Thursday, July 4, 2013

Interview with Hsinyi Cheng: volunteering in shelters

AASG conference
Hsinyi Cheng with SAT's Phil enjoy the sunshine in Sydney.
SAT was very fortunately to spend some time with Taiwanese scholar Hsinyi Cheng, who is speaking at the Australian Animal Studies Group's Life in the Anthropocene conference next week. Hsinyi will be presenting a paper entitled "The Law and Unqualified Lives: Stray Animal Control in Taiwan." Its part of a larger research project about volunteering in shelters.

Shelter volunteers make a huge contribution to the welfare of animals. They save lives, the improve quality of life, and they can make a huge impact on adoption rates of animals. But it isn't always easy. The sheer number of animals involved (especially, according to Hsinyi, in countries such as Taiwan) means not all can be saved. 

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

My background is communication and cultural studies. I got my masters in communications and cultural studies on Taiwan and now I’m doing an MPhil in the Department of Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. My research is about volunteering in public animal shelters in Taiwan. The title of my project is “Saving Lives in Wasted Places: the Practice of Volunteers in Public Animal Shelters in Taiwan.”

What exactly does that involve?

My focus is on why people are motivated to volunteer and what are their expectations of working in those shelters. I am trying to find out more about how they care for animals and how they feel about shelters. If we think about animal welfare in shelters, it isn’t only about animals. We need to pay attention to the people working there. My research has involved conducting interviews and participant observation of volunteers for two months in two shelters in Taiwan.

What made you interested in this topic?

A lot of work has been done on volunteering, with many studies of conservation volunteers, but there are not many studies looking at shelter volunteers. I’m quite interested in the human-animal interaction in shelters, especially when volunteers are faced with euthanasia of animals. I want to know how they deal with this and how they help animals. Compared to conservation projects, the motivation to work in shelters is a bit more complex. Maybe some volunteers find themselves helping to decide which animals are more adoptable. Some animals can be adopted. For others, it may only be the case that volunteers can help these animals feel better. Volunteers have different ways of helping animals and they have to handle their feelings as well. They may feel a conflict – am I helping this animal or just sending it to euthanasia? The caring/killing complex. I am seeking to find out how they care for animals and how they regard their contribution to animal welfare.

You have talked about space in shelters being an important issue before. Can you expand on that?

The environment in shelters in Taiwan is not very good, especially in shelters located in remote regions as there is not much money, so the quality of space is not good. But you need to consider the needs of the animals, as well as the needs of visitors and the needs of workers in designing shelters. When I saw one shelter in Taiwan they had a big cage for many dogs. My first thought was how could so many dogs be kept in one cage? They will fight each other. When I came back more than six months later, the dogs were housed in small cages on their own or with another dog. But the volunteers said this was more stressful for the dogs as they had no way to move to another place.

How do you think animal shelters could be improved?

Taking care of animals is a professional job. If you want volunteers you need to provide training and show people the best way to care for animals. For volunteers in Taiwan it is difficult because human resources are limited. Big shelters might have three, maximum four veterinarians caring for 300-500 animals, so it is impossible. They need trained volunteers who can observe the animals, do the walking and training and so on. Sometimes they just help relieve the stress of the animals. Most shelter animals feel very nervous.
But if there are too many volunteers, it can be hard to manage. If someone doesn’t pay attention to hygiene, if they don’t wash their hands and grab another puppy, it can result in infection which can kill animals. Shelters with a good volunteer recruitment policy and systematic training can help more animals be adopted. But even those animals that aren’t adopted may feel better with the attention.

It depends a bit on how much money can afford to spend on the shelter environment. But one volunteer told me that if you build a fancy shelter, but you don’t run it well or don’t use it well, it can be a horrible hell for animals. To make dogs more friendly and more adoptable you need to spend more time with them. In this way, volunteers can improve animal welfare in shelters.