You might have heard about Tengah as a futuristic, biophilic new town, soon to be built on the outskirts of Choa Chu Kang, but perhaps lesser known is that some citizens have already made themselves home in the area. Trudging up the winding roads of Sungei Tengah in the sweltering heat to meet them, the serenity of vast greenery is broken by a cacophony of incessant barking, energetic scampering, clanging metal, and the occasional eruption of human voices, not to mention a mix of pungent odours that linger in the air.
Amongst the sea of blue cookie-cutter compounds in The Animal Lodge, we identify Block V just in time to catch Christine heading back from her walk with two dogs from Causes for Animals (CAS), one of the many animal welfare groups and shelters located here. We trailed behind them up a narrow stairwell to their facility on the second floor, where Marcus was waiting to greet us.
CAS was started in 2013 by the husband and wife duo, who, at that time, had already amassed years of experience as shelter volunteers and street animal feeders. “We used to volunteer at shelters that housed hundreds of animals and found that it wasn’t a conducive environment due to the lack of manpower and resources allocated to each animal,” says Christine. “We wanted to start a more focused organisation that could run off-site programmes including sterilisations and vaccinations to benefit not only our dogs, but all dogs in Singapore.”
Now, the facility is home to 15 dogs, while they also have four cats currently in foster homes. Christine handles CAS’s adoption programme, and runs all of CAS’s fundraising events. One of their annual events is a vaccination drive every September that helps to raise funds for the vaccination of 1,000 shelter dogs.
Meanwhile, Marcus’s main role is groundwork for both animals at CAS and on the streets. This includes taking sick animals to the vet, helping out during vaccinations, and handling the training and rehabilitation of their dogs. The duo also run a Trap, Neuter, Release (TNR) programme to manage the population of stray animals in their race towards a stray-free Singapore.
Outspoken about the work that they do in animal welfare, it was endearing to see Christine and Marcus turn rather shy when telling us the story of how they met. Christine recounted meeting her husband when volunteering at a shelter 17 years back—he was working with the cats, and she was helping with feeding and cleaning.
Approaching their ninth wedding anniversary and with two rescue dogs of their own, they seem to have found a nice rhythm between married life, fulfilling careers, and their passion for animals. The couple holds full-time jobs outside of their work at CAS—Christine teaches secondary school history and literature, while Marcus is an operations manager at a veterinary clinic and an accredited dog trainer.
Most of their weekends and free time are spent performing their respective duties at the shelter. Being around animals day and night may sound like a dream to animal lovers, but as we learnt from Marcus, it’s certainly not a job for the faint-hearted.
“Working with animals is very emotionally-taxing. In my first two years at CAS, I experienced five animal deaths and it was really rough,” Marcus shares. “Even after doing this for 18 years, I wouldn’t say that I’ve gotten used to the pain and death. But I can’t let my emotions stop me from caring for the many lives that still depend on me. I have to pick myself up for them.”
While it’s clear that Christine and Marcus love their work and all their animals deeply, and provide them with care to the best of their abilities, we sense the undercurrent of long-drawn frustrations about The Animal Lodge.
During our short chat in the pantry area, between two corridors of kennels that stretch to the left and right of us, we couldn’t help but notice how tight the space was for us humans, let alone 15 active dogs. At just 72 to 90 square metres, barely the size of a 4-room Build-To-Order HDB unit, this new abode makes CAS’s former facility at Seletar seem like a lost luxury, with a sizeable 371 square metres of space and even a private backyard.
“The dogs are simply not accustomed to living in a block-like environment that is so compact, and on the second floor no less,” Christine says.
With space being such a scarce resource, volunteers have to plan their walking routes around the compound carefully, lest two aggressive dogs inadvertently bump into each other on their rounds. At CAS, we spot a sign requesting for all volunteers to leave the shelter by 1030AM so that the dogs can roam freely in the few more square metres beyond their own kennels.
“We’ve had to drastically slow down our rescue efforts because as you can see, there’s simply no space to house them all,” Marcus says. “We compensate by taking the dogs on two walks a day. For other shelters with hundreds of animals, the dogs get one or two walks a week, if they’re lucky.”
“With the rush for urbanisation and a shortage of land, I understand that the government is put in a tough spot having to deal with stray and shelter animals, and in many ways they’ve improved from the past,” Christine adds. “But at the end of the day, this facility is just not suitable for the thousands of animals that were forced here.”
“I’ve given up talking to government bodies because we no longer see any progress. For instance, we’ve been promised a safe and spacious dog run for two years, but it has yet to be built. The current patches of grass that we have are way too narrow for any physical activity. We’ve even offered to fund the construction as it’s a basic necessity for the animals, but we were rejected time and again. We’re not asking for much, just the bare minimum to give the animals a good quality of life. So much more can be done, and it’s disheartening to see that our animals are not being prioritised.”
Sitting in the cramped compound of CAS, with the afternoon heat beating down, enveloped by the sounds of agitated barking, it can be easy to feel a sense of being trapped and helpless. But while an individual effort might not seem to make much of an impact, Christine says that every action counts towards a collective movement.
