The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A veterinarian’s suicide by euthanasia drugs haunts debate over Taiwan’s stray animal problem

To call stray animals a problem in Taiwan is an understatement. As recently as the 1990s, more than 666,000 abandoned dogs and cats roamed the island nation, which is only a little bigger than Massachusetts. The number has since fallen as the government has tried different ways of reining in the stray population, but debate over how to care for the animals has continued to roil the Taiwanese public.

On Friday, a new law is set to take effect banning most animal euthanasia in Taiwan. Backed by animal rights groups and a large part of the public, the law has been in the works for more than two years and is designed to encourage adoption and neutering, and discourage breeding. But opponents contend it will make Taiwan’s already overcrowded shelters even more packed. On top of that, they say, it could make the already difficult jobs of the country’s veterinarians and animal control workers more challenging.

People on both sides have been quick to point to the tragic case of Chien Chih-cheng.

From 2010 until 2016, Chien, a 32-year-old veterinarian, worked at a dog shelter in the suburbs of Taipei. It was a job she loved, as the BBC reported in a recent profile, but it came with immense responsibility: Chien had to euthanize hundreds of animals every year. Though she dreaded the task, she came to believe it was ultimately a better fate for the animals than keeping them in shelters, where they are exposed to disease and face other hardships.

In 2015, after she rose to become the shelter’s director, Taiwan’s debate over strays thrust Chien’s work into the spotlight. She became the target of attacks on social media after she revealed how many animals she killed.

Within a year, the pressure became overwhelming. In May 2016, in a chillingly symbolic act, Chien committed suicide by ingesting animal euthanasia drugs, as national media reported. In a series of suicide notes, she said she could no longer bear the distress of having to put so many dogs to death, according to the BBC.

“There is no less importance in the life of an animal than the life of a person,” she wrote.

Stray animals have plagued Taiwan since the 1980s, when an economic boom led to a dramatic rise in ownership of pets, and dogs in particular, according to a 2007 story from Reuters. “Residents bought puppies, especially fashionable breeds shown in the media, without expecting them to grow bigger, and then abandoned the adult animal” or dogs that got sick, Reuters reported.

By the mid-1990s, official estimates put the number of stray dogs on the island at 666,590, though animal rights advocates suggested there may have been many more. Public outcry erupted in 1998, as campaigns by activists revealed that municipal governments were starving, drowning or even burying alive their stray animals. In response, the government updated its animal protection law and expanded its system of shelters, where animals were euthanized if no one would adopt them, usually after one to two weeks.

Stray dogs and cats are still a common sight in Taiwan, even in the dense urban capital Taipei. But shelters remain underfunded, overcrowded and short on staff. In 2016, shelters took in some 70,000 animals and euthanized more than 10,000 of them, as the Taipei Times reported.

It was in those conditions that Chien reached her breaking point.

After graduating from the prestigious National Taiwan University and scoring high on her civil service exam, Chien was inspired by her love of animals to work at a shelter for abandoned dogs in Taoyuan City. She started out in 2010 by volunteering, the China Post reported, and eventually became the head of the shelter. Her colleagues told the BBC she was hard-working and compassionate, decorating the shelter’s lobby with drawings of dogs to encourage people to adopt them.

In 2015, Chien sat down for an interview with a local TV station and described the emotionally taxing work of caring for and euthanizing strays. When she started at the shelter, she said, she was shocked to see 60 to 70 animals put down in a single day.

“After my first day, I cried the whole night,” she recalled, according to AsiaOne.

But euthanasia became one of Chien’s main duties. She explained the process in the interview, saying she would first take the dogs for a walk and give them a treat.

“We also give it a little talk before taking it into the ‘humane room,'” she said. “When you put the dog on the table, it is scared, and shakes. But after injecting the medicine, it goes in three to five seconds.”

Over the course of two years, Chien told the TV station, she put down 700 dogs.

That disclosure led Chien’s critics to dub her the “beautiful butcher,” Taiwanese media reported. Other personal attacks followed.

“We are frequently scolded,” Kao Yu-Jie, a colleague, told the BBC. “Some people say we’ll go to hell. They say we love to kill and are cruel.”

The combination of criticism and grief from having presided over so many deaths consumed Chien. A year after her TV interview, she killed herself. She left three suicide notes, local media reported, including a message to her husband, also an animal control worker. She said she wanted to draw attention to the plight of the dogs in her shelter.

Chien’s death prompted an outpouring of sympathy from government officials, fellow veterinarians and others who said her case underscored the immense pressure placed on the country’s animal workers. Taoyuan City Councilor Wang Hao-Yu condemned the “relentless attacks” on Chien and her shelter, saying her critics were “misinformed.”

“For a young woman who chose to work at the shelter because of her love for animals and whose duties involved euthanizing stray animals every day, those abuses were like stabs to the heart,” Wang wrote on Facebook in May 2016.

Taiwan’s Council of Agriculture also extended condolences to Chein’s family and pledged to seek improvements at animal shelters.

Starting Friday, nearly three-dozen public animal shelters in Taiwan will stop euthanizing animals under the changes to the country’s Animal Protection Act. The government will invest some 190 million Taiwan dollars ($5.8 million) in increasing shelter capacity over the coming year. Opponents of the measure, including some veterinarians, worry it will do little to ease animal suffering. One animal control worker described it as akin to “prescribing a maximum dose of morphine to create a feel-good illusion that shelter animals are well taken cared of.”

If her work was any indication, Chien saw a utility in euthanizing animals when other options had run out. But she seemed to view it as a last resort she was forced to turn to all too often. In a letter she wrote before she died (and reviewed by the BBC), Chien pleaded with officials and the public to find better, less painful ways to manage country’s strays.

“I hope my departure will let all of you know stray animals are also life. I hope the government knows the importance of controlling the source” of the problem, she said. “Please value life.”