Dog lovers bite back: time for Hong Kong to fix archaic laws and train police to fight animal abuse
Activists and pet owners call for special law enforcement team to handle animal cruelty cases, but it seems an overhaul of the system, down to public responsibility, may be needed
On a regular evening walk in Fanling, Hong Kong, last Thursday, Micro, an eight-year-old chihuahua, was his usual self – a bouncing, rambunctious ball of fur. But when he returned home, he was vomiting and having seizures.
A few hours later, Micro died at a 24-hour veterinary clinic. It was suspected that he had swallowed poisoned baits.
It was days later that grieving owner Gabrielle Wong Wai-wai, 30, found out that seven other dogs in her neighbourhood at Wah Ming Estate had been poisoned on the same day.
The deaths were part of a spate of animal killings in the same month. In less than two weeks, 14 dogs were poisoned across various districts in the city and among them 13, including Micro, died.
There was more grim news. Siu Pak – or Little Whitey in English – a 10-year-old Japanese spitz, died after apparently being thrown from the top of a residential block in Cheung Sha Wan last Wednesday. His owner’s son, 23, was arrested for animal cruelty.
In light of the cases, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor has said the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department and police would strengthen animal protection measures. Lam noted that more Hongkongers in recent years were concerned about animal welfare and rights.
The city’s leader also received a petition from Democratic Party lawmaker Roy Kwong Chun-yu. With more than 50,000 online signatures, it calls on the government to compile a comprehensive animal protection ordinance and set up a special police team to handle animal cruelty cases.
Lam pledged that authorities would look into increasing penalties for animal abusers. Police would also enhance training for officers to facilitate proper investigations.
The chief executive, however, was non-committal when pressed by lawmakers on whether a dedicated police squad would be set up to target animal abusers.
The cases revived memories of the Bowen Road poisonings, stretching back at least 25 years, in which up to 200 dogs ate tainted bait, many with fatal results, in the scenic area of Mid-Levels.
Taking stock of the distress felt by animal lovers across the city over the fresh wave of cases, criminologist Dennis Wong Sing-wing says there is a possibility that such acts may continue to spread, speculating on a link between the offences and social disorders in the city.
“I believe these are pathological individuals who do not respect that animals have feelings and are living beings,” says Wong, a professor at City University.
“It may be because he or she was bitten or frightened by a dog during an earlier stage in life, which caused a build-up of this hatred towards the animal and a lack of empathy.
“For such people, they can’t stand seeing dogs and want them gone forever, which may explain why they would go to such lengths to kill the dogs with poison.”
He also says there is a high possibility that such criminals may have recently been harassed by dogs, causing them to channel their distress into acts of poisoning.
Bringing abusers to justice
Animal advocates say the city needs a designated team to enforce animal abuse laws because officers often lack the knowledge or incentive to go after culprits.
In Hong Kong, cruelty to animals carries a maximum penalty of three years’ jail and a fine of up to HK$200,000 (US$25,500).
In 2017, there were 80 reported cases that led to 45 people being arrested, and in 2016 there were 69 cases and 28 arrests, according to police figures.
But Mark Mak Chi-ho, executive chairman of the Non-Profit-Making Veterinary Services Society, says the arrest rate is low and even fewer people are prosecuted. “Hundreds of dogs are poisoned every year, but not a single prosecution arises because the investigation process is too difficult.”
Mak says inadequate enforcement measures and lack of knowledge by authorities have contributed to a rise in the number of animal cruelty cases.
In Micro’s case, his owner, Wong, who made a police report, is also sceptical about whether those behind the death of her pet will be brought to justice. “The officers were friendly but not necessarily helpful,” she said.
According to Wong, she was asked by two different teams of officers to provide statements. “They would make unlikely assumptions and we went through the same procedure twice. They also weren’t familiar with cases dealing with animals.”
Wong says police asked for a postmortem examination of her dog, but she was reluctant because she would not have been able to collect Micro’s body after the procedure and she was told it would be disposed of at a landfill.
She says: “I understand the urge to get to the bottom of the case, but just like for a deceased family member, we want to bury his remains and it was insensitive of them to suggest dumping Micro in a pile of trash afterwards.”
While Wong says she appreciates the efforts of police, she urges authorities to set up a dedicated unit for such cases. “There are professional units and special investigators for different kinds of crimes, so why is it that we don’t have a special task force to investigate cases involving animals?”
Echoing her views, animal rights activist Mak says: “As far as I am aware, some police in certain districts have investigation teams to deal with such cases, but they are only set up on a voluntary basis, meaning there isn’t a statutory requirement or a standard procedure.
“With no systematic procedure, police are handling animal cruelty crimes on a case-by-case basis, with the ultimate goal to get it over with, without sympathy for the owners whatsoever.”
Don’t forget cats and dogs
Mak says society has indeed become more aware of animal rights amid a growing number of