City Weekend

How Hong Kong trekker became one of dogs’ best friends in quake-hit Nepal

After holiday of a lifetime, former social worker Chang Chuen-man stayed behind to help devastated community rebuild homes – and help stray animals

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 2:34pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 January, 2018, 2:33pm

A dream came true for Hongkonger Chang Chuen-man when he completed the challenge of a lifetime trekking in the Himalayas back in 2015. But a week before he had expected to fly home from Nepal, disaster struck and an earthquake killed nearly 9,000 people in the country.

Chang, like most others, could have looked for the next available flight out and escaped the natural disaster. But he decided to stay for a few more months to help the local community rebuild their homes.

On top of that, the dog lover also focused his efforts on saving “man’s best friend”.

“The feeling was like being in a boat being carried away by waves,” says Chang, a former social worker in his 40s, recalling the moment he felt the 7.8-magnitude earthquake.

“All of a sudden the ground was moving … I felt dizzy and confused.

“I only realised it was an earthquake after the tremor stopped six to eight seconds later.”

Chang was safe at Bardia National Park, around 500km west of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, when the devastating earthquake hit at around noon on April 25, 2015.

He says Kathmandu was “hell-like” when he finally got there. More than 600,000 structures in the city and nearby towns were damaged or destroyed.

From distributing food to carrying roofing materials to a post-quake camp, Chang did almost everything he could to help.

“I felt like I was the right person because of my past work experience,” says Chang, who had worked as a registered social worker in Hong Kong for more than 10 years.

“While I was helping those in need, I also saw lots of stray dogs. Most were suffering from skin problems or injured by vehicles. But no one had the time to deal with them.”

Chang says he became a dog lover years ago when his ex-girlfriend kept one as a pet. He likes how interactive dogs are. So, when he saw the stray dogs in Nepal, he knew he had to do something.

“I started to approach local NGOs looking for any kind of partnership. I also brought sick dogs to the vet on my own,” Chang says. “That is how I started helping dogs there. And since then, I have been deeply connected with the local community there.”

Last January, Chang partnered with Nepal Animal Welfare and Research Centre on a five-day “catch-neuter-return” programme in which 51 stray dogs were sterilised. He thinks sterilisation is the most effective way to tackle the rising number of strays.

Although 51 is a rather small number since the country is home to more than 22,500 stray dogs, according to Kathmandu Animal Treatment Centre, Chang believes big things have small beginnings.

One of the most memorable cases involved a three-month-old puppy named Jacky that was adopted by a family in a post-quake camp.

“Jacky had a broken leg as he was hit by a car. The family were sad to see how much Jacky was suffering, but they didn’t have any money to treat him. So, I told them I could take care of all the medical costs. But in return I made them promise me they would take good care of Jacky afterwards because he is their dog,” Chang says.

He says he was happy to see a poor family like that agree to be responsible pet owners, as he believes animal welfare can only be improved when the whole community works together.

In the past two years, Chang has returned to Nepal regularly to carry out similar charity work. Even though he recently took up a new job in Australia, the adventurer shows no sign of stopping.

Chang is recruiting volunteers and at least two veterinary surgeons from Hong Kong for a stray dog desexing programme in Nepal in April this year. This time, Chang aims to help 200 animals.

“I have been asked quite a few times about why I help animals in Nepal instead of those in Hong Kong. But we should not forget that conditions are much harsher and resources are quite scarce there when compared to an advanced city like Hong Kong,” Chang says.

“I believe we, as outsiders, may not be the ultimate problem solvers. But, if we could offer a little bit of help, then why not?”