It is a muggy Buddha's birthday when Wong Kwok-wing and his helper, Helen, meet me and a photographer at the Peng Chau ferry pier. The 56- year-old civil servant has agreed to introduce us to the more than 90 cats, dogs and hamsters he lives with. During the short stroll to the two apartments he rents, Wong, in freshly laundered white T-shirt and shorts, says he and Helen have just finished the first of their twice-daily cleaning and feeding rituals. Every morning before work he empties, cleans and refills the food, water and litter trays of his mainly feline house guests. Since Helen arrived almost two years ago, life has become easier. 'I used to be up at 6am to clean and feed the cats. I'd go to work and return home at 8pm and wouldn't finish until 11pm,' he says. We stop outside a low village house. Wong unlocks the gate to the ground-floor flat and we step into a covered outdoor area stacked with 10kg bags of kitty litter, travel boxes, litter boxes and other cat-related paraphernalia. Wong is first through the front door followed by Helen, the photographer then myself. I immediately gag from the overpowering stench of cat pee, and take shallow breaths hoping that will help. It doesn't. I have to step outside for fresh air. Wong says the ammonia odour is from the bleach they use to clean the floor, but it's definitely the smell of urine from 30 or more cats living in a 400-square-foot space. We are in the flat's living room, which is kept cool with air-conditioners and fans. Stacked around the walls and in the middle of the floor in the spotlessly clean room are metal cages containing two or more cats. Sitting on top of a couple of ceiling-high cabinets, eyeing the visitors suspiciously, are several of the more timid inhabitants. More cages are stacked in the spare room. We could be standing in a well-ordered pet shop except there is a caged-off kitchen at one end and Helen's caged-off bedroom at the other. She says the smell doesn't bother her and, besides, she's not in the flat all the time. It is with a mixture of relief and trepidation that I cross the lane with Wong to the flat he shares with the rest of his abandoned and abused charges. We start in a room on the roof where some of the cages contain yapping dogs. The air-conditioning is broken and the stench of animal fur and urine forces me to 'admire the view' several times. The photographer has started to sneeze and chooses now to reveal she has a cat allergy. Wong lives on the floor below. Apart from the presence of a television and stereo, it resembles the flat across the road. Clothes hang from a single rail in one of the bedrooms where there is a rolled-up mattress and yet more cats in cages. Wong sits on a folding metal chair, the only other piece of furniture in the living room. Two puppies scamper madly inside one of the larger cages, a bigger dog growls menacingly in another, and several cats and kittens roam around the room. Wong rarely takes holidays, spends close to $30,000 a month on veterinarian fees, food and electricity, and his spare time is taken up with the care or rescuing of stray animals. Why? 'Yesterday I picked up a wet, shivering kitten from a drain and took it home. It was about that long,' he says, holding his palms 10cm apart. 'I've seen teenagers playing bicycle hockey using metal bars and a dog. We've had problems with people 'fishing' for kittens in one of our cat-collection boxes - they were using fish hooks. Animals have a life too and the right to live.' Wong isn't a crazy old man with a cat fetish. He just loves animals and has made the decision to devote his life to helping them. According to the Hong Kong Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), in the 12 months to March 31, 1,220 dogs, cats, rabbits, chinchillas, hamsters, birds and other small animals were abandoned. It's an improvement on the 1,622 animals abandoned the previous year. Over the same period, 2,433 animals were found homes. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The SPCA says thousands more animals, mostly dogs and cats, are abused, abandoned and killed because of poor education about their care and the lack of a comprehensive government programme to tackle the problem. The few that make it to an animal foster organisation or someone like Wong have a slim chance of being adopted. Those picked up by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) get four days' grace in a pound before being destroyed. Hong Kong's network of islands and the New Territories are teeming with feral animals. Some, such as the buffalo, are a throwback to the territory's agricultural heritage. But most, predominantly cats and dogs, are the result of rampant unchecked breeding. The city has several non-profit-making voluntary animal welfare organisations attempting to ease the pain and suffering of the many abandoned pets. Most survive on charitable hand-outs and donations of time and gifts from animal-loving citizens. But among the many organisations is a small band of individuals, like Wong, who take animal welfare into their own hands - and their homes. Clara Chan, 48, is an accomplished pianist who teaches from her home in Discovery Bay. Occasionally, Chan grows wistful about the life she could have had as a professional musician performing around the world. That career was put on hold 16 years ago when she found an abandoned dog she named Mo Gwei, or Little Devil, on Peng Chau. 