Hong Kong likes to think of itself as a caring society. We're undeniably charitable and devote a large part of our financial resources to the needs of the least well-off in society. But that devotion doesn't extend to the well-being of animals, thousands of which are put to death each year because no one wants them. We're so little concerned about them that the scale of the problem isn't accurately known; it can only be guessed at.
Blame a lack of education, regulation and co-ordination. There are laws and regulations that are meant to protect animals, but they're badly out of date. Enforcement is poor and penalties for infringement low. And rather than thinking of pets as friends and companions, they're being treated as commodities - fashion accessories that can be acquired and thrown away on a whim.
Given how materialistic our society has become, it's little wonder that there would seem to be a thriving illegal trade in dogs. Hundreds have been rescued in raids in the past year, with the animals often having been kept in cramped and unhealthy conditions. In the latest raid, on a trader in Kwun Tong last week, 44 pure-bred puppies too young to have been separated from their mothers were found sick and in poor shape. It's suspected they were to be sold on-line, a booming business in a city with a seemingly insatiable appetite for trendy, unusual and expensive breeds.
But it's a matter of speculation as to just how pervasive the illegal business is. The government has its figures, as do animal welfare groups, but there is no overarching authority that keeps close watch on dog and cat populations. Only dogs have to be registered and there are 175,000 of them. But as policing of the system is poor, the real number could be double that. The uncertainty extends to abandoned animals and even those that have to be put down. Between them, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals take in about 18,000 dogs and cats and 16,000 end up being put to sleep. But they are not the only organisations involved.
It's little wonder that the oversight is wanting. Our animal welfare laws and regulations have undergone only minor changes since 1935. There are rules for selling, breeding and importing pets, but they're not being taken seriously. An unlicensed breeder or pet shop can expect a fine of just HK$2,000 if caught selling animals.
In such a system, people who are cruel to animals get little more than a rap on the knuckles. A man believed to be an unlawful breeder of dogs was fined HK$5,000 and ordered to perform 150 hours of community service earlier this month after more than 140 of the animals were found in pitiful conditions during a raid in the New Territories. They were crammed into dirty wire cages. Some were pregnant or diseased or had deformed paws from being confined for too long. The vocal chords of a few may have been cut to stop them from barking. Despite the seriousness of the case, the penalty was far removed from the maximum of an HK$200,000 fine and three years in jail.
We've got more than enough pets. The senseless and expensive euthanising of animals that owners have grown bored with because they're no longer fashionable or aren't puppies or kittens any longer has to end. No one has a right to produce more than is needed. Laws have to be updated and enforced. Animal populations have to be better regulated. And pets have to be treated as just that, not as if they were the same as handbags and shoes.