Animal activists push to end HK’s ‘catch-and-kill’ policy
Proposals to de-sex, vaccinate and re-release unclaimed dogs into the community could be an effective remedy to Hong Kong’s stray population, reports Shirley Zhao
Every Saturday afternoon, Carrie Ho Kar-kay brings a bowl of leftover pork ribs to a narrow street in North Point where she regularly feeds a stray mongrel she calls Sugar. She usually finds Sugar waiting expectantly in the shadows of a building, wagging her tail and barking hungrily. Yet today, Sugar has not shown up. Ho earnestly searches the nearby alleys, but to no avail. After about an hour, her greatest fears seemed to have been confirmed.
“Sugar must have been caught by the government,” she tells Time Out. “I just don’t want to imagine her fate. She has no owner. And in Hong Kong, that means death.”
It is required by Hong Kong law that all dogs five months or older must be licensed, microchipped and vaccinated against rabies. For stray dogs without a licence or microchip caught by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department in response to complaints of being a nuisance, if they are not adopted within four days they will be euthanised, usually by intravenous injection. According to statistics from the AFCD, around 10,000 stray animals were caught last year, of which more than 80 percent were put down.
Condemning this catch-and-kill policy as ‘inhumane and ineffective’, animal welfare organizations are calling for the adoption of a ‘trap, neuter and return’ (TNR) policy, whereby stray dogs can be captured, de-sexed, vaccinated and returned to the communities.
“We do not believe that [catch-and-kill] is a humane way of controlling [the stray dog] population. It doesn’t work, because the remaining dogs will just breed and fill the gap,” says Dr Jane Gray, chief veterinary surgeon of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. “The key is de-sexing them so they have a stable population and limited breeding, and eventually the population will go down.”
However, such a proposal under the current law faces severe difficulties, because all dogs caught must be licensed and microchipped to a certain ‘owner’, but very few are willing to take the responsibility in case the dogs bite people after being returned. The government, in discussions with animal welfare groups, has rejected to give an exemption to the proposed TNR programme and insists that all dogs must have a registered owner. Meanwhile, many people living in communities are afraid the returned strays may bite or spread disease.
In 2010, social worker Tulip Chan Yam-kwan was accused and eventually fined $2,500 for failing to keep a 10-year-old dog on a leash (or under control) after it was found roaming a community. Even though the dog was a stray, Chan had it vaccinated, licensed and microchipped under her name to save it from being exterminated, and was thus lawfully deemed the dog’s owner.
“It is unfair to have those who take care of stray dogs [to also] take the responsibility of an owner,” says Mark Mak Chi-ho, executive chairman of the Non-Profit Making Veterinary Services Society (NPV). “They are just helping the stray dogs and protecting them from undergoing unnecessary pain. In a modern and civilised society, such a regulation is out of date and should be cancelled.”
NPV has been practicing TNR in Wong Tai Sin district since 2009. Mak tells Time Out that at first neither the neighbourhood residents nor the district councillors supported the project, yet after a while their views changed. “In a meeting with local district councillors in 2011, almost all councillors supported our project,” states Mak. “We also conducted a survey in one housing estate in Wong Tai Sin, and 80 percent out of 150 interviewees supported TNR.”
Li Tak-hong, chairman of Wong Tai Sin district council, says his own attitude towards TNR has changed over time. “At first our impression of stray animals was bad and I didn’t think TNR would work. But with more communications with the social workers, we started to understand the whole process and see positive effects of TNR. It is not only a concept but also practicable. I absolutely support TNR.”
“I find it useless to only talk about the importance of TNR,” says Mak. “To gain citizens’ and the government’s support, we need to show them the effects.” According to Mak, although NPV has no exact statistics, the number of stray dogs in Wong Tai Sin has ‘decreased significantly’, because they are hardly seen in areas once flooded with strays. He also says the relationship between humans and dogs has become ‘more peaceful and harmonious’: “So far, no-one has ever complained to the government that we return the dogs to their environment.”
According to Dr Jane Gray, de-sexed dogs are normally less aggressive and less likely to engage people aggressively. She tells Time Out that the SPCA is currently discussing with the government about setting up TNR ‘trial zones’ in Lamma Island’s Lo So Shing and Sai Kung’s Ho Chung village where carers of stray dogs in the trial programme will be exempted from the requirement to obtain a dogkeeping licence.
“Really aggressive dogs that we believe are a danger to the people living in these communities will not be placed back and will be put to sleep,” says Gray. “The idea is that if you take one dog that’s really aggressive out [of the community] and de-sex the rest of them, then hopefully you will find their population and their level of aggression and danger greatly reduced.
“A lot of people are feeding stray dogs, but very few of them are doing the de-sexing. Yet one of the points of this programme is that if you feed animals and if you don’t de-sex them, then that will make problems a lot worse, because feeding the animals and making them healthy [means] they’re going to breed more. No-one at the SPCA will recommend feeding stray animals without de-sexing them.”
But, to start the programme, the SPCA needs to have an agreement from the councillors of the two districts. A spokeswoman of Sai Kung District Council says it is ‘not a good time’ to comment on the issue because the proposed programme is still under discussion, and the result may come out some time in June. She also informs Time Out that the response from Ho Chung village about the project is ‘not very positive’ – but she’s unable to explain why.
Sally Woo, a volunteer who has been participating in a TNR programme on stray cats since 2003, understands people’s concerns. “Many stray dogs are big and can hurt people,” she says. “Cats are different. They are much smaller and less aggressive. Nobody’s afraid of being bitten by a cat.”
Perhaps this lack of fear over being bitten by a cat is why the government officially approved TNR programmes on felines over a decade ago – and no licence or microchip is required to return stray cats.
Woo is the carer of stray cats in Causeway Bay. She says that in 2003 there were more than 70 stray cats roaming the Causeway Bay streets, while now there are only around a dozen. Woo thinks money has been the main problem facing TNR programmes. She tells Time Out that she needed to subsidise the programme when she first joined. “Have you ever heard of this?” she laughs. “A volunteer needed to pay to join the programme, $300 for de-sexing one cat! Of course now they have raised enough money every year.
“The problem is, de-sexing a dog costs even more. How many organisations are willing to spend so much money on these animals?” she asks, criticising some animal welfare organisations which ‘don’t actually care about animals’. “Some organisations do care but, still, money is a problem.”
Last year, HK$1.3 million was spent euthanising stray animals. Woo says the government should spend the money on TNR programmes instead. She asks: “Why not spend the money saving animals, instead of killing them?”