If a law has remained largely unchanged since 1935 you would think it is either a colonial relic that no longer matters or an uncommonly good law that has stood the test of three generations. Sadly, neither is the case with animal welfare laws and regulations. We have more pets than ever, but laws meant to protect them from inhumane treatment are outdated, enforcement is poor and penalties for infringement unlikely to deter offenders.
Tens of thousands of abandoned animals are put to death each year, pet shops get away with practices outlawed elsewhere and there are no restrictions on who can take up breeding. Pets are bred and traded like commodities and discarded like fashion items.
An unlicensed breeder or pet shop can expect a fine of no more than HK$2,000 if caught and animal cruelty attracts little more than a rap on the knuckles. For example, an unlawful breeder who kept 140 animals in pitiful conditions, leaving some diseased or crippled, was fined HK$5,000 and sentenced to 150 hours of community service. What would be considered bad enough to warrant the maximum of a HK$200,000 fine and three years' jail does not bear thinking about.
Demand will always attract unscrupulous suppliers. Thankfully, after a public consultation that ends this month, the government is expected to table changes to the law raising the penalty for unlicensed trading to HK$100,000 and for licence breaches from HK$1,000 to HK$50,000. It should also consider Civic Party lawmaker Claudia Mo Man-ching's suggestion of more specific animal protection measures, such as limits on breeding age and the number of times a dog can be bred, and a ban on breeding species with hereditary illnesses.
She rightly points out that the government's proposals do not prevent a pet-shop operator with a record of inhumane treatment from re-applying for a breeder's licence. Society protects itself by denying positions of trust to people with a record of dishonesty. It should protect dumb animals from people known to treat them cruelly for profit.