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Life

Technology tackles Asia's homeless pet crisis

App developers seek to match adopters with millions of stray cats and dogs

Vaidas Gecevicius, a creative technologies expert, launched pet adoption app GetPet earlier this year. (Courtesy of Vaidas Gecevicius) 

YOGYAKARTA, Indonesia -- Asia has a dog problem. There are 30 million stray dogs in India. In Beijing and Tianjin, there are 1.3 million homeless dogs and cats. Some 70,000 puppies are born annually on the streets of Thailand, while the Indonesian resort island of Bali has half a million dogs -- many of them homeless.

The Asian animal welfare groups that collect these figures say the stray pet population is continuing to grow, along with its associated problems: noise pollution, animal abuse, the dogfighting industry and the dog meat trade. In China alone, 10 million dogs are eaten annually, according to Animals Asia, an animal rights charity founded in Hong Kong.

Dog bites are also the primary cause of rabies -- a potentially fatal disease that causes inflammation of the human brain. According to the World Health Organization, 95% of the tens of thousands of rabies deaths a year occur in Asia and Africa.

Sterilization can stem the tide of feral pets. According to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a U.S.-based international animal rights organization, an unsterilized cat and her offspring can produce hundreds of thousands of kittens in just a few years. Embedding pets with microchips encoded with their registration also helps by improving the culture of pet ownership. Since the start of this year, all dogs and cats bought and sold in Jakarta must be microchipped.

Euthanasia is a more common solution. In Singapore, 6,000 dogs and 12,000 cats are put to sleep every year. But in developing countries like India and Thailand, dogs are routinely poisoned, electrocuted or beaten to death.

A captured puppy awaits slaughter in Indonesia. (Courtesy of the Dog Meat-Free Coalition)

Animal welfare groups such as the Washington-based Humane Society believe that adoption is the most humane and utilitarian solution because it reduces demand from "puppy mills" -- factory-style breeding facilities that put profit above animal welfare.

But in Asia, where animal welfare is its infancy and shelters are often run by local communities and volunteers, finding good homes for unwanted pets is difficult.

"I get 10 calls a day from people wanting to adopt a dog or cat, but they're often unsuitable," said Janice Girardi, the American founder of Bali Animal Welfare Association, an animal welfare group that operates several dog shelters on the Indonesian island.

"I got one call this morning from someone asking for a small female dog and I said no because I knew [the caller was] a breeder. Overbreeding of dogs is the single biggest cause of the stray pet problem because it causes people to continue to throw pets away."

Janice Girardi, founder of the Bali Animal Welfare Association, at home with one of her 27 rescue dogs (Courtesy of Janice Girardi)

A group of pet-loving technology enthusiasts in the central Javanese city of Yogyakarta has invented a potential solution to the problem of organizing safe adoptions. Adopsi is a free Android app that connects people interested in adopting a dog or cat with animal shelters and people who need to give their pets away. Think of it as Tinder for pets.

Developed by Oninyon, a small software company in Yogyakarta, Adopsi has 15,000 users in Java and Bali who between them have facilitated nearly 400 pet adoptions since the app's launch in 2016.

"Our mission is to teach people that you can adopt a pet rather than buy one from a store," said Oninyon founder Bobby Fernando. "But we have another mission -- to raise awareness about animal welfare in Indonesia through our blog and community events."

Monique Van Der Harst, the Australian founder of Animal Friends Jogja, a rescue group currently caring for 100 cats, 30 dogs and nine monkeys at a halfway house in Yogyakarta, said Adopsi has proved beneficial.

Adopsi, an Android app developed by a group of pet-loving tech enthusiasts in Yogyakarta, is designed to make pet adoptions easy and safe. (Courtesy of Adopsi) 

"We use it to get our messages out to potential adopters and reach a much wider section of the public that we can on Facebook," she said.

"People can flick through lots of animals, put in their applications that our adoption manager can easily sort through to check they will make good adopters. We'd have a much lower number of adoptions without it."

Dave Hodgkin, an aid worker based in Yogyakarta, said that adopting a stray dog had changed his life. "I never wanted to own a dog. I always thought they were environmentally irresponsible and that the whole industry of puppy mills was cruel," he said. "But in 2016, I had a major back operation and my doctor said I needed to walk each day to strengthen it. And it's proven that dog owners do a lot of walking."

Hodgkin adopted a dog called Red that had been stolen and mistreated until it landed at Animal Friends Jogja's halfway house. The two are now inseparable. "I never imagined dogs had so much personality and could get so thoroughly under your skin. I honestly can't imagine my life without Red," said Hodgkin.

Fernando is now crowdfunding to raise money for Adopsi 2.0 -- a new version of the app for Android and Apple smartphones that will have geolocation technology as well as text in English and other languages. He also plans to monetize the app with a virtual pet that users can adopt and buy credits to take care of -- much like Japan's Tamagotchi handheld digital pets.

Oninyon founder Bobby Fernando and his adopted dog Chelsea (Courtesy of Bobby Fernando)

"At first we didn't want to monetize it, but an app needs money to grow, so we're raising money to rebuild it and take it global," he said. "People can install our mascot in their smartphone and buy merchandise. But we also want to keep our idealism about animal welfare in check."

That could prove difficult, said Vaidas Gecevicius, a creative technologies expert in Lithuania who launched GetPet, another pet adoption app, earlier this year. Created at a hackathon in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, GetPet allows only registered dog shelters to offer pets for adoption.

Barak -- one of the cats up for adoption via the Adopsi app (Courtesy of Adopsi) 

"We chose not to make GetPet a peer-to-peer app but a platform for Lithuanian pet shelters because if there's a disagreement, pet shelters have legal documents that can prove, for example, that a dog wasn't stolen," he said. "And we haven't found a suitable way to monetize the project because it's a slippery slope. Finding responsible partners to grow and scale this app has proved difficult despite the number of enquiries we get from overseas."

Girardi is also skeptical of pet adoption apps, especially those like Adopsi that operate peer-to-peer. "Before we give up an animal for adoption, we inspect potential adopters' homes, talk to their children, find out if they have a pool, what their plans are if they go on vacations," she said.

"But with an app, [animals] may end up going to people who can't look after them in the long run or with breeders who cage and chain them for the rest of their lives, which is a much worse fate than being butchered for dog meat. We recently found a dog with a chain that had grown into its neck."

She added: "An app like this could do more harm than good, and I don't think Bali is ready for it, not until animal welfare improves. We're investing in robust education programs at schools. We've already reached 100,000 primary school children across the island and next year we're doubling it. That's the way to solve this -- teach the next generation about empathy for animals because it's not being taught at home."

Gecevicus voiced similar sentiments. "An app by itself will not solve the problem," he said. "You need boots-on-the-ground -- a community of dedicated people who oversee the adoption process and stay in contact with sellers. Pet overpopulation is a community problem and it needs a community solution. The app, it just simplifies the process."

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