Culling of Chickens – Is AVA talking cock?

TL;DR – Here’s to Broody, her family and her friends.

Image from YouTube

Let’s observe a moment of silence. A whole family has just been brutally massacred in Singapore. According to a report by TODAY, the authorities have put down chickens that had been roaming freely around Thomson View and Blocks 452 to 454 Sin Ming Avenue. All because some of their human neighbours complained that they were too noisy.

Was the noise really that bad? Were the majority of residents in the area so badly affected by the presence of the chickens that the chickens deserved to die? Well. Apparently the Agri-Food and Veterinary (AVA) received 20 complaints last year. Did all the 20 complaints come from different people? Or did they come from a few residents? But apparently, the AVA will take action whenever it receives complaints about noise.

So all it takes for AVA to kill animals is if they receive complaints about noise. Is that right? Donald Low, Associate Dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, elaborated three reasons why AVA’s decision to cull the chickens just based on the 20 complaints is so wrong.

The first reason is how AVA reached the decision. From the surface, we think its action is reflective of policy driven by the complaints of a few. Second, even if more people complained, AVA still shouldn’t cull the chickens just because of the complaints. Instead, they should consider whether the chickens pose real harms and risks to public health. If the harms and risks are low, the right response by AVA is to educate residents that their fears are misplaced. That is much harder, but necessary.

Why?

Because of the third reason Low elaborated – to prevent the development of a populist government:

“Populism usually begins with a few basic ingredients: first, the authorities pander to ignorant people’s irrational fears (whether of immigrants or of stray animals); second, they deny the empirical or scientific evidence that the things that some people are unhappy about are mostly harmless; third, the authorities exaggerate the few examples of harms or risks caused by the things/people that are being objected to (e.g. observe how the Trump administration exaggerates the threats posed by Muslim immigrants).”

That’s what we think is so scary about AVA’s action. Did it really cull the chickens just because of complaints about noise? Did it assess the chickens to pose a health and safety risk to the residents? On what basis? If it didn’t, then it’s extremely sloppy and lazy of AVA. We hope they would explain the situation in full, so that there’s no misunderstanding of the way AVA carries out its work.

Here’s Low post in full, since we can’t embed it. Or you can read it here.

This is totally missing the point. And why is the Straits Times taking up the cudgels on AVA’s behalf?

The disturbing thing about AVA’s decision to cull the Sin Ming chickens is not whether or not they were the pure breed red jungle fowl. This is quite irrelevant. And putting aside the heavily contested ecological and ethical issue of whether it is right to protect an endangered animal species by killing another species that could threaten its purity (even biologists disagree over this), there are at least three reasons why AVA’s decision is deeply disturbing. (I’m not a biologist but I study public policy, so I shall focus on my area of study- how are policy decisions arrived at, how are they justified and rationalized, and whether the reasons given are sound and defensible.)

The first is how AVA arrived at its decision. The main rationale seems to be the 20 complaints it has received about noise caused by the chickens over the past year. This is an extremely flimsy justification. The complaints may even have all come from a handful of people. In any society, there is always a small percentage of people who have an irrational dislike or fear of animals. Pandering to the few, while ignoring the preferences of those who are tolerant of animals, is policy-making driven by the complaints of a few. This is the definition of capture. As with the Bukit Batok stray dogs episode 3.5 years ago, AVA again seems not to have done its homework on whether most residents are bothered by the stray animals.

Second, even if many more people had complained, that does not make the decision to cull them necessarily the right one. The real question AVA should ask is whether the stray chickens pose real harms and risks to public health. If the real harms and risks are low, the right response by AVA is to educate residents that their fears are misplaced. This is much harder to do than to cull the chickens, but is absolutely essential. In land scarce Singapore, it is terribly important that Singaporeans learn to live with the inconveniences that are sometimes caused by nature and the (shrinking population of) animals in their midst. Unless these are pests that pose a real harm to public health, mass culling is an extremely myopic response.

(On a related note, I am reminded of plans by Wildlife Reserves Singapore to build a 400-room hotel in Mandai, very near the zoo and right at the edge of the Central Catchment Nature Reserve. AVA’s decision to cull the chickens simply because of a few complaints does not bode well for WRS’ plan, and should cause all Singaporeans deep concern about how the authorities would deal with the noise and irritation caused by animals that the hotel guests would, almost inevitably, complain about. I leave you to ponder the likely scenarios when a full-service hotel with the same number of rooms as the Marriott or Sheraton is built next to an area with the highest concentration of animals in Singapore. For more on WRS’ plans, see here)

The third reason why AVA’s decision is so disturbing is that this is how populism starts. Populism usually begins with a few basic ingredients: first, the authorities pander to ignorant people’s irrational fears (whether of immigrants or of stray animals); second, they deny the empirical or scientific evidence that the things that some people are unhappy about are mostly harmless; third, the authorities exaggerate the few examples of harms or risks caused by the things/people that are being objected to (e.g. observe how the Trump administration exaggerates the threats posed by Muslim immigrants).

In our particular version of populism, AVA says that stray chickens might be carriers of bird flu. Sure, such risks may exist, but how serious are they? Are they serious enough to justify mass culling? If the mere existence of such a risk, no matter how slight, is grounds for culling, why distinguish between domesticated chickens and the red jungle fowl? You mean the fact that the red jungle fowl is classified as an endangered species stops it from being a public health risk? The point is not that we should treat the two species alike; it is simply to highlight the internal contradictions in a policy that is driven not by a careful analysis of risks, but by knee-jerk populism.

The road to populism starts with ignorance and inertia on the part of citizens. We should ask to see much stronger evidence of the real harms caused by stray chickens in our island before we acquiesce to AVA’s mass culling.

So, did AVA consider other options? Did they speak to other stakeholders? Did they consult other experts? Perhaps they have spoken to NParks. Apparently NParks think the chickens should be culled to prevent them from interbreeding with their endangered ascendants, the native red junglefowl.

How do we tell the difference between chickens and the red junglefowl?

“The purebred red junglefowl have grey legs, whereas chickens mostly have yellow legs. While chickens sport red combs, female junglefowl do not, said NParks. Red junglefowl, unlike chickens, can fly and are also quieter.”

OK. That makes sense. Or does it?

Not too long ago, a documentary was shown on CNA called “Wild City”, which was about the wild animals in Singapore. The show featured the very “chickens” of Sin Ming. Here, a clip of the “chickens”:

From the video, the “chickens” legs look grey to us. And it seems like they can fly too! So… (dare we even suggest it??) perhaps those “chickens” are actually the red junglefowl that are nationally endangered and should be protected? Should we even go there…?

Anyway, the director of the CNA documentary that featured the “chickens” was Andrew Scott, and he too has spoken up. He too thinks that they’re not “chickens”. So which is which, and what is what now?

Put together, this whole incident is quite actually quite scary if you think about it. Does this mean that (some of) our civil servants are choosing what is easy (i.e. pandering to the irrational fear and ignorance of some small segments of society) and not what is right (i.e. doing proper research and educating the public)?

Is this indicative that our government is becoming more populist? We hope not.

We shall leave you with a beautiful note from yet another university professor, Ben Leong. He lives near Sin Ming Avenue with his family and they have very fond memories of the chickens, which they thought were special and “too pretty to eat”. His wife had even named the mother hen Broody. Leong has also created an album “In Memory of Broody”, so do check them out.

For now, go read this and be comforted by some good news at the end.

Dikirim oleh Ben Leong pada 3 Februari 2017

 



Author: CRC

Working on a startup is a scary crazy process. To destress, I write random stuff.


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