A blaze that killed 17 dogs and cats in a Happy Valley pet store last Wednesday has prompted an animal welfare group to call for sprinklers to be installed in such shops.
The fire broke out at about 5.10am at Noble Lifestyle for Pets in Yuen Yuen Street because of a short circuit in an air conditioner. Firefighters took about 20 minutes to put it out.
'Animals in pet stores are no different from those in zoos,' Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals spokeswoman Rebecca Ngan said. 'They're confined in cages and cannot escape in a fire. It's the owners' job to give them extra protection, and installing a sprinkler is one way.'
Owners of the city's 300 pet stores are under no legal obligation to install sprinklers and some are not convinced they are the answer.
'The smoke will still hurt the animals even if a sprinkler is installed,' Pet Trade Association president Howard Cheung Sin-ho said. 'The fire was purely an accident. There was no way it could have been prevented.'
Meanwhile, the owner of the burnt-out store said she would take her animals home in future rather than leave them unattended overnight. 'All we wanted was to make our pets cooler, happier and healthier,' said Wing Tong, explaining why she had installed the air conditioner.
In the United States, pet stores are seen as fire hazards because of the presence of electrical appliances, including hairdryers and air conditioners, and flammable substances such as sawdust and bedding.
New York is in the midst of a heated debate on a city council bill submitted last year, while California already requires store owners to install fire alarms or sprinkler systems or face a fine of up to HK$7,800. Pet shops in Hong Kong are not bound by industry-specific rules, although they have to follow basic fire regulations that apply to all buildings.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said it issued animal trade licences largely based on an owner's ability to uphold the animals' welfare and hygiene standards. 'Installing an extra sprinkler system or other fire equipment in a pet shop is mainly the owner's responsibility, and it is common sense to do so,' a spokeswoman said.
But Ngan said making sprinklers mandatory could be the answer. A sprinkler system for a typical pet shop can cost up to HK$200,000.
The city has had a number of fatal blazes at pet venues this year. A fire at a Yuen Long animal shelter last month, also sparked by a short circuit, killed 15 stray dogs.
But Tong said she would not put full trust in sprinklers. 'The accident took away some of my best companions - some of whom had been with me for seven years,' she said. 'The biggest lesson I've learned is, I'll never leave any of them unattended in the shop any more. I'll bring them home, including those we are selling, no matter how small my flat is.'