Hong Kong can lead in animal welfare

Howard Wong says our human instinct to protect those weaker than ourselves should extend to animals.Asia's 'world city' needs to catch upwith global standards, particularly in scientific researchand discussion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 June, 2013, 4:18am

While there have been some real and positive developments in animal welfare in recent years, the chasm continues to widen between what is considered acceptable here and what is acceptable to countries that set the standards in animal welfare.

One may ask why Hong Kong people should be concerned with the welfare of animals at all. Is animal welfare just an emotive subject of concern to a small group of individuals - animal-lovers and/or animal rights extremists - that has no place in common discussion? Or is there something more basic that requires our attention on the subject?

The answer, invariably, is somewhere in between.

But a parallel can be drawn between animal cruelty and child abuse, with both groups unable to speak up to defend themselves. Just as no one in his or her right mind would question the importance of preventing child abuse, so we should view animal cruelty in the same way.

Even taking into account cultural differences (which is vital, justified and which should not be inaccurately and simplistically labelled as merely an excuse for poor welfare), the lack of proper scientific research and discussion of animal welfare issues puts Hong Kong on a perilous path, since it is an oft-quoted observation that people who treat their animals well tend to treat their own people better as well.

On the flip side, animal abuse cases are often a more sinister indicator of child or spousal abuse.

Emotional arguments are common in welfare discussions but it is scientific research that is required to provide a more objective justification to back up our instincts to treat animals better.

Too often, we apply anthropomorphic characteristics to animals, and mistakenly assume that whatever makes people feel comfortable will put animals at ease too.

When you begin to appreciate the differences between the species, however, the inadequacies of this approach seem obvious. For example, we often assume that all animals would prefer large open spaces, with places to exercise, as opposed to covered areas. But some that have evolved as "prey" species fear these wide expanses as they instinctively fear predator attacks from above.

The recent deaths of eight head of cattle on Lantau exposes another missing element in our society: that of forensic veterinarians.

With no forensically trained vets in Hong Kong, cases of animal cruelty have been difficult to determine. The lack of local expertise in forensic veterinary medicine makes police work in this area both taxing and challenging.

The inability to correctly determine the cause of death can lead to the perpetrator remaining undetected and free to repeat the abuse on other animals. Just as tragically, it can cause us to misread this indicator that might be pointing to human abuse in the household as well.

Hong Kong lacks expertise in all areas concerned with animal welfare, whether it be the farm animal veterinarian looking after some of the more than 70,000 pigs still farmed in Hong Kong, the philosopher to debate animal rights, or the forensic veterinarian to determine causes of death in animal cruelty cases.

It is with these issues in mind that City University plans to establish a centre for animal welfare within its proposed school of veterinary medicine, which is currently awaiting governmental approval.

The centre will be strategically placed within this professional school to afford it the best opportunity to conduct scientific research into welfare issues, to train the latest minds in forensic veterinary medicine and to engage in and provide animal welfare education for all ages of students, for as we all know, there is nothing more compelling than a child telling a parent that people should treat animals better.

Hong Kong prides itself on being Asia's "world city", yet much of our welfare fabric is fragile and superficial, and underpinned by emotion.

The increased awareness about animal welfare in recent years is most likely partly due to increased pet ownership but also the fantastic work done by local non-governmental organisations and the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. It has transformed this issue into one that demands attention and resources.

It is now time to raise the game and bring scientific endeavour into the mix.

Hopefully, Hong Kong can become the most progressive Asian city in animal welfare, and lead other Asian societies into taking better care of our animals. That would be a legacy worth pursuing.

Dr Howard Wong Kai-hay is executive director of Life Sciences Programmes at City University of Hong Kong