Last of the British regiment spends retirement on island

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 March, 2009, 12:00am

There are many traces of colonial history scattered around the city and one is alive and well in a zoo on Hei Ling Chau - a white goat left by a British regiment when it pulled out in 1997.

The goat and its 19 descendants are looked after by prisoners and custodial staff of Hei Ling Chau Correctional Institution on the island, off southern Lantau.

This billy goat - which had no name but is now called 'Little White' - is the last survivor of four goats left behind by the regiment. They were mascots and were supposed to bring good luck to the army.

Now Little White is 12 years old and the oldest goat on the island. It's the only white goat among a herd of black ones. Despite their insular environment, the goats still face some dangers - but mostly of their own making, custodial staff say.

'When some [male] goats are in rut, they just don't care,' one employee said. 'They rush to young goats to mate, and some end up breaking their necks.'

To avoid such dangers, young females are moved to another part of the garden for their own protection. Some become pets and help keep the grass around the zoo down under the guidance of inmate goatherds.

The island zoo is home to more than 100 animals: parrots, turtles and snakes - as well as goats. Most are specimens confiscated by Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department officials.

About 10 prisoners and two Correctional Services Department officers take care of the animals, clean out their cages and pools and tidy up surrounding gardens.

Prisoners with only six months remaining of their sentence to serve are assigned to duties in the zoo.

One of the inmates surnamed To, who has only two more weeks to serve, said he had been on zoo duties for three months and had changed from someone who had no time for animals to one who enjoyed them and the related gardening work.

'I have changed over these months,' said To, who is especially fond of parrots. 'Parrots have high IQs. I am touched when I can teach them to say 'Kung Hei Fat Choi!' I was really upset when a parrot died.'

He said he believed gardening had made him a better person.

'I used to lose my temper easily. I have learned patience because there's no point in losing your temper when taking care of birds and animals.'

Wai, another inmate due for release in two months, said he also felt gardening and working with animals had widened his viewpoint.

Correctional Services Department officer Chan Wai-man, who oversees the zoo operations, said that he believed the overall experience would improve inmates' personal growth.

'Some inmates are reluctant to do this job to begin with, but most appreciate it in the end,' Mr Chan said.

Since 2001, the zoo has been included in the Green Haven Scheme, under which at-risk youths and school children travel to the island to learn about environmental protection and the dangers of drug abuse.