Pet owners do not get damages at law for the wrongful death of their pets, even when caused by fraudulent and unscrupulous profiteers. Should they?
For many affluent “parents” of “furkids”, it is a familiar routine come Christmas or any other holiday season: stopping by at an expensive boarding facility on the way to the airport to drop off their precious pets, rather than leaving the cute critters home alone.
These days, couples and singles are increasingly choosing to accept furry ones as family instead of, or in addition to, having children. And in tandem with their rising disposable incomes, these animal lovers enjoy the wherewithal to splurge on their pets.
Singapore today boasts at least half a dozen pet hotels that dish out a whole gamut of bespoke luxuries, from aromatherapy sessions and spa treatments to swimming pools and indoor treadmills. This is a burgeoning industry that just a decade or two ago simply did not even exist. Some pet hotels are reputable and possibly worth the cost. But then there are others, like the now infamous Platinium [sic] Dogs Club.
The curious incident of the dog in the night-time
Last December, an unsuspecting pet owner paid almost a thousand dollars to check her Shetland Sheepdog into the Club, only to discover, mid-vacation, that the dog had vanished.
The Club’s operator told the canine’s owner that the Sheltie had bolted because the AVA (Agri-Food & Veterinary Authority of Singapore) had allegedly broken into the Club’s premises illegally, leaving the gates open while the AVA was in operation. Based on this spurious information, the owner rushed back to Singapore and embarked on a wild goose chase, only to discover the horrifying truth: the dog had in fact died while under the Club’s supposed care, and was then summarily and unceremoniously cremated without its owner’s knowledge or consent.
Digging through the paltry information available, one finds that Platinium Dogs Club is in fact an unregistered entity helmed by a lady who ran the pet-boarding facility out of leased premises. Its website, since taken down, touted the company as having “20 years’ of experience” – yet the operator looked no older than her 30s in media photos.
Sure enough, soon after, news reports revealed that several other pet owners had complained of ill-treatment of their animals at the Club, with the death of at least three dogs subsequently confirmed. The AVA and the police are now investigating the Platinium Dogs Club and its operator for several animal welfare offences under the Animals and Birds Act.
Are our current laws and regulations enough?
Some background on the Act – it was amended in 2014 to include stiffer penalties for offences, with the view “to take a responsive and preventative approach to animal welfare and nip problems in the bud”.
Now, offenders who are in animal-related businesses will face heftier penalties for animal cruelty: up to S$40,000 in fines or jail not exceeding two years or both for the first offence, and up to S$100,000 in fines or jail not exceeding three years or both for second or subsequent offences. In addition, the Act also prescribes that people working with animals in pet-related businesses be trained in animal care and handling before they can provide such services.
“[T]he amendments are timely, and the updated legislation, backed by rigorous enforcement, will enable us to be better stewards and custodians of our fellow creatures” said proponents of the amendments. All that is well and good, but even if the irresponsible operators are convicted and punished with the maximum fine or even a jail term, is it enough?
Even though animal protection laws in Singapore are already generally ahead of those in the region, we still have some way to go compared with other developed jurisdictions like Switzerland. The European nation actually recognises animals constitutionally, with provisions warranting the protection of the “dignity of the creature” and mandatorily requiring certification of all dog guardians, and even statutorily providing that dogs cannot be left alone for an entire day and must have sufficient contact with humans and where possible other dogs .
There is currently also a seeming gap in Singapore laws on pet-hotels – while the AVA has published a Code for Animal Welfare which sets out minimum standards and best practices for pet boarding businesses, it is not binding as law and a breach of this code does not constitute an offence per se. No licenses seem to be required from the AVA before one can open or operate a pet boarding centre or hotel. All that appears to be required is a license from the Urban Redevelopment Authority (URA), but some establishments don’t have even that.
Towards enforcing better animal welfare
So what exactly are the other recourses open to owners whose pets are abused or killed under the supposed care of boarding facilities and the like?
Back in 2014 when the Act was amended, animal activists lobbied for new provisions for emotion-based damages in cases where cruelty leads to injury or death of a pet. It doesn’t take a pet lover to imagine the owner’s distress when a pet is effectively tortured or killed by the negligent or malicious acts of an irresponsible third party, especially where such acts are purely for profit and personal gain. Addressing this distress becomes all the more pertinent with the rising number of people who, for whatever personal reasons, consider their pets as almost equivalent to their children. But the law is still sadly unchanged in this respect.
If the law does not clearly provide for emotion-based damages, then an aggrieved pet owner has two unappealing options: do nothing, or fork out substantial sums to test the issue in Court – with no certainty of outcome, in addition to having to relive the sheer trauma of the torture and killing of the beloved deceased pet at trial.
For practicality’s sake, virtually all owners are reluctantly forced to not act, which perpetuates the vicious cycle; no action in court means no case law to assist the next unwitting owner-victim of wanton irresponsible animal cruelty.
The Platinium Dogs Club case must serve as a timely reminder that current provisions in the Act, though improved, may not serve as sufficient deterrence for some – and more importantly, are cold comfort for the loss of the pet-owner. While no measure of monetary compensation can ever truly fill the void caused by the wrongful death of a pet, statutory damages for such deaths may at least go some way towards showing bereaved owners that the law seeks to provide some small recompense for their impotent fury and raw distress.
A statutory provision for emotion-based damages for the wrongful death of a pet, within prescribed limits, is well worth revisiting and considering. The law already punishes animal cruelty; now let’s do right by the bereaved pet-owners by acknowledging and validating their pain.