A case of the tail wagging the dog
Pity the poor postman. He tramps around in the steamy heat of summer, through the spring downpours and in the bitter chill of February. Frequently, his only thanks are confrontations with snarling dogs.
His main line of defence against canines with territorial ambitions is a short training course on 'How to communicate with dogs'. Talking to dogs may be a minor problem for the 574 postmen who tote their heavy bags around Hong Kong Island and Kowloon.
But it's often an acute challenge for the 110 stalwart deliverymen who have to go to remote villages and fish farms, where communicating with dogs calls for courage above the call of a postman's duty.
Imagine the delivery man standing at the entrance to a lonely hamlet - which is home to a savage pack of semi-feral mongrels - diligently trying to remember lessons from his 90-minute class. While he ponders the lessons, he's likely to have a half-breed Rotweiler sink its teeth in his backside.
What's he supposed to do? Stand there, quivering behind his protective bag of letters, muttering 'nice doggie, good doggie' as some growling 40kg monster with 5cm fangs launches itself at him?
As a last resort, the postman is issued with a rattan stick. I can attest, through experience, that a stick does not deter a pack of village curs; you need an automatic rifle or a flame-thrower. Police have pepper spray which they can use against attacking beasts; postmen and the public have no such protection.
To me, the answer seems simple. If people have dogs that are threatening, frightening or out of control, the post office simply says to them: 'Sorry, but we are not prepared to risk the safety of our staff. If you want mail delivered to your home, chain your dog or get rid of it. If not, then collect your letters at the post office.'
Instead, there is a weak-kneed approach. If a postman is constantly threatened by dogs, an inspector pays a visit. Rather than laying down the law and vowing to withdraw the service, he or she asks the dog owners to tie up their dogs when the postman comes calling.
In a ludicrous explanation, a spokesman told me: 'We would suggest dog owners be aware of our postal delivery time and try to let their dogs meet our postman so that the dogs might know [they] are friendly and not harmful to them.'
This turns the issue on its logical head. Instead of protecting postmen from dangerous creatures, the postal authorities want to counsel the dogs. Have you ever heard such lunacy? The attitude is that dogs take precedence: they enjoy rights and privileges, and it's humans whose behaviour has to suit the animals.
For residents of the New Territories whose properties are surrounded by other people's out-of-control pets, the outlook is the same.
What do you do if roaming dogs keep wandering onto your property, which they use as a toilet and attack your cat? Logically, the answer should be to call the police, and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. In practice, you suffer.
Overseas, people can buy sprays which deter dogs from marking their territory. Alas, these are not available in Hong Kong.
Laws state plainly that dogs must be under control. Fighting breeds and dogs over 20kg are supposed to be leashed at all times in public. This is never enforced. In reality, dogs have more rights than people. If you doubt that, just ask your postman.
Kevin Sinclair is a Hong Kong reporter who lives in the New Territories