Off Centre

A game of cats and rats (and snakes): the politics of balancing Hong Kong's ecosystem

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 April, 2015, 12:04pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 May, 2015, 12:15pm

I have always strongly fancied Hong Kong would provide the ideal setting for the great dystopian comic book story that has been on my mind to write.

(NB: I was never a boy for reading comic books, unless they were about football, but it seems an easier task than writing a novel, what with all those pages of words novels require.)

The premise of this opus-to-be is that the world is some years hence – 2030, let’s say – and (for reasons still to be decided) there are food shortages. Concurrently, rats have climbed the food chain, becoming ever more super-sized in the process.

People and rats are therefore engaged in an existential stand-off, while that which separates rodent and human behaviour has diminished.

The plot lines remain to be fleshed out, but I imagine there would be scope for both a hero of sorts and some kind of shape-shifting, rat-faced villain, perhaps bearing a resemblance to the Barcelona and Uruguay centre-forward Luis Suarez.

“But ah,” I hear you object. Rats, in traditional Chinese culture, are considered fortuitous, their very presence bearing testament to foodstuffs lingering somewhere.

True, true – but a minor detail, I think. Tradition or no tradition, we are not generally hard-wired to liking rats. And the anecdotal evidence, at least, points to their having shot up in number in recent years, infesting (for it is rats’ wont to infest places) Hong Kong’s wet markets, like office workers descending on a Causeway Bay restaurant with a 2-for-1 lunch deal.

Many in the anti-rat camp were accordingly displeased when the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department ruled recently against the feeding of cats inside wet markets.

This, they believe, is likely to discourage cats from dropping in on other business – that of killing rats, namely – and lead to increased use of Warfarin, which has a way of causing problems all along the food chain, being, after all, toxic.

But of course cats are rarely as clean as they look and tend to defecate wherever they please, so the hygiene desk-jockeys do have that argument on their side.

Besides, if cats are fed too much, then surely they risk being unfit for the purpose of killing anything.

As in all things, there is a balance to be struck. Unlike dogs, cats do not reciprocate the affection of humans because they care for us. They may simulate affection and docility for selfish ends, but their true calling is to be out indiscriminately tearing other species limb from limb.

It’s not, clearly, rats alone who should be vexed by this issue of optimal cat-famishment, then – but harmless things like shrews, endangered species of birds, and so on, also.

I think it unlikely that the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) really despises birds. Being supported largely by the sort of people who indulge cats, however, it mustn’t be seen to criticise the latter, however psychotically they behave.

I am always conscious of this bind, at any rate, when I hear about Hong Kong’s cats being consumed by snakes; or rather, when cat-owners start moaning about such an outcome.

To its credit, in 2012 the government reversed its policy of deporting Burmese pythons to mainland China whenever they made a nuisance of themselves or attacked household pets.

If asked, no doubt many of those deported would have preferred Myanmar itself, but that is now academic – the practice, as I say, was rightly halted, on the grounds that it upset Hong Kong’s ecosystem.

I understand care is still taken not to encourage the snakes in venturing too near built-up areas, but frankly this seems somewhat ill-considered.

If cats are free to harry and torment, as nature intended, then why not pythons? Unless our super-rats hurry up and evolve a fiercer streak, the better to fight back, the cat problem will not go away of its own accord.