Are Hong Kong’s laws on animal abuse and neglect outdated?
SPCA calls for more awareness and tougher sentences to deter people from cruel acts, as well as for would-be pet owners to think carefully before owning a furry companion
It is a tale of two extremes: as more Hongkongers pamper their pets with spa treatments and take them out in strollers, horrific stories of animals being starved to death or dumped on the streets in large numbers continue to make headlines.
And while the figures may look encouraging – data from the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) indicate that the number of stray animals caught has been on the decline – the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said outdated laws and lax enforcement allowed cases of animal abuse to continue.
According to the AFCD, 3,880 stray dogs were caught last year, compared with 5,189 in 2015, while nearly 400 fewer people gave up their pets over the same period.
But SPCA said it still had to put down 1,400 animals last year because of a lack of resources.
Teresa Lee Sy-jia, welfare programme manager at SPCA Hong Kong, said cases of animal neglect and abuse stemmed from people having pets without properly considering the responsibilities.
“There are more and more people who are owning animals. Whether these people are necessarily suited or have thought it out … is a different question,” she said.
Under the law, anyone who abandons an animal without reasonable excuse is punishable by a maximum fine of HK$10,000 and six months’ imprisonment.
But according to the AFCD, not a single prosecution was initiated in the past three years.
On the other hand, an average of 60 to 80 abuse cases were taken up by police each year, with successful convictions in 30 to 40 per cent of them.
Lee said those who were convicted were let off with only a slap on the wrist.
WATCH: A day in the life of an SPCA animal inspector
“That’s why it’s also important to educate people about the law,” the veterinary surgeon said.
The SPCA has been conducting classes for prosecutors and lawyers who work on animal abuse cases.
“There is an indisputable link between cruelty to animals and cruelty to humans … We want to make sure that everybody has that mindset and understands that when you see animal cruelty, you have to take it seriously,” Lee said.
Lee added that a more pressing issue was outdated laws. First introduced in 1935, the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance has seen little changes to this day.
A joint study by the SPCA and the University of Hong Kong’s law faculty in 2010 exposed many loopholes in the law, but lobbying efforts to update it have fallen on deaf ears.
Some people also take in animals in large numbers on a voluntary basis, usually out of love and compassion. But some of these animals have since fallen into neglect, leading to deaths in some of the worst cases.
In a case which shocked Hong Kong recently, a man left his 14 dogs and five turtles unattended at a village house for 12 days in July last year. Eight of the dogs died, and at least one survivor resorted to cannibalism by feeding off the dead carcasses.
The man was later sentenced to one year in jail.
“Perhaps [these people] start off well-intentioned, but they bite off more than they can chew,” Lee said.
“Those statistics are not transparent. We have no idea how many private shelters there are in Hong Kong, or how many people are out there keeping large numbers of animals.”
A simple solution to reduce abandonment, according to dog trainer Eddie Choi Yik-chai, is to ensure owners properly train their four-legged pals so they do not misbehave.
“A lot of owners abandon their dogs because they cannot control them. They complain of their dogs urinating everywhere at home, barking all the time and even biting them,” he said.
But Choi said professional training alone was not enough, as owners must devote time, patience, and lots of love for the pets to be properly conditioned.