Every Saturday, volunteers fan out across the hills around Lion Rock in Wong Tai Sin to capture stray dogs, which are neutered before being released back into the woods. The non-profit-making Veterinary Service Society has performed the procedure on 300 of an estimated 500 stray dogs in the area since it started the scheme in 2009.
Society chairman and veterinarian Mark Mak Chi-ho reckons the programme, which recruited about 200 volunteers, has helped keep the population of strays around Lion Rock under control.
"Wong Tai Sin District Council has received fewer complaints from residents regarding feral dogs; puppies found in the hills are also adopted by pet owners," Mak says.
Yet despite its success, similar Trap, Neuter, Vaccinate and Release (TNVR) programmes for stray dogs have run into severe obstacles in other districts. Animal welfare activists say although schemes to spay cats operate without a hitch, those for canines have failed to take off because of government red tape and community objections.
Remarkably, there has yet to be a government-supported TNVR campaign for dogs, says Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
The SPCA introduced TNVR to Hong Kong in the '90s because residents generally did not adopt abandoned pets, Woodhouse says. "There's a high rate of animals being surrendered or caught for stray control. Lots of these animals end up being killed."
Its scheme, which began with cats, was formalised in 2000 and now neuters 6,000 felines every year.
Since then, the SPCA had been lobbying the government to support a similar scheme for feral dogs, Woodhouse says, since dogs are more of an issue due to their larger size.
But the closest the group got to realising this goal was a proposed trial in 2012. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) identified potential sites in Yuen Long, Sai Kung and Lamma Island for a three-year trial, with each spot targeting around 30 dogs. But the scheme, developed in collaboration with the SPCA and the Society for Abandoned Animals (SAA), eventually fell through because it failed to gain support from the district councils.
Mak dismisses the 2012 trial as a little more than sop from officials to appease animal welfare groups.
His organisation held a consultation in Sai Kung after it learned that the government might conduct a pilot scheme in the area. But when residents were asked whether they supported the campaign, most said they had never heard of it, Mak says. "Without an education campaign introducing what the programme is about and its benefits, the programme, of course, would not pass through district council as district councillors don't want to create troubles.
"Before we conducted the Lion Rock campaign, we visited each of the over 40 district councillors in Wong Tai Sin and explained to them what it was all about. They understood that the programme could benefit residents as there would be fewer complaints regarding nuisance from feral dogs. In the end, the Wong Tai Sin District Council gave unanimous support to the programme."
In Yuen Long, district councillor Zachary Wong Wai-yin says the AFCD has been half-hearted in getting the neutering scheme off the ground, suggesting that some officials found it more expedient to kill strays instead.
"Yuen Long district council gave the green light to TNVR campaign as early as 2007 because stray dogs pose a severe problem for us. We have lots of construction sites in the district. When construction companies start work on a site, they bring in lots of dogs as guards. But when they leave after the works are completed, the dogs are abandoned. Many guard dogs are also ditched after warehouse leases expire. So Yuen Long is teeming with stray dogs."
Existing legislation, in particular the Rabies Ordinance, also presents a barrier to volunteers conducting dog neutering campaigns, says Elaine Siu, a lawyer and co-chair of advocacy group STOP Save HK's Cats and Dogs.
The ordinance requires all dogs over five months old to be vaccinated, licensed and microchipped. The animals must also be put on a leash or other form of control when in public spaces, and offenders face a HK$10,000 fine.
"When a volunteer takes a stray dog to be microchipped and desexed, the person must register his name with the veterinary clinic, with the microchip identifying him as the owner. After the dog is released, the volunteer is liable for any incidents involving the animal, such as capture by AFCD officers or biting passers-by," Siu says.
"It's ridiculous for the government to interpret the law in a way that equates the act of micro-chipping with legal ownership. The act of taking temporary possession of a dog for the purposes of examination, rabies vaccination and desexing should not make the volunteer become the owner of the animal."
Mak, who opened the first clinic to provide free neutering for strays in March, reckons he has, technically, been in breach of this law every day since setting up the non-profit Veterinary Service Society in 2006.
Because all dogs must be kept under some kind of control in public spaces, he says, the society is contravening the law whenever it releases strays back to their old haunts after desexing.
The issue of linking microchipping with ownership has dogged animal charities that promote neutering schemes for the past decade, says Fan Wan-ching, chief executive officer of the SAA.
"Eighty per cent of pets are microchipped in Hong Kong. If the pet bites people on the street, the victim can seek compensation from the owner. But if a neutered stray attacks, the volunteers and the NGO can be liable for prosecution under the current law. NGOs cannot bear such potential cost."
Currently, the government does not have a formal policy on controlling the population of strays. The AFCD sends officials to capture stray animals only after receiving complaints from the public. The strays are typically kept for four days but are put down if unclaimed after that period.
In the long term, Woodhouse argues, it's more economical for the government to adopt a neutering programme than kill strays. "I don't think the government system is economically sustainable. To stabilise the feral population, you need to trap and kill 50 per cent [of the dogs]. We are not advocating a higher catch and kill rate - it's a figure often quoted in scientific papers. And you need to do it every year. If the government just acts after complaints, it won't get anywhere near that level required for stabilising population," she says.
"The rate for neutering to attain a stable population can be as low as 35 per cent. And for TNVR, much of the work is done by volunteers who are motivated to do something, so the direct cost to taxpayer can be significantly reduced."
But the issue goes beyond economics, Woodhouse adds.
"We shouldn't just see it from the perspective of population control. We need to look at the general welfare of the animals. Humane and non-lethal TNVR programmes can lead to less suffering."
Citing the SPCA's cat colony programme, Woodhouse says it has had a big impact in stemming the cycle of disease and hunger when street cats produce litters of kittens.
"When we see cats on the street now, they are healthier and there are not so many sick cats any more. We also see fewer kittens come in and a drop in cat euthanasia rate as well. [With greater awareness] the desex rate for pet cats also jumped from around 52 per cent in 2005 to around 72 per cent in 2010."
Now, after decades of lobbying from NGOs, the first government-backed TNVR campaign is set to finally get off the ground. Barring any last-minute objections from residents, a three-year trial in collaboration with the SAA and SPCA will start in Yuen Long and Cheung Chau this year.
A department spokesman says both groups will be given exemptions under the rabies ordinance during this period - news that should undoubtedly bring sighs of relief to animal lovers across the city.