour emergency rescue, and many of the plans we had for future growth don’t seem to have been implemented. As I understand it, Animals Taiwan is kept small simply because of a lack of proper organisational structure that would permit and encourage growth. They have done a great job, though, of carrying on helping dogs and cats in need. I’m not really privy to what goes on there, so I can’t comment too much and must profess that much of what I do know is based only on what I hear.
Animal welfare, though, has greatly improved, and I’m incredibly proud of Taiwan for the rapid progress it is making. The Animal Protection Laws have been revised a couple of times, and Taiwan recently had its first court case for animal abuse, with the perpetrator receiving a prison sentence for cruelty. Cats are no longer caught and killed in Taipei City (unless a complaint is received), and CNR is now the preferred method of stray-cat control. We are seeing a larger percentage of companion animals being microchipped and neutered, though there is still a lot of room for improvement. And we now have an SPCA in Taiwan, which I started working on in late 2008 and which really took off when others joined to help me co-found it in June 2009. I’m not with the SPCA currently, but I’m sure it will be hugely successful as it grows into a professionally run animal-welfare organisation.
Trista: What has happened with the CNR (capture/neuter/release) policy?
Seán: The Taipei City Government and National Taiwan University support the neutering of all stray animals, as do other local governments around Taiwan. The NTU has been funding a free spay-and-neuter clinic, run by LCA (Life Conservationist Association), an experienced animal-welfare organisation, and has neutered thousands of stray animals from all over north Taiwan in the last couple of years. Funding is running out, though, but I hear LCA will be running their own clinic built on more sustainable practices.
Trista: What new services are there to help Taiwan animal owners adopt, find new homes, and what has been your role in them?
Seán: The newest service for helping people adopt, rehome, or rescue animals is the Taiwan SPCA, which I co-founded in 2009 after starting work on it in late 2008. The SPCA will, among other projects, be running adoption shops, where people can adopt animals that the SPCA has rescued or confiscated, or which have been supplied by local kill pounds. I am also co-founding an Wulai-based rescue-and-rehoming centre as well as a national, wiki-based animal-rescue network, which will help individuals from local cells of like-minded people who take on certain roles necessary to rescue and rehome animals in need; the cells will also get support and guidance from other cells around the country through the wiki-based network. We hope to have both these projects up and running later this year.
Trista: Do you see any positive larger trends in Taiwan that you’d like to discuss?
Seán: I think we are seeing a trend towards healthier diets for our companion animals, which I’m really happy to see, as I’ve been promoting healthier, non-processed food for dogs and cats since I started getting media attention. We’re even seeing raw food being sold in pet stores, which is just great to see. People are realising that they have been fooled by clever marketing into believing that processed pellets are healthier for our animals than fresh, species-appropriate meaty bones with optional supplements. People all over the world are waking up and realising that our grandparents’ dogs and cats lived longer, healthier lives fed on meaty bones and table scraps — the diet that dogs have thrived on for thousands of years. I’m very proud to see this trend in Taiwan, and I will carry on doing whatever I can to ensure it continues, so that more dogs and cats can enjoy better health.
Trista: What media attention have you been getting (specifics, also any awards)?
Seán: I have been in the media a few times recently, promoting the message that cruel, medieval devices like gin traps do not belong in a beautiful, advanced country like Taiwan. We appeared in several papers and TV news programs, including the Apple Daily and FTV.
I have never received an award for my animal-welfare work, though I have just been nominated for the Hong Kong SPCA’s Canine Hero Award, for achievements towards the rescuing and rehoming of dogs, for which I am incredibly honoured. I have also been advised that I may apply for a special APRC for my contributions to the Republic of Taiwan, which I am now in the process of taking advantage of.
Trista: What are 3 (or more if you wish) things you’d like to see changed in terms of prevention of cruelty to animals in Taiwan in the next few years?
Seán: What three changes would I like to see? 1. I’d like to see all the Taiwanese animal-welfare organisations adopt international standards, because many local groups are seriously lacking when it comes to the treatment of the animals in their care, with many keeping dogs and cats in tiny wire-floor cages or in other inhumane conditions. 2. I would like to see all organisations work together to improve the local adoption rates; organisations seem to dedicate all their resources to rescuing and publicizing but not enough to getting the animals into good homes — that needs a huge shift in public thinking, but that is what these organisations should be working towards if they truly want to make a difference. 3. I would like to see the root of the problem properly addressed, with breeders licensed, public education about responsible pet care and adopting instead of buying, of animals being microchipped at sale or adoption, and people fined for allowing unneutered pets to roam free. These are just a few of the root causes, and there are more that I would love to see addressed. 4. I would like to see inhumane trapping devices eradicated, and our Wulai rescue group (WAGS) will be doing a lot to make that happen.
