In response to a rabies outbreak, a government-sponsored virus control team has been killing dogs throughout the state of Sarawak, Malaysia. Anti-rabies operatives – accompanied by members of the army and police – are accused not just of killing stray dogs, but also of trespassing private properties to kill pet dogs that have had their rabies vaccinations.
It all escalated in January when the Malaysian National Security Council declared rabies a second level disaster. In response, the National Disaster Management Agency (NADMA) ordered an anti-rabies operation involving the Department of Veterinary Services in Malaysia, the Sarawak Voice reports. The operation teams are currently being escorted by military and police while they systemically target different areas of the state.
An animal rights activist in Sarawak, who asked to remain anonymous in fear of police retaliation, told VICE that “teams comprising of vets, council staff, army, and police have been ordered to catch dogs.”
“They have about 450 people who are divided into sub-teams. Their so-called Standard Operation Procedure (SOP) is to remove all dogs from the streets, which is equivalent to killing them,” the source told VICE. “Animal lovers and pet owners are living in fear daily.”
In a statement, the Deputy Chief Minister Datuk Amar Douglas Uggah Embas said the operation aims to “cover as much area as possible to identify the dogs that are not yet vaccinated” and is “targeting removal of stray dogs.”
This, despite the World Health Organization’s declaration that mass culling “is not effective in rabies control” as “there is no evidence that removal of dogs alone has ever had a significant impact on dog population densities or the spread of rabies.” The WHO recommends mass canine vaccination campaigns instead.
The Sarawak government website providing updates about the anti-rabies operation itself has declared that almost 17,000 dogs have been killed since July 2017 within Sarawak alone.
But the local activist told VICE that the number is much higher in reality, and growing every day – especially since the killings also allegedly target pet dogs.
The activist told VICE that the anti-rabies team “were even seen to lure dogs out of compounds onto the street, where they were then killed. Pet owners also claim they were tricked and threatened into surrendering their pet dogs to authorities.” The killings are reportedly performed inhumanely as well. “They shoot tranquiliser into the dogs and simply place them in big plastic bags. They are still alive, so they are left to die in there.”
On March 3, S.O.S posted on their Facebook that authorities have entered private properties and killed dogs that were already vaccinated against rabies. “These dogs were anti-rabies vaccinated and neutered with the help of SOS, hence all of them were wearing SOS double chained collars,” the post said. They also said that authorities “asked dog owners to surrender their dogs even though they have a valid license and were vaccinated against rabies, and entered into their properties to capture their dogs without notice and consent.”
Over a month later, on S.O.S’s Facebook page on April 11, netizen Rawlinson Begart said that officials came to his house to take his 4-month-old puppy. “What can I do? I just helplessly watch[ed] my puppy [get] taken away from me forever,” he wrote.
In response, activists, pet owners and members of the public held a peaceful protest on April 12, outside a police station in Kuching, the capital of Sarawak. The protest called for an end in the killings.
During the protest, a citizen also filed a police report claiming the anti-rabies operation team had trespassed into his factory in Kota Samarahan on April 10 and 11 and tranquilised the factory owner’s dogs. Multiple pet owners also filed police reports saying that enforcement teams who asked to enter their property to vaccinate their pets ended up tranquilising their dogs instead.
But Sarawak Deputy Commissioner of Police Dato Pahlawan Dzuraidi Ibrahim denied the allegations, saying, “The accusations (in the police reports) about officers entering premises without permission as well as shooting dogs at will are not true.”
The government’s Facebook page providing updates on the anti-rabies operations also warned readers to “not so readily believe accusations on social media.”
“There are still many pet owners risking their pets' safety by NOT keeping them secure WITHIN their gated housing compounds. It is a MUST for your pet dogs to have the ANNUAL anti-rabies vaccination which DVSS [Sarawak Veterinary Services Department] is currently providing for FREE,” it said on April 14.
But in an April 10 post, the government appeared to admit to killing dogs wandering on the streets – whether or not they were strays. The post urged pet owners to “keep your pets safely and securely within house compounds” as “all dogs roaming freely on the streets will be considered as strays and will be removed.”
Police Community Crime Prevention and Safety section head DSP Ang Seow Aun was also quoted as saying on April 18 that “we want to reach a level whereby any dog or cat that is outside the house would have to be accompanied by their owners."
The locals said the intimidation from officials are so strong, that even online posts lead to threats.
The activist told VICE, “People who posted photos and videos of the violations are being threatened to delete the post. Some got called in by the police.” One man who posted a since-deleted video was held overnight at a local police station, the activist said.
One particularly disturbing footage which went viral online, showed a dog being killed inside its owners compound, filmed by their neighbour. Over text with the activist, the woman who filmed her neighbour's compound said: “They came to my house and asked me to delete the post and not get involved if I don’t want trouble,” the woman said. “They were worried that my post got shared a lot recently.”
On April 24, VICE also received distressing footage of a stray dog that had just given birth, still lactating for her pups, being killed by anti-rabies officers. The contact who took the photo did not want them to be shared publicly in fear of being tracked down by local authorities.
S.O.S. told VICE that the operation will be continuing for a few more months at least, until the entire state of Sarawak is covered. “Usually they will do a 10-14 days mopping operation from 7am-7pm daily. Then they will stop for a week before the next targeted area.”
22 teams made up of 330 personnel have commenced targeting the next area of the operation: Kuching, the capital of Sarawak on April 22. Locals who have tried recording footage of anti-rabies operation teams have been stopped straight away, even if on public roads.
Killings have been spotted in other parts of Malaysia as well. In September last year, footage went viral of stray dogs being publicly euthanised on the streets of Seremban, Malaysia.
For those who want to help, a Change.org petition has over 15,000 signatures to date. Letters can also be sent to email@example.com and to the Malaysian government here to urge them to replace culling with the international standard of mass vaccination of strays and pets.