The Barking Lot Café is a haven for pet lovers

An adoption centre for dogs in Stanley is teaching children about caring for animals, writes Annemarie Evans

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 May, 2013, 11:47am

Hebe, a black ball of fluff, looks up shyly through his Perspex enclosure. The puppy is a "prosecution case", meaning he was rescued from his former owner, who was later charged with animal abuse. In the next pen, Grace, a lively young mongrel, bounces on her hind legs, hoping for some attention from the visitors.

The dogs are temporarily housed in the adoption centre at The Barking Lot Café in Stanley. A joint venture between animal welfare organisations Hong Kong Animal Speak and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), the cafe was set up in November as a drop-in centre for families with dogs, and to promote respect for animals among the public and teach pet care.

Kirsten van Rooyen, 38, who runs an export business part-time, has become a regular visitor with her two children, Carl, seven, and Bella, eight.

They have two Labrador retrievers and three cats, but the pets continue to live at a guest house that the family maintains in their native Johannesburg, South Africa, because their flat in Hong Kong is too small for the animals. They have taken on two hamsters here instead, Van Rooyen says, "So we come to the SPCA to get our fix of loving animals."

Provided by an animal-loving landlord, the Barking Lot space on Stanley Main Street gives the SPCA a convenient outreach base on Hong Kong's south side, where people are more open to taking in rescued animals.

The facility is only for dogs, but SPCA executive director Sandy Macalister says that they are hoping to introduce a cat adoption section soon.

Animal Speak director Janice Jensen ran a programme of school talks and courses, although these were suspended when she left Hong Kong. But Macalister plans to restart them again in a couple of months, and include a programme for domestic helpers. Helpers can learn a lot about dogs in a two-hour session, he says.

"We're also able to teach children at different levels, about the basics of how to approach a dog, for example," says Macalister. "Children are often injured because they go up to a sleeping dog and want to give him a kiss." It is important to teach youngsters not to startle the animal, and to check with the owner first, he says.

Having pets, and caring for animals, means that children have a greater sense of compassion and responsibility
Kirsten van Rooyen, dog lover

Although many dog owners prefer pedigreed animals, Barking Lot promotes the idea that mongrels make equally loving and loyal pets. It's part of an educational drive aimed at reducing the number of unwanted animals in Hong Kong. This entails everything from encouraging families to consider adopting before they buy from a breeder, to ensuring that their pets are desexed.

Cafe staff are keen to get people to drop in with their own animals, or even just to come by for a chat and play with the dogs in the adoption corner. Activities play a part, and the staff recently organised an art jam, where children sat at a long table and drew cats, dogs and other pets.

A variety of their colourful efforts are displayed on the cafe windows, including a sketch signed "Michael Wong". Michael Wong Ho-ming, at 50, is a bit older than most of the artists busily scribbling with felt pens and crayons. He's the SPCA's director of community development, and he designed the programmes for the centre.

"Today it's a portrait activity, getting the children involved and people talking with one another," he says.

A session with an animal communicator is next on the menu. "People can bring their pets in to talk through the animal communicator. They are very popular here," Wong says. More serious talks on animal care are also planned.

The cafe also runs a volunteer programme, which students can use to qualify for the community service elements of liberal studies and other courses. "We recruit 20 student volunteers aged 11 and above [every year]," Wong says. "As well as dusting and sweeping the premises, they are here to perform an ambassadorial role."

Allie Brown, 17, is among the recruits. A student at Hong Kong International School, she comes in twice a week to help with general cleaning. Although she's scheduled to put in two hours each session, Allie says she often stays longer, because it's hard to tear herself away from the dogs.

The volunteers' term finishes in the summer, Wong says, so his team will start recruiting next year's batch of helpers soon.

Van Rooyen, who visits the cafe with her children every couple of weeks, and has noticed how the dogs are regularly adopted, is a great believer in the positive effects that caring for a pet can have on a youngster.

"Having pets, and caring for animals, means that children have a greater sense of compassion and responsibility," she explains.

Macalister also suggests that the experience could be enlightening for over-indulged youngsters, including China's generation of so-called little emperors.

"It's a wonderful thing," she says. "Children learn empathy and it serves to increase their knowledge, too."

The Barking Lot Café, 14 Stanley Main Street, Stanley, tel: 2164 8382