Trista: Can you describe your recent experience carrying out animal rescues?
Seán: Recently, we haven’t been able to do too many rescues because our rescue van is out of commission, but I’ve been lucky to have others step up to assist. Recent rescues of note include an injured duck who had been dumped in a park pond, many dogs caught in gin traps and snares and consequently lost a limb, and an aggressive husky whom the police and fire department couldn’t get to leave a convenience store. We also have in our care a Formosan ferret badger, an endemic species that is now endangered; he, too, lost a limb to an illegal gin trap.
Trista: Could you talk a little more about gin traps, when and why are they used, by whom?
Seán: A gin trap is a trapping device that’s illegal to use in Taiwan but legal to buy and sell — go figure. They are used by people too lazy to hunt, and are often left unchecked for days at a time, in which time they maim or kill endangered wildlife as well as huge numbers of cats and dogs. They basically clamp shut on the limb of whichever animal is unfortunate enough to step into them in an attempt to get at whatever bait is placed nearby, eventually leading to that limb falling off or being chewed off by the victim. Some have even harmed people. They are used to catch wildlife, as deterrents to keep animals off (usually illegal) farmland, and for killing rats in or near restaurant kitchens.
Trista: So what exactly happened, why’d you leave Animals Taiwan? And how do you make your bread and butter now, then?
Seán: I was the Founder and Executive Director at Animals Taiwan, and I left because I simply could not see the organisation growing effectively with its lack of structure, which really fell apart after we became a registered NGO headed by a board of directors. I felt I lacked the leadership abilities to keep everyone focused on the organisation’s goals, and so I stepped down as ED. I didn’t actually leave the organisation, but let’s just say there was no suitable role made available to me after I made that move. I decided to start the SPCA to put my vision of an animal inspectorate into fruition, and a similar situation occurred there, and I left as the SPCA was about to become properly registered. I readily accept that I currently lack the leadership skills to keep everyone working as a coherent, well-structured entity–the kind of leadership that both organisations need if they are to fulfill their huge potential–and that is why I am comfortable leaving. My goals are to see these organisations being effective in Taiwan, not to satisfy an ego or a need to control them. I’m very proud of my ability to get these things started, and I am happy to leave them for others to run, knowing that they will eventually adopt proper structures and have the kind of leadership to really make them effective.
I’m currently working as a writer and editor for some overseas publications.
Trista: Is it really your lack of leadership skills, or a lack of interest in taking on all the responsibilities and/or bureaucratic tasks entailed in leading an organization?
Seán: Well, of course it’s both. I don’t have the skills, but, also, I’m not a fan of bureaucratic procedures, nor of dealing with people’s issues. I’ve learned that my strength lies in encouraging other to join my projects and not in running them myself. I much prefer being involved with the ‘front line’ doing all the hands-on stuff, and leaving the meetings and power struggles to others.
Trista: You recently moved, right? How many dogs do you currently have under your protection? Are they waiting for homes?
Seán: Right now, I have my own eight dogs as well as three in need of good homes, including Hoss the husky, Buster the chihuahua mix, and Jino the tugou amputee. We also have Wasabi, who has recovered beautifully from skin disease and is now available for adoption. They can all be found on our Facebook page.
Trista: How can people contribute, donate and get involved in the cause?
Seán: If people want to get involved or donate, the best way is to join our Facebook page, as we will be keeping everyone updated as to our latest projects. We generally accept donations only for specific rescues, and we invite people to contribute directly to individual expenses, such as the vet bills or even gas for the car to get us out to an animal in need of help.
Trista: I’m tempted to ask the personal question, “Why don’t you have a girlfriend?” but maybe that is not so appropriate, I don’t know. 🙂
Sean: I’ve found that most women (or their parents at least) don’t believe I make a good long-term prospect, because my priorities seem to lie elsewhere. So although I’ve been lucky enough to attract some great women because of the work I do, it’s that work that eventually causes relationships to erode. Waking up to the mess left by my incontinent dogs can also be an attraction killer. 😉 I’ve resigned myself to the fact that I may be single on and off for life, and I’m happy with that.
ANIMAL RESCUE CONTACT:
Taiwan Animal S.O.S.
An animal-rescue organization operating in northern Taiwan, dealing with everything from companion animals to injured farm and wild animals 我們是一個在台灣北部進行動物救援工作的組織,救援對象包含所有需要幫助的同伴動物,各種農場動物以及野生動物
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