This week: ignorance and cruelty Great strides have been made in animal welfare in the past 10 years in Hong Kong. There is greater awareness among the public and an associated greater respect for animals as living companions. There is also the recent increase in penalties for animal cruelty passed by the Legislative Council and there are ever more commercials to inform people about the needless suffering of animals in our society. Even this column has been a step forward as there wasn't as much public interest in the past to warrant it. As a veterinarian I have noted an increase in interest in my professional field, with many more summer holiday high school job applicants and many more veterinary students returning to Hong Kong. I have always acknowledged that to increase public awareness and empathy for animal welfare, we need to start young. The young today are generally more educated and have much more malleable minds than adults with habitual behaviour. I have noticed a fuzzy grey line between what is considered animal cruelty and owner ignorance. As a veterinarian I am on the frontline of animal problems. It is to me owners bring animal problems and you would be surprised at the level of ignorance that leads to untold animal disease and suffering. I was told that in the United Kingdom, even the worst case of animal neglect will be seen in a sympathetic light by the courts if the animal was taken to a vet for help. The law is general and all encompassing and does not define specific animal cruelty situations beyond what is considered common sense. Hitting a dog with a metal pipe is certainly cruelty, but what about smacking a dog with the palm of the hands for training purposes? Do you see the grey line? For the record, I don't condone any training regime that uses physical abuse as a form of punishment. There simply isn't any need and I have had more than 20 pet dogs that are well trained to prove it. That doesn't mean that negative feedback training with a physical element doesn't have a place. Many dog trainers use a tap on the underside of the chin as a form of negative punishment. I don't even do that. In the eyes of the law, not knowing the law is not a valid excuse for committing a crime. It is the citizen's duty to find out what is legal and what is not before performing any action. So, is negligence due to ignorance that leads to animal suffering a form of animal welfare infraction? The answer is vague at best, unfortunately. Just yesterday I was presented with an odd case of a pink turtle. The turtle was presented with a generalised pinkish hue all over the skin, quite spectacularly strange. The pink colouring was the result of the turtle suffering a condition called septicaemia, infection of the blood. On learning the history of the turtle, the reason for the illness became obvious. The owners are honestly curious about animals and appear to have quite a menagerie of species at home. They clearly demonstrated a true liking for animals and a willingness to learn more about their pets, but apart from this visit to the vet clinic, it appears the owners have been very passive about knowing more about their new pet. They didn't even know what breed of turtle it was. So naturally they didn't have any idea about the care requirements of the turtle and through ignorance the turtle is now suffering from a severe illness that could well be fatal. Turtles have very specific requirements, such as the need for sunlight to convert vitamin-D in their bodies to a useful form. The sunlight needs to be direct and not filtered through the window glass. Their nutritional requirements need to match with the breed as turtles come from a vast array of different environments. They are cold-blooded and hence there is a need for a heat lamp to help regulate body temperature. Turtles are amphibious and welcome a little piece of land to dry out occasionally. The water should be filtered and conditioned just as you would for a fish tank. You should never feed the turtle in their regular display enclosure, as it will become quickly polluted. The size of the enclosure needs to be very large to keep a turtle content. The common turtles come from a large river system and most home turtle tanks don't even come close to emulating their natural environment. These owners didn't do any of these things, not a single one. I am not suggesting that these owners should be fined or jailed. I think they will eventually be great owners because of their honest curiosity, but you can see the dilemma as the process of learning is at the expense of this little turtle's life. The moral of the story is to do your homework before even considering bringing a new animal companion into your care. By not knowing its needs your innocent curiosity will cause needless suffering and unintended animal cruelty.