Life is grim at Hong Kong EcoPark say welfare groups, but park says authorities have no problem with conditions

SPCA and Animals Asia concerned that conditions at Tai Tong Organic EcoPark are cramped, unhygienic and substandard but Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department says no cruelty has been detected

PUBLISHED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 5:16pm
UPDATED : Friday, 24 February, 2017, 6:34pm

A goat hobbles on cement flooring, a large dog in a small wire cage barks and jumps incessantly, biting a hole in the plastic roof. Next door, penned emus peck at others’ backs. A wild boar sits in the corner of a dark cage; adjacent, two younger ones huddle in similar conditions. A domesticated pig, no water or food in sight, chews its wooden fence. Seven rabbits are crammed into one hutch, while a lone ferret shudders in the corner of another.

This is Tai Tong Organic EcoPark, a “leisure and recreational facility” in Yuen Long that’s been operating since 1994.

As well as an animal zone for petting and feeding, other activities include bullock cart rides, go-cart rides for kids, strawberry picking and horse riding, and it’s all set among a lychee forest, organic vegetable farms, a lotus pond and barbecue areas.

But welfare groups are unhappy with the conditions the animals are living in, disagreeing with a statement from park operators that all animals are kept “according to their species and lifestyles”.

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The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) says only that the park meets all licensing standards. The department, in a joint inspection with the SPCA this month, found hygiene in all primary enclosures and the condition of animals to be satisfactory, with no cruelty detected.

The department did not comment further on other queries.

Karina O’Carroll, animal welfare education manager at Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia, raises red flags as she walks around the animal zone on a hot February day. It’s her second visit in as many months, and while she says some enclosures had been cleared of most of the mould and excrement build-up noted during her visit in January – most likely cleaned after being contacted by the media, she believes – concerns remain about the size and state of enclosures, especially to house emus and ostriches.

“There’s no enrichment or effort to create an animal’s natural habitat,” says O’Carroll, pointing to a chewed fence in a pig’s pen, a sign, she says, of stress and boredom. “The park is huge [more than a million square feet of land, according to its official site] so there is no excuse for keeping animals in such a small space … animals need an environment to forage and burrow and behave like animals.”

Today she spots a new problem – turkeys locked in a small tin shed in the midday heat.

Other problems noted from her visit a few weeks earlier remain: wild boars “kept in deplorable conditions”, a caged dog pacing – the same one trying to bite through its roof – and sickly goats, some limping and coughing, others with green discharge from their nose.

“If the park insists on keeping the three boars, then efforts should be made to construct a new enclosure that’s appropriate for their growing size, removing them from public display or at least providing them with a space where they can seek peace and quiet and rooting opportunities, which they would have in the wild. Boars are typically shy creatures, so keeping them where they currently are is inappropriate.

“If the park truly cares about animal welfare, the wild boars should be their utmost priority.”

Seven rabbits crammed in a single hutch prompt an obvious concern – overbreeding.

“One area that needs urgent attention is breeding controls. The animals should be desexed; uncontrolled breeding in already poor conditions is disastrous,” O’Carroll says.

The park sells food for the public to feed the animals – from 10am to 5pm – and she says this should be stopped. “Animals should be given an appropriate feeding schedule with balanced nutrition.”

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O’Carroll says although Animals Asia would prefer that no animals be kept for human amusement or in captivity in general, the group – and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – can advise on how to improve the enclosures, train staff how to deal with animals, and offer advice on enrichment schedules.

The Tai Tong Organic EcoPark website states that the facility is “located in the tranquil valley of Tai Tong village, only 10 minutes’ drive from Yuen Long [and] occupying over a million square feet of land with lychee forests”. The website says the EcoPark is a key educational partner with Hong Kong schools “with the goals of promotion of environmental awareness and to enhance the general physical and mental well-being of every visitor”.

But some visitors are having very different experiences.

Cheri Chambers visited the park for the first time during the Lunar New Year break. The plan was to pick strawberries with friends, but a detour to the animal zone put a dampener on the day trip more than the light drizzle that was falling.

“There were animals in small and dirty enclosures … Without any stimulation they looked stressed and bored,” says Chambers, a biology teacher at Hong Kong International School. “As a teacher, the only lessons here are what not to do if housing or caring for animals.”

Sai Kung resident Marla Jackson says she was appalled by how the animals were kept when she visited the park as a 15-year-old in April 2014.

“The goats had no grass and were made to stand on concrete and in their own excrement,” she wrote at the time on a public forum about the Tai Tong Organic EcoPark.

“I recall the goats being poked and prodded through the fence,” says Jackson when contacted by the Post last week. She never returned but did lodge a complaint on the day she visited.

“A man in the office wasn’t sure how to respond to us and just told us they would take on our comment.”

Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director (welfare) of the SPCA, confirmed it had received some complaints about the Yuen Long animal facility.

Woodhouse says the SPCA was also concerned about vet care at Tai Tong and whether people employed at the park were qualified to work with animals.

After a week spent contacting the park for a response to a number of queries, management replied with only a brief statement. It told the Post its animals receive regular veterinary visits, adding: “Should you need further information, we would suggest you to contact the relative government bodies, i.e. AFCD for further issues.”

Woodhouse says she wants the city’s animal welfare laws updated. “As more people crave to be connected with nature, there needs to be monitoring of situations so the health and behavioural needs of animals are fully met.”

Woodhouse says the situation at the Yuen Long park is part of a broader problem concerning animals in captivity in Hong Kong.

The concerns raised about the Yuen Long park come as a petition circulates calling for the closure of the Hong Kong Zoological and Botanical Gardens.

The government-run zoo in Central has more than 300 animals in 40 enclosures, including primates such as orangutans.

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The Kadoorie Institute, SPCA, Animals Asia and Orangutanaid have all expressed concerns over the welfare of the zoo’s animals, recommending the grounds be returned to their original status as a botanical garden.

In 2014, renowned primatologist Jane Goodall, during a visit to Hong Kong, expressed concern over the treatment of orangutans at the zoo.

O’Carroll says Animals Asia and other NGOs had been waiting for 1½ years for a public consultation report promised by the zoo’s management.

“I was disappointed to hear the zoo recently added two meerkats to its collection, at a time when we want to be reducing numbers,” she says.