A "puppy mill" breeding dogs in Tai Kok Tsui. Photo: SMP Pictures

Hong Kong's cruel 'puppy mills': breeding dogs like factory must end, calls activists

Dog breeders are churning out puppies like factory items - and activists say the cruelty must end

It was a dog's life and worse for Cooper until he was rescued by an animal welfare activist and adopted by a loving couple in Pok Fu Lam.

The five-year-old crossbreed between an English sheepdog and husky is unrecognisable now compared to the abused and wretched animal he once was when caged and forced to mate without respite in a backstreet facility in the NewTerritories.

The common and largely ignored plight of dogs like Cooper is currently a subject of debate as the Hong Kong government puts the finishing touches on an amendment to the animal trading law that will be put to the Legislative Council after its summer break.

Under the new legislation, all dog breeders in the city will face inspections to make them more accountable for the animals in their care.

Activists say facilities in which pedigree dogs are bred like factory products with no thought for their welfare are technically not illegal in Hong Kong owing to a loophole in the law under which breeders claim to be private pet owners.

Watch: Hong Kong pedigree puppy mills expose the ugly side of the city's pet trade

The activists have lobbied for years to bring the practice of "puppy milling" to an end by forcing all breeders to acquire licences for their dogs and increasing the penalty for acts of cruelty to animals. Under laws unchanged since the 1970s, acts of cruelty such as beating or torturing an animal along with gross acts of negligence such as starving a creature are punishable with a maximum penalty of three years' imprisonment and a fine of HK$200,000, but in practice sentences are lenient.

The penalty for breaking animal licensing laws is a fine of HK$1,000. This will increase to HK$50,000 under the amendment. The fine for illegal trading of animals will be raised from HK$2,000 to HK$10,000.

While Cooper survived his ordeal, having been rescued in 2010 by animal welfare activist Sheila McClelland, his partner was not so lucky.

"The animals were in a terrible state, including a paralysed old English sheepdog female still being used for breeding. She had a skin infection, emaciation and bed sores," said McClelland, who contacted the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals after she discovered the facility in Ma On Shan.

McClelland runs a shelter on Lamma Island, one of the many that take in stray, abandoned, or mistreated animals.

The female dog rescued along with Cooper had to be put down.

"She was just flat out and couldn't stand any more," said Cooper's owner, Gary Chin, sitting by a painted portrait of his own two dogs. "The breeder definitely did not give her an opportunity to rest between pregnancies and just kept breeding her so that it was overwhelming to her body."

Breeding facilities like these are not uncommon in Hong Kong, a city in which loopholes in animal trading legislation and lax enforcement allow unscrupulous breeders to churn out pedigree pups in the cruellest of conditions.

"Breeders are interested in making money. Breeders are not interested in animal welfare," said Amanda Whitfort, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong who is pushing to have the city's animal welfare laws updated. "They will keep the animals in cages, stacked one on top of another, usually in small flats with no opportunity to exercise. They'll be sitting in their own excrement."

These breeders are cashing in on a boom in the luxury pet trade that is worth HK$18 million a year. A pure-bred pup can fetch up to HK$20,000 in a city where shelters are full of abandoned and mistreated dogs.

Pet ownership has risen dramatically in Hong Kong since the 1970s and 80s, as increasing affluence means more families are able to afford dogs.

Demographic shifts over the last 20 years have led to many families putting off or opting against having children, and choosing to invest emotionally in pets instead.

And while there is no lack of Asiatic mongrels to choose from, many prefer pedigrees, thinking they are "superior products". These used to be imported from Europe and Australia but are now mostly locally bred.

"People think they are buying a brand; it's like buying a Louis Vuitton handbag," said Whitfort, adding that while pedigree pups may seem to be better investments, the reality is that "choosing a pedigree is a recipe for high vet bills and problems with behaviour due to inbreeding, thanks to the pet breeding facilities that we have".

Around 5,000 dogs are euthanised each year by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Of these, many are dogs bought at pet stores or online under the assumption they will be physically and psychologically sound, when in reality their murky, traumatic origins make them difficult and expensive pets to welcome into a family.

