Hong Kong needs stiffer sentences for animal cruelty

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 August, 2013, 3:13am

The importance of animal rights and welfare is often seen as a yardstick of how civilised a society is. Despite an increase in public awareness over the years, Hong Kong still lags behind many advanced countries on this front. Those who treat animals as equal to humans are still in the minority.

Animal welfare groups were understandably outraged after a man who abused an 18-month-old stray cat to death in a Tsuen Wan park was only sentenced to three months jail early this month. In response, the Department of Justice rightly decided to appeal against what the groups called a "disgracefully lenient" sentence.

Separately, a foreigner living in Ma On Shan was acquitted of animal abuse last week. Although the man had fired shots with an air gun in response to barking from a neighbour's dogs, the court ruled that there was insufficient evidence to prove that the dogs' injuries were made by the shots. But the magistrate rejected claims that he was only trying to tame them.

The way in which the cat was killed was hideous. The 48-year-old construction worker, apparently under the influence of alcohol, tied a nylon string around the cat's neck, dragged it around and beat it with a stick until it died.

In sentencing, the magistrate said the act was serious and saw no reason to reduce the jail term. But the three-month imprisonment does not go far enough, as the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal Ordinance carries a maximum three years in jail and a HK$200,000 fine.

The law was revised in 2006 to reflect growing animal rights awareness and changing public expectations. However, sentences are not as tough as they should be. The cruelty law only mentions acts causing "sufferings", but does not differentiate abuses leading to death. True, a jail term is a step forward compared with previous non-custodial sentences, but it still falls short of expectations. A lenient sentence will send the wrong message that animal abuse is nothing serious in our society. Public education should also be strengthened.