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Fur goodness' sake: How far do Hong Kong's animal welfare protections go?

Written by
Matthew Tse

Despite a long history of dog poisonings on Bowen Road, is Hong Kong finally becoming more accepting of the need for animal welfare? Matthew Tse looks into recent developments in animal cruelty prevention and finds out what still needs to be done

Hong Kong has a sad history of dog poisoning, most notably the recurring incidents along Bowen Road that started in the late 80s and have claimed the lives of dozens of dogs. Even today, cases of poisoned pooches are regrettably common – just before Christmas a case was reported of a dog that died after eating poison along MacDonnell and Kennedy roads in Admiralty.

However, as 2017 arrives, certain experts are of the opinion Hong Kong is becoming increasingly animal friendly. Animal welfare NGOs like the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals say Hongkongers are making steady strides in improving animal welfare. Indeed, the most common cause of animal cruelty is neglect and ignorance rather than abject cruelty, say experts.

Dr Jane Gray, chief veterinary surgeon of the SPCA, believes a 40 percent increase in pet ownership between 2006 and 2011 ‘helped people understand animal welfare and that animals are sentient beings that feel pain’. Dr Teresa Lee, the SPCA’s welfare programme manager and a colleague of Dr Gray, agrees, pointing out that: “People are much more aware of how important it is to treat animal cruelty as a serious offence and they realise that animal cruelty is very symbolic – it may be a sign that that person could actually start committing crimes against human beings, especially in domestic violence.”

Dr Lee believes that the fundamental key to preventing animal cruelty is education and the elimination of ignorance. “People commit acts of animal cruelty,” she says, “not necessarily because they’re badly intentioned but because they’re not aware. They don’t understand what is actually the wrong way to treat an animal.” The executive director of the School of Veterinary Medicine at the City University of Hong Kong, Dr Howard Wong, contributes to better education through a strong emphasis on animal welfare within a university course he runs. “We put more animal welfare curriculums in our vet programme than probably any other school in the world,” he tells us. “It’s a recognition that Hong Kong is in a very good position to be an advocate for animal welfare in the region.”

This buoyant attitude comes off the back of a series of recent successes in the area of animal welfare. Most notably, as a result of a 20-year effort led by the SPCA, the government has finally passed amendments to the SAR’s dog breeding laws. Dr Lee tells us: “The government is going to start requiring breeders and people who trade in dogs to have valid licences and to follow certain codes of conduct to make sure that the animals receive minimum standards of care. This is a huge breakthrough, because nothing like this has ever existed in the past.

Yet, although animal cruelty rates are steadily decreasing, it still occurs. According to the professionals involved, the problems persist because some of the city’s animal cruelty laws are still out of date and in need of improvement. The primary legislation that protects animals from cruelty, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance Cap 169, has its roots in old British anti-cruelty laws. Dr Gray points out that the law has not seen any proper update since its introduction in 1935. “We’ve updated the fines and the sentencing,” she tells us, “but the actual law itself hasn’t been updated.”

Dr Wong is less critical of Cap 169. “While it is often criticised by NGOs, the legislation here is actually quite a succinct and good piece of legislation, and is quite far reaching in terms of its power,” he insists. “Sometimes the trend for minimising animal cruelty is to write all these different  new laws which are often very long winded and prescriptive. And that means that if you don’t write a certain aspect in, then it’s not covered.” 

Sara Tsui, a practicing solicitor who also teaches an animal law and welfare course at City University, claims that the main problem in Hong Kong law is not whether or not the law is too general or too specific but what it actually entails. She, along with many NGOs, thinks that Hong Kong should be moving towards a more proactive and duty-orientated law. Under the current legislation, she relates, ‘harm needs to already be done in order to prosecute, so it doesn’t actually protect the animal from being harmed’. In other words, it is an anti-cruelty law, not a welfare law. In Tsui’s view, Hong Kong needs to ditch the reactive model and adopt a more proactive approach.

Amanda Whitfort, the vice chairman of the SPCA (HK) Legal Working Party, echoes this sentiment. “A major problem continues to be the lack of ability to prosecute for negligence as well as cruelty,” she says. “Most cases are the result of ignorance rather than deliberate cruelty, but that should not mean the owner gets off scot-free. A suffering animal doesn’t know the difference between negligence and cruelty but it does deserve an end to its pain. That’s why Hong Kong needs to introduce a duty of care to animals in a welfare law like Singapore, Taiwan, Australia, the UK and the USA.”

To those who believe pursuing cases of animal cruelty is a waste of time and money, Tsui has this to say: “On the surface, [pursuing cases of animal cruelty] may not seem like serving the public interest. However, our lives and our society are greatly influenced by animals and how we treat them. At a very superficial level, there is scientific research that shows if a country has more animal cruelty, there tends to be a higher crime rate.” Tsui continues: “But treating animals better is more than just treating pets better. I do see animals as a whole, such as food animals and working animals. We have strong relations with those animals as well. For example, if food animals are treated with better welfare – and better welfare doesn’t just mean they live better but they have better health – then the food quality will be better as well. Everything is linked.”

Clearly, despite recent improvements, there remains work to be done regarding animal cruelty. Dr Lee is determined to keep pushing the case, claiming that animals are an integral part of who we are as a society and our treatment of them is a reflection of our compassion and empathy. “Animals are like children,” she says. “They cannot speak out for themselves. What does it say about a community or a nation if we cannot even protect the most vulnerable element of our society?”

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