Smartphones are dogs’ best friend in Taiwan

JINSHAN, TAIWAN – It takes about an hour to lure the stray dog into a steel cage with food. During that time, Sean McCormack, a co-founder of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in Taiwan, sits taking pictures and video with his HTC smartphone.

The dog’s leg is bleeding from a wire trap set by a farmer in this small mountain town north of Taipei. McCormack plans to take the dog to a local animal hospital for treatment as soon as it’s safely in the cage.

A worker at a local temple says the wire traps don’t always injure the dogs, and that it’s the farmer that does the most damage. “I saw him,” says the worker. “He just walked right over with a big knife and [chopped] the dog’s leg off to get it out of the trap.” He shudders, making a chopping motion. “It was terrible.”

McCormack is recording the testimony, making a video as the man talks. “This is evidence. We can use this when we go to the authorities,” he says.

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In Taiwan, where a problem with stray dogs has reached epic proportions, rescue workers at the SPCA have turned to smartphones to help them do their jobs. Besides collecting video testimony, they are used to show dogs to potential adopters or to let donors see how their money is being put to use.

They also use smartphones to update their websites, read e-mails and check for rescue requests on their Facebook page. And the handsets lead them to remote rescues via GPSand Google Maps

Once, they fixed a flashlight to a smartphone and lowered it into an air duct to find a lost kitten, using video to see where it was. An echo in the pipe made it sound like the kitten was close by but it was actually two floors down. Without the video they might have wasted hours tearing up the pipe.

“This is our Swiss Army Knife, it does so much for us. I don’t know what we’d do without them,” says McCormack.

He has worked with animal groups in Taiwan for over a decade, arriving on the island when a boom in pet ownership led to an explosion in the street animal population. Puppies and kittens that looked cute in night markets and pet stores ended up dumped on the street. Strays became so prevalent that, in a twist, Taiwanese people — always eager to put a positive spin on a bad situation — started to say that stepping in dog poop was “lucky.” And people were getting lucky everywhere.

Taiwan has come a long way since then and the number of shelters and rescue groups has grown. But McCormack joined with Beki Hunt, and Connie and Annie Chiang to start the SPCA to focus on putting a stop to animal cruelty.

“We wanted to start an animal welfare group that’s different,” says Connie Chiang, campaigns director at the Taiwan SPCA. “There’s no other animal group in Taiwan that focuses on investigations.”

Smartphones have amplified the impact of their small team. None of the SPCA workers can be in the office all the time because there’s too much to do. And since it’s important to update their websites, they need phones to upload pictures on the go and check for posts on Facebook.

“We post a lot of our adoption cases and events on Facebook and we get a lot of attention there,” Connie says. “Adoptions can be really fast if we get photos up on the website quickly.”

Anyone who meets McCormack will get the hard sell to adopt a dog, complete with pictures on his smartphone.

“We just took in this new dog. Look at him. His name is TouDo. Isn’t he cute? You need a dog in your life, Dan, everybody does,” he said recently.

They even found that smartphones were a good way to raise funds.

Taiwanese vendor HTC donated several of its latest handsets to the group, including one that was raffled off to raise funds. It netted over NT$150,000 (about $4,800), despite having a retail price less than one fifth that amount.

“The HTC Desirephone wasn’t out yet so there was a lot of interest,” says Annie Chiang, marketing director at Taiwan SPCA. “The final winner was a vet that supports us, so it was great.”

Others in Taiwan’s technology sector are also helping. The only free animal hospital in Taipei was built by a Taiwanese tech mogul who has been much reviled in the press lately.

Terry Gou, chairman of Foxconn (the trade name of Hon Hai Precision Industry), was accused by media of running “suicide factories” in China because a number of workers leapt to their deaths in recent months.

Never mind that the suicide rate at these massive complexes is far below the national average in China. Foxconn makes iPhones and iPods, so with “suicide” and “iPhone” in the headline the stories were sure to get attention.

The SPCA and other groups convinced Gou to open a hospital for neutering strays and healing injured animals. A neutering hospital helps keep a lid on the stray population. Gou was involved in the matter personally, despite running a company with more than a million workers worldwide.

Despite the effort, the Love For Animals, Care For Life Charity Animal Hospital is in peril. Members of the committee that takes care of Gou’s foundation don’t want to continue its work, a worker at the hospital said. They think the money would be better spent on humans for cancer research.

Meantime, work at the SPCA and the animal hospital continues.

So far, the SPCA has picked up four dogs caught by the farmer’s wire traps and taken them to the animal hospital to be stitched up. McCormack wonders aloud how the farmer would like it if his leg were caught in a bear trap. Animal lovers can be passionate to the point of seeming anti-human.

“I forget sometimes that most people are good and treat animals really well,” he says. “I really have to remind myself of that sometimes. A lot of good people donate to us and without them, we couldn’t do what we do.”

The Taiwan SPCA can be found on Facebook, Blogspot,Twitter, and at their official website.

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