“Apart from financial support, we could do with more public awareness when it comes to the plight of our animals,” she says. “We’re hidden away in a little corner of the island, so until people get to see it with their own eyes, they won’t know of the struggles that our animals and volunteers face here.”
“More people speaking up for our street and shelter animals would also help to put necessary pressure on the government to move things along in regards to implementing beneficial policies. We do have some ministers, like Mr. Desmond Lee, supporting the cause for animal welfare, but it’s not a one-man show. We need more people to believe that this is something worth fighting for.”
That’s one of the reasons why we were so keen to speak with Christine and Marcus, and to share more about the work that CAS does and the plight of the animals at The Animal Lodge. The bulk of CAS’s residents are senior dogs and Singapore Specials (or mongrels), which is an often-misunderstood breed, but who deserve a loving home. Forced out of their forested homes due to urban development, many of them end up in residential areas, creating an uneasy co-inhabitance with people that perceive them to be unhygienic or threatening. A complaint ensues, and the dogs end up being relocated or worse, euthanised.
“Until we can coexist in peace, the TNR efforts are the best way of curbing human-dog conflicts, and reduce the chances of having dogs suffer on the streets or spend their whole lives in shelters,” Marcus says.
That means that there could be a day that Singapore Specials die out completely, closing another chapter on the irrepressible advancement of man versus nature. But for now, this National Day, we’d like to take the time to celebrate these forgotten citizens of Singapore, and perhaps encourage you to adopt a Special of your own, donate to support CAS’s cause, or speak up to give a voice to the voiceless.
If you’re interested to become a pet owner, Christine and Marcus recommend adoption even if it’s not from a shelter, and strongly advise against buying from puppy mills. Dogs can live till well over 10 years of age, so the most important question to ask yourself before you adopt is whether you can commit to caring for your dog after considering all possible life circumstances and changes that might occur in your household.
Considering adopting? Here are some FAQs:
What’s so special about a Singapore Special? Are they fierce and difficult to train?
Generally speaking, mixed breeds like Singapore Specials actually have less health issues throughout their lifetime than their pure-bred counterparts, aside from any injuries they might’ve endured on the streets.
People want perfect dogs which, like humans, do not exist, especially shelter dogs that have histories of abuse and neglect. Most dogs that end up in the shelter for a long time have “quirks”—what others would consider flaws—such as food aggression and separation anxiety, but they just need a little more patience and guidance.
One of Marcus’s most memorable encounters at CAS is with Dash, our eight-year-old Special. He was found with a litter of newborn puppies surrounding their mother, who was crushed to death by a pile of pipes. He was re-homed but later returned to CAS after a few years, and had become aggressive and intimidating. However, with a lot of patience and time, Dash is more trusting and has become quite affectionate. He’s also won over many of the CAS volunteers, which goes to show that no dog is unworthy of love.
All CAS dogs that are approved for adoption have been professionally accessed, trained, and rehabilitated to adapt to the domestic environment.
Can I still adopt a Singapore Special if I stay in a HDB flat?
Under Project ADORE (ADOption and Rehoming of dogs), you can now adopt an HDB-approved Singapore Special.
Criteria for HDB-approved dogs:
– Be of medium size (have a shoulder height of up to 55cm)
– Be at least six months old and sterilised
– Have undergone compulsory basic obedience training by AVA-accredited ADORE trainers
– Only one registered dog is allowed per HDB household
What are the challenges that come with adopting a senior dog?
You would have to consider certain ailments that come with age, but that’s to be expected for any pet. However, CAS generously continues to cover the medical bills of senior dogs, even after adoption.
If age is a concern, Christine says that senior dogs actually make pretty awesome pets. They mellow down a lot with age and tend to be very routined, so they fit well with the lifestyles of working adults who don’t have the time and energy for a high-maintenance puppy.
Special thanks to our lovely fur friends at CAS, who are up for adoption by the way!
Primrose (10 yo female, HDB-approved)
Gimmy (7yo female, HDB-approved)
Harry (8yo male, not HDB-approved)
Dash (8yo male, not HDB-approved)
We’re doing our little bit to help raise funds for CAS. The bulk of their funds goes towards covering medical bills for the animals both in their shelter, on the streets, or re-homed senior dogs; last year, their medical bills alone amounted to $360,000.
You can choose to make a donation to CAS via our Shentonista Shop, or book a photography session in our very own studio, with the proceeds going to CAS.
CAS also has fundraising opportunities available on their website.
Keep an eye out for public surveys conducted by the Animal Veterinary Service (AVS)—the last one conducted in September 2022 asked for views on managing pet and community cats in Singapore.
Animal welfare groups such as Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (ACRES) and Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) are also potential platforms to support.
Alternatively, speaking to a Member of Parliament at your neighbourhood Meet-the-People’s session could also be another way to get conversations started in parliament and on a legislative level to expedite change.
Finally, share this story with others who might not know about the plight of shelter animals in Singapore!