'She was a little devil,' says Chan. 'She had a high fever, a broken leg and was sitting in a drain and she couldn't move. If I hadn't picked her up that day she would have died.' Since then, Chan has rescued and found homes for more than 150 abandoned dogs, many of them expensive pedigree breeds. She flicks through a large pile of photo-graphs of the animals that have passed through her hands and reels off names, dates of rescue and, in some cases, dates of departure to the great kennel in the sky. On this day there are seven dogs in her flat, four of which are hers. Frodo, an 18-month-old bassett hound, stares dopily from a basket in the window while Bobby, an abused sheltie, sits beside him. Both animals are up for adoption. Chan tries to keep the numbers down for fear of annoying her neighbours, but has had up to 14 animals in the flat including a litter of puppies. 'My friends have to hold me back from catching the ferry to Peng Chau,' she jokes, referring to the island where many pets are dumped by their day-tripping owners. 'I didn't plan to do this. I have my own dogs but I see others that look so skinny and I feel sorry for them. People ask, 'Where do you see all these stray dogs?' And I tell them, 'If you care you see them.' If I didn't rescue dogs I'd go abroad, travel and give some concerts. I don't regret not doing it. This is different. I wish I could do more [for the animals].' Chan's philanthropy costs her thousands of dollars a month in bills and she has endured costly legal battles. Once, a chow chow called Bear Bear Hung was left for dead by its owner after it was in a road accident. Chan footed the $20,000 veterinary bill for the dog and nursed it back to health. When the owner decided he wanted the dog back, the case went to court. Chan won. To keep her flat free from dog odours, Chan runs her air-conditioning and dehumidifiers 24 hours a day from March to September, clocking up a $1,800 bill every month. The flat is clean and smells fresh, but that hasn't stopped one neighbour, who thinks the animals are dirty, unloading half a can of insect repellent under her door every time she takes the dogs for a walk. Chan's self-funded feeding and de-sexing of stray cats roaming the Discovery Bay Plaza was initially viewed with suspicion by operator Hong Kong Resort. The management company believed her nocturnal trapping and releasing of cats was adding to the problem. Today, it encourages her work and donates the $300 needed to de-sex each stray. Some are found homes, some she gives to Wong and the rest are released to keep rats and snakes at bay. She tries to find homes for the dogs. 'I can't save any money,' she says. 'The vet asks me, 'How do you pay all these bills?' My family says I spend too much money on the animals. My father helped me buy my flat. He's doing this because he loves me. I try to make them understand, but it's hard. Before the animals I used to spend a lot of money on expensive bags and brand names. Today I'd rather be seen with a dog than an expensive bag on my arm. They give you back a lot of happiness. They help me to value my life more. They help me a lot. People used to call me the dog lady, but that wasn't good because they thought I was mad.' Wong and Chan are well-educated and eloquent. They keep themselves, their properties and their animals clean and have well-constructed arguments about why they do what they do. But behind the well-intentioned actions is behaviour verging on the eccentric. Chan goes out of her way to avoid bumping into neighbours when she leaves her apartment with her animals. She will cancel piano lessons at the last minute to rescue an abandoned pet. Wong once gave a cat away but it died. Since then he hasn't given up a single cat. Neither of them has had a proper holiday for several years and although both are divorced, their break-ups weren't caused by their lifestyle choices. 'Some people say to me, 'You're stupid'. Let them say it. You get something back. At least I can sleep well at night,' says Wong. Veterinarian and former executive director of the SPCA Pauline Taylor knows Chan and Wong well and applauds what they are trying to do. However, she insists the animals' welfare should come first. 'Normal cat lovers will have two or three cats. Cats are very individualistic. When you have more than that you are going to have cat behavioural abnormalities. But what's the definition of a normal cat lover?' Kylie Griffin, founder of the Ark Veterinary Hospital, is more forthright in her comments. She says until recently vets used to view these people as nuisances. Today they have a term for them: collectors. 