Time, surely, to put the bite on dog owners

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 July, 1999, 12:00am

IN the vast game parks of South Africa, packed with some of the world's most savage beasts, an average of one or two visitors are mauled every year, usually because they foolishly thrust a telephoto lens up the nose of a hungry lion. Meanwhile, in Hong Kong, one of the most densely populated cities on Earth, 2,049 people were last year treated for dog bites.

What is going on? How come people are seemingly more likely to be injured by an animal in a high-rise city than in the wilds of Amazonia or on the high veldt? There are two reasons, and they are simple.

First, packs of dogs breed in the New Territories, turn wild and attack people.

Second, guard dogs and pets belong to people who do not properly restrain or train them. Many of these animals, some of them large and of breeds developed over generations to be aggressive, are potential killers.

Solving the first problem is comparatively simple. The Agriculture and Fisheries Department sends out its roving dog-catching units to round up packs of feral dogs roaming the hills or to net unregistered strays in city areas.

It is the second problem which has caused agitation and furore among the canine-fancying set.

Their anger has been once again aroused because the long-delayed Dogs and Cats (Amendment) Ordinance and the Dangerous Dogs Regulations are, finally, making it on to the law books. These were first mooted many years ago, went before the Legislative Council in 1997 and, because of yapping opposition by mutt-lovers whose barking alerted vote-conscious politicians, have been delayed ever since.

In the years the new regulations have been locked up in Legco committees, snapping, out-of-control dogs, most of them registered pets, have bitten at least 8,000 people.

It is time Legco members stopped pussyfooting around this issue and passed the new regulations, which in my opinion do not go nearly far enough.

What the Government proposes is modest in the extreme: it wants dogs weighing over 20 kilograms to be under the direct control of someone aged over 16. This means, dogs in places like lifts and playgrounds must be fitted with a muzzle and on a short leash.

What is wrong with that? Nothing, any reasonable person would think. (Have you ever stepped into a lift to be confronted by a domestic servant or a child accompanied by a mastiff the size of the human minder and with the disposition of the Hound of the Baskervilles?) And why should children in playgrounds or on the streets be frightened by large dogs loping around without any apparent control? Of 2,049 cases last year, 20 per cent were in schools, housing estates, public areas of buildings such as lobbies or in factories. Half were in other public places, mostly roads or footpaths.

Changes to the proposed laws now embrace about 30 per cent of all dogs in Hong Kong, which are over the weight limit. Furious complaints have erupted because some owners claim breeds such as collies or chows are not ferocious.

Nonsense. The rural village chow can be as dangerously aggressive as any trained guard dog, and because these snapping mutts are not properly trained, that makes them even more viciously unpredictable.

Dog owners are a vociferous lot who frequently make more noise than their pets. Opposition to earlier proposals caused the administration to make changes. Shame on them. What is more important, the rights of a dog to romp freely or the rights of a child - or a taxpayer and voter, come to that - to be able to walk the streets and hills without fear? And do not think such fear is unjustified.

I think it reasonable that people keep dogs. I think it fair that such dogs bark when people try to enter private property. I certainly do not think it right and proper that dogs leap out on public streets or tracks and sink their filthy fangs into pedestrians, which is what commonly happens.

The onus and responsibility for the behaviour of a pet should be placed firmly, legally and inescapably on the shoulders of owners. You want to have a dog? Fine. But you must bear the consequences.

Modern technology makes dog control and tracking comparatively easy. It is simple to implant a tiny chip into a dog's ear, or inject it under the skin, that contains details about the dog and its owner. If a dog is then involved in an incident - and 95 per cent of dogs in Hong Kong never bite anyone, it is important to remember - then ownership can be proven by scanning the dog with the same sort of equipment used in a supermarket check-out counter. There are now 70,663 registered dogs with such microchips. Another 22,000 have not had them implanted. Why not? These chips, like tiny credit cards, prove conclusively the identity of the animal and its registered owner. If the animal has bitten someone, it is out of control, and if the registered owner does not have control then he has committed an offence. Simple. He is guilty. His dog bit someone. There is no excuse. The animal is supposed at all times to be locked up or under proper control.

At present, in such a case, the owner stands to be fined $10,000. This is ludicrous. It should be $100,000. And if any dog ever bites anyone, anywhere, under any circumstances - except defending its owner from physical attack or protecting the sanctity of private property - then that animal should be destroyed.

Already, I hear the united pack of dog-owners howling for my blood. They expect everyone in the community to be as charmed as they are by their animals' antics.

I would love to have a dog. But for many years I have resisted the temptation. To own an animal, you must be prepared to sacrifice time to train it, exercise it, care for it and love it. I am not prepared to do that. And neither are the majority of dog owners in Hong Kong, who want the pleasure of owning a dog for a couple of hours a week, and then shirk the responsibility of properly looking after the creature for the rest of the time.

Maybe dogs have rights. So do people. They should enjoy the right to walk on public streets without being bitten. And those rights come first.