"We had a pedigree Labrador abandoned the other week; it was dropped off here by someone who claimed to have found the dog," said Fiona Woodhouse, a veterinary surgeon at the SPCA, where animals languish in kennels waiting to be adopted. Huskies, poodles, Labradors and other breeds sit behind glass screens, all testament to the 25 per cent rise in Hong Kong's dog population recorded every year for the last five years.

"This dog was a pure pedigree, and it was emaciated - very poor body condition," said Woodhouse, adding that its owner eventually admitted to having bought the dog through a WhatsApp contact. The unfortunate animal died.

"We're really concerned about what is happening at the source of these puppies to make them so sick," said Woodhouse. "Is there neglect? They're not being vaccinated, so the diseases can pass on to different puppies. You really want to be able to trace this back."

Woodhouse said some puppies are smuggled in from Shenzhen, with the ever-looming threat of rabies adding to the problem.

She and the SPCA conducted a number of surveys of Hong Kong's pet stores and found that 80 per cent of puppies bought from licensed sellers fell sick within the first week after purchase. Nine per cent were sick within the first day.

After years of lobbying by activists and animal-lovers, the government has finally pledged to try and close the loophole that allows breeders to operate without licences masquerading as "private pet owners" while operating commercial businesses that keep dozens of dogs - sometimes more than 100.

"At present, the Public Health (Animals and Birds) (Animal Traders) Regulations … do not require a person selling or offering to sell any animals kept by him or her as a pet or any offspring thereof to apply for an animal trader licence," a spokesman for the department said.

"This has created a loophole for some commercial breeders to operate under the guise of private pet owners and makes it difficult to gather sufficient evidence to prosecute the de facto traders claiming to sell their own pets or the offspring."

Interested parties hope the bill being put to Legco will put a cap on the number of dogs bred by one owner, force anyone selling a dog to obtain a licence, and raise the penalty for breaching licensing conditions or illegally trading pets. For activists, it's been a long time coming. They claim Hong Kong's animal protection laws are outdated and hope this amendment to the legislation will set a precedent to put in place stronger deterrents against acts of animal cruelty and ensure greater accountability for the welfare of animals.

While the city does have animal cruelty laws, they do not place the onus on owners to provide "a life worth living" to the animals under their care.

"The legal process at the moment is failing animals; it is allowing most animals sold in pet shops to be given no care," said Whitfort.

She hopes once the legal amendment is in place it can be used as a standard for preventing the abuse of animals in other contexts in Hong Kong, such as those in entertainment, on farms and even in wet markets.

She believes the government has been dragging its heels on the issue because "animals are not considered to be particularly important" to the administration.

"Despite the fact that there is some lip service paid to the importance of animal welfare, generally we continue to have problems with animal welfare because the government has refused to bring the legislation up to international standards and recognise that no longer is it enough to simply say animal cruelty is an offence," she said.

A recent case in Tai Kok Tsui typifies how Hong Kong's laws do not ensure appropriate punishment for offenders.

A breeder was found housing more than 100 animals in an 800 sq ft flat. These dogs were found lying in their own excrement, stuck for so long in cages that their claws had grown back into their paws. Their fur was matted, they had skin diseases, and they lived in a room with windows closed at all times.

Their owner was sentenced to three months in prison on appeal.

Cooper's previous owner at the New Territories puppy mill got away with two weeks' imprisonment and a small fine.

While many Hongkongers still buy puppies with little thought to where they came from or the controversial trade they are fuelling, more are becoming adopters, spurred by a love of animals sparked by the acquisition of their first pet.

Ironically, Woodhouse said, the human-animal bonds that have developed across the city over the last three decades through this trade might well be what has driven the legislative turnaround and public awareness that might eventually end the business.

"People, having had a dog or a pet cat for 10 or 15 years and bonded with it, then become concerned about animals they don't have a bond with," she said.

"And then you get more leverage in terms of politicians being more interested to hear about it, and obviously then we've got more leverage to have dialogue with the government in terms of effecting change."

That's good news for the countless animals who will otherwise go through a similar trauma to that Cooper was forced to endure.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The hidden plight of production-line pets