'Collectors won't give [the animals] up because they don't believe anyone could care for them as well. The difference between them and responsible pet owners is that it eventually becomes too expensive [to look after them] then the animals start to suffer. The numbers start getting larger because they are breeding in the house, not because they are taking on more strays. At one point [vets would] get angry with these people for not doing what they were told to do, but now we've got a name for them. These people are ill.' Griffin says the typical collector is a single, middle-aged woman whose children have left home. Toni Ip falls well outside this stereotype. The 26-year-old, self-employed web designer spent his formative years in the United States before returning to Hong Kong. He recently gave up his full-time job so he could care for his animals - more than 200 spiders, reptiles and amphibians. 'My favourites are the pythons and the monitor lizards,' he says, sitting in a cafe near his Sha Tin home. 'I love them. I love all animals but I appreciate animals that don't act like pets, animals that don't act like they belong to someone. These animals are considered at the bottom of the pet chain. I want to help educate people about their beauty and their right to live the same as other pets.' His passion has had an enormous impact on his life. Many of his charges are nocturnal, which means feeding takes place from about 10pm. A snake takes an hour on average to consume a meal. This is not normally a problem, but when you have 50 serpents it can take two or three hours to ensure they've all eaten their dinner. The process begins again at 6am with the breakfast sitting. Occasionally Ip will join them. 'Sometimes we eat together. Some of them eat vegetables and fruit and I have to chop it before I give it to them so I might eat [the fruit and vegetables] as well. I taste what they taste.' With reptiles and amphibians, plus an assortment of insects such as crickets and cockroaches, and several species of small mammal used for food, stacked in more than 800 tanks and cages against the walls of the apartment, cleaning and feeding is almost a 24-hour process. Ip is extremely protective of his menagerie, partic-ularly since an indigenous Gold Coin turtle can fetch $30,000. 'I never let anybody into the apartment because I've had people break in and steal them. Sometimes the crickets are really loud, but no one has complained yet.' Ip, who is the founder and president of the Hong Kong Reptile and Amphibian Society (HKRAS), admits to a life-long fascination for all things cold-blooded. As a seven-year-old in the US, he adopted a tortoise abandoned by a neighbour. A few years later he picked up a crocodile from a friend who could no longer look after it. He once had a seven-metre anaconda but these days he has downsized to a three-metre python. Word is spreading of Ip's expertise and his owner-ship of a CITES (Control on Trade in Endangered Species) licence, and he has become a drop-off point for reptiles and amphibians. 'Some of the animals I've adopted have never had a licence, but what am I to do? If I don't take them the owners are going to release them into the wild and they are going to die. Some people call me sei wo [snake chef] but I don't like that because I don't eat snakes.' Ip gave up his full-time job to spend more time with his animals. When asked how much he spends on them a month, he takes a few minutes to add up the numbers before coming up with a figure of $20,000. 'You know, I've never had to add it up before. But I don't see it as a cost because it's my hobby; it's an interest. I don't write down the numbers. I give some [animals] away or I might sell some, but only enough to cover my costs.' Ip is concerned the government isn't doing enough to crack down on illegal ownership of endangered species, so he and the members of the HKRAS are trying to promote responsible ownership. 'Pet shops are getting animals illegally and they don't tell people they are endangered species when they sell them. Many people have become the illegal owners of endangered species without even knowing it.' Ip's intentions are commendable, but is he a collector? 'If someone gives up their job to [look after animals], there's no question he doesn't fit the pattern of normal pet ownership,' says Taylor. Marcus Tancock has channelled a considerable amount of time and money into the Lantau Buffalo Association (LBA). Although he hasn't given up work, he sold a large chunk of his Body Shop franchise a year ago for $156.5 million, which has allowed him to reduce his hours and devote more time to his cause. Sitting on the patio of his house at the end of a long leafy drive on the south coast of Lantau Island, he describes growing up in Hong Kong heavily influenced by his mother's love of nature. Much of his youth was spent playing on a beach frequented by buffalo abandoned by village farmers when Hong Kong became a manufacturing hub. Tancock's concern for the animals' welfare was piqued when he witnessed representatives of the AFCD - in reaction to complaints by village residents - loading drugged animals onto the back of a truck. 'There were distressed mothers and calves hanging from cranes,' he recalls. 'There had been no attempt to [segregate] different herds or find out which calf belonged to which cow ... We've had people firing golf-balls at them, throwing spears, acid and boiling water.' Tancock set up the LBA to bridge the gap between villagers (whom he claims want to develop the wetlands where the buffalo roam) and the government (which he says doesn't use correct methods to manage the animals). He stresses the LBA is not a 'hippy, fun-loving, tree-hugging gweilo organisation'. In fact, day-to-day running of the organisation is the responsibility of Hong Kong resident Winnie Lau, the only other full-time member of the association. 'It's just me and Winnie. If and when we get some volunteers then so much the better. I don't want it to be a Marcus Tancock thing. Any organisation shouldn't be dependent on its founder. What happens if I get run over by a bus?' For some animal lovers, dying for their cause is not out of the question. Au Yeung Sin-yu took up the plight of Hong Kong's buffalo and cattle after seeing them in a government pound. She now cares for more than 60 on a patch of muddy ground she rents in Yuen Long. The frail woman can barely speak when we meet on a wet Saturday morning. She constantly inhales from a bottle of vapour medicine as she tries to soothe her tired lungs. Her sodden clothes look too heavy for her slight 52-year-old frame as she huddles under a leaking make-shift shelter. Yeung Yeung, as she is known to her friends, walks with a crutch since she fell and hurt her ankle while herding the beasts several months ago. She reels off a list of her ailments - heart condition, cataracts, pancreas and liver complaints - that have emerged in the past eight years since she embarked on her thankless task that sees her up at 4am and in bed at midnight. She lives nearby in rented accommodation since she sold her Kowloon Bay property to help fund her $50,000 a month 'habit'. Yeung Yeung is positive next month she will be granted the government land she's been lobbying for. She constantly refers to 'powerful parties' who want her off the land she is using and says her fresh water was cut off the previous week. Since then she and her three helpers have had to transport water with the assistance of sympathetic taxi drivers. 'After 1997, many of my friends left Hong Kong and asked me to go with them,' says the devout Buddhist. 'How could I go when there are lives here that need my help?' Every day, Yeung Yeung walks the buffalo and cattle along the Tai Tong Shan Road from a corral the size of two basketball courts she built using bamboo poles, road-work barriers and timber. Her afternoons are spent cutting feed and in the evenings she trawls the Yuen Long fruit stalls for discarded peel. 'My friends and family are supporting me silently,' she says when asked if they approve of the way she lives. 'When I look into [the cows'] eyes and see they are full of peace and calm compared to eight years ago, that makes it all worthwhile.' On Lamma Island, another animal devotee has been considering her mortality. 'Last year, I had quite a bad accident,' says Sally Andersen at her home in the secluded Luk Chau Bay. If the worst happened, she says she would 'leave it all' to Kirsten Mitchell, her partner in Hong Kong Dog Rescue. The 'it' Andersen refers to isn't a bulging shares portfolio or holiday home in Thailand, it is the 60 dogs and puppies that roam her two rented beach-view properties while they await adoption. The 54-year-old sold her business, the New Age Shop in Central, a few years ago and she has used the money to help fund the $50,000 plus a month needed to care for the animals she finds abandoned or rescues from the government pound. Despite donations and contributions towards veterinary fees, she is constantly delving into her savings. For the past two years, she has been seeking homes for the animals she brings back from her twice-weekly visits to government kennels. Every day she rises at 5.30am to walk 20 dogs. Because of her lifestyle she is unable to entertain friends at home and personal relationships are 'not even on the agenda'. The small island of Luk Chau was a common dog dumping ground well before Andersen moved to the bay opposite it 19 years ago. Two years ago, she visited an AFCD dog pound to see if officers could do any-thing about de-sexing the animals to stop the rampant breeding. It was a seminal moment. 'I wonder what my life would be like if I hadn't gone to the kennels that day. I never intended to be here, but how do I get out of it?' she asks. 'It's just knowing they're there and I can do something.' While we talk, Violet, a seven-month-old Pug, playfully leaps up at my note book and tries to bite my pen. A bad skin complaint left Violet bald, but a light beige fuzz is beginning to coat her back. The affec-tionate puppy was abandoned on a rubbish dump and was facing a bleak future when she was found by Andersen in a government kennel. She is now on the way to a full recovery. 'I take the ones I think I can re-home: the cute puppies and the pure breeds. I can't take dogs I'm going to get stuck with. Violet was found in a dustbin. She had developed a skin problem and was just thrown away. I think it's tragic that people think they can throw their dogs away.' Additional reporting by Paggie Leung.