WEEKEND HIKER Peter Spurrier had encountered stray dogs many times before but this time something felt different. A dog approached him as he entered the walled village of Mok Ka, on Lantau Island, but it turned on its heels after not recognising the scent of his outstretched hand. The 27-year-old cautiously proceeded down the public path, gazing down each alley separating the homes. Empty. Empty. Empty. Then, 'a massive pile of dogs' including the sentinel the newspaper editor had briefly encountered. The pack moved in, its battle experience obvious: one dog was missing an eye, others had torn ears and multiple scars. He quickly squatted down and pretended to pick up a rock, a tactic that had many times prior sent strays scampering. Two turned and ran but seven held and charged, 'going for blood', fangs tearing at his jeans, the mangy animals lunging at his head. Screaming, he 'hammered down' with his fists while slowly walking backward, aware he must not fall. Two dogs got behind him; he was surrounded. Suddenly his back hit a gate, he turned, opened it and slammed it on the 'slathering' animals, 'sweating and shaking with fear and rage at the same time'. 'I didn't expect that on a Sunday hike,' he says, having received hospital treatment for a bite on his calf that punctured the skin. 'If I fell down and they got at my throat anything could have happened. If I had been with a kid they would have killed me,' says Spurrier, who at 1.78 metres tall, weighing 76 kilograms, isn't a pushover. But there have also been many tales from the city of tormenting canines over the years - the Letters To The Editor page of this newspaper carries regular correspondence on the issue. There is the rather infamous pack that lives, ironically, in front of Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa's property on Island Road in Repulse Bay. People strolling the Repulse Bay Promenade are forced to carry sticks to protect themselves and their pets from the growling mongrels. But possibly the most sensational incident happened in 1995 when a pack of stray dogs terrorised an outdoor market at Smithfield Road in Western, killing 44 chickens and two cats and terrifying shoppers and hawkers. Although local animal experts say stray dogs most often exhibit a healthy fear of humans, attacks have been documented and almost everyone seems to have a terror-filled story to relate. The Department of Public Health says it treated 2,177 bite cases in 1999 (the majority from stray dogs although the statistic incorporates bites from all animals, pets or otherwise) and administered anti-rabies shots - although no one has contracted rabies from a stray dog here for more than a decade. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conser-vation Department (AFCD) says it responds to 300 to 400 reported bites by strays a year. Beyond the attacks, strays have also led to the injury and death of motorists who have tried to avoid them, they spread diseases (mange, fleas, worms, distemper, leptospirosis, which, contracted from urine, infects the kidneys and liver), kill wildlife (barking deer, civet cats), they inhibit access to public areas and keep the public awake at night with barking and brawling, all while leading brief lives, wretched from starvation and disease. Maybe most importantly the animals represent an oversight in a modern society otherwise striving for humanity: in Hong Kong alone, more than 20,000 stray dogs are put down each year, silent victims of a barbaric system that fails to treat the problem at its roots, critics say. The AFCD, in a study done this year, estimates that the stray population ranges from 16,000 to 26,000, though Dr David Burrows, a senior veterinary officer, stresses that 'the figure is based on too many assumptions'. 'It is a problem in Hong Kong that needs to be sorted out,' says Amy Chow, senior manager of public relations of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA). Leung Chi-tak faces the issue brandishing a bamboo pole with a noose on the end. A senior AFCD officer for 17 years, he has captured thousands of strays. One of about 100 employees in 20 dog-catching teams, Leung talks of keeping 'intelligence' on the wily beasts. Aside from responding to 10 to 20 complaints a day, the teams conduct surveillance - sometimes lasting weeks - on 'black spots', whose locations are constantly changing. The problem areas are commonly construction sites to which workers bring in dogs for security but abandon them upon finishing the job, and areas where housing estates buffer wooded areas. Two such 'hotspots' are the forest behind Braemar Hill Road on Hong Kong Island and Tsui Ping South Estate in Kwun Tong. 'We study where they sleep, eat, hide and escape,' Leung says, and then with up to 25 men he marshals dawn raids, netting, noosing and corralling the dogs into makeshift pens. Problem is, although Leung believes there are less dogs in urban areas than when he began in the 1980s, the number of strays caught yearly has remained steady at 15,000, an indication to critics that AFCD's measures are having little overall impact on curtailing the population. 'If you kill 90 per cent, the other 10 per cent will fill the niche very quickly because there's more food and shelter to go around. It's the law of nature,' says Dr John Wedderburn, a local activist who has studied the predicament for more than 20 years and is founder of the Asian Animal Protection Network (AAPN). 'In the long term, spaying and neutering [the desexing of dogs] is the only effective, humane way to go,' Wedderburn says. Jill Robinson of Animals Asia Foundation (AAF) agrees. 'Dogs breed vociferously in the wild,' she says, explaining each bitch produces two litters of up to nine pups a year. In fact, Hong Kong's major non-profit organisations dedicated to animals - SPCA, AAPN, AAF and the Society for Abandoned Animals - all favour a more compassionate policy of rounding up, desexing and releasing the strays, rather than the existing policy of catching and killing. Advocates of 'trap, neuter and release' point to successful programmes worldwide - Bangkok, Bombay, London. If Hong Kong's strays were trapped, neutered and released, more than 90 per cent could be eliminated within five to seven years, according to the organisations. However, the logistics of carrying out such a programme are prohibitive, the AFCD claims. 'It's a concept we like very much but putting it into practice is a different story,' says Burrows. The major obstacles are 'care and keeping', he says. The department lacks the professional manpower to desex the animals, estimating that veterinarians such as himself could only handle 10 operations a day. The dogs would also need up to a week of recuperation, and AFCD's four kennels throughout the SAR can only hold about 100 dogs. 'And we'd be releasing them back to places people don't want them to begin with,' Burrows says. He also believes that the animals would once again be faced with difficulties in procuring food, water and shelter. AAPN's Wedderburn, however, says people who are already feeding strays could be officially recognised as their caretakers. Further, Wedderburn recommends 'enlisting an army of caretakers to help with the trapping' and a pooling of resources between AFCD and local animal organisations and private animal hospitals. Although the scientific community isn't yet endorsing the trap, neuter and release scheme for dogs, it has for cats. The SPCA will begin next week desexing stray cats and releasing them to an assigned cat carrier living in the area. Under the Dog and Cat Ordinance, reintroducing desexed animals into their habitat constitutes abandonment but the AFCD is overlooking the breach. But the programme doesn't necessarily apply to dogs, Burrows says, because for one stray dogs are more difficult to catch than cats. Animal rights advocates are calling for a multi-pronged approach. For example, in the 'No Kill City' of San Francisco, where no adoptable dog or cat can be put down, stray populations have been greatly reduced. Changes in government regulation require pet owners to either sterilise their pets or pay as much as three times the normal licensing fee. Burrows, who has adopted two strays himself, says he has never received a formal proposal on trap, neuter and release from local advocacy groups. But the SPCA says it 'has lobbied for years', while AFCD has been criticised for hesitating to take outside advice. In 1993 the SPCA proposed a comprehensive plan, including installing microchips in licensed dogs - which would discourage abandonment as owners could be identifiable - and greater regulation of the pet industry's importing and breeding. AFCD largely embraced the proposal three years later and says commercial importation of young dogs has declined significantly. Burrows, who first started with the department in 1977 and rejoined in 1997 after an extended absence, says he is meeting with SPCA in coming weeks and is 'willing to look at all ideas'. Hong Kong's SPCA hopes to one day mimic San Francisco's policy but believes that success requires solving the problem at its root: rigorous education. 'In developed countries pets have been around for many more years,' says SPCA's Chow. 'Hong Kong people do not have the same standard of pet care knowledge.' Sometimes, pets are treated like a fashion accessory, discarded once deemed passe - a mentality the chair of the Society of Abandoned Animals El Chan says she often encounters. Maltese, shih-tzus and poodles are out, displaced by golden retrievers and huskies. 'Golden retrievers, even if they're 10 years old, are gone [adopted] in one day,' she says. Last year, SPCA says, it spent $300,000 on educating the public on pet ownership, often reaching out to children in classrooms, but 'it's difficult as charity', says Chow. 'The Government should do more.' The Animal Welfare Advisory Group, an arm of AFCD, has printed brochures discussing the responsibilities of pet ownership and field officers often hand them out when pursuing strays. But Burrows disagrees with the root of the problem, dismissing an ignorant public as the cause of strays, saying that the stray population is comprised mostly of generations of wild dogs, not abandoned dogs. AFCD might yield the clearest indication yet of its plans at the Animal Welfare Advisory Group's quarterly meeting scheduled for September which is open to the public. The organisation recently solicited an outside consultant (details of whom 'can't be revealed at this stage') whose recommendations will be presented. Burrows hints that the conclusions 'aren't strongly in favour [of trap, neuter and release] but the door is still open'. Instead, the consultant spoke of other methods for catching strays, like snare traps, which have recently been put to use in Australia, Burrows says. 'I think he [the consultant] played it safe because trap, neuter and release isn't scientifically accepted,' says Wedderburn. 'But it is logical. At the end of the day, the dog shouldn't be the victim.' For more information on September's quarterly meeting of the Animal Welfare Advisory Group check the Government's Web site, www.info.gov.hk/afcd or phone Dr Shirley Chuk, honorary secretary of the advisory group at 2691 2191. How to handle an encounter with a stray Keep in mind that dogs don't typically attack people unless they have a reason such as protecting babies or territory or having been maltreated by humans in the past. Don't scream or run, such behaviour only provokes the dog to give chase. Do stay calm. Avoid eye contact, which is interpreted as a challenge. Slowly back away, facing the animal. If bitten, seek immediate medical assistance. Fortunately, stray dogs in Hong Kong haven't carried rabies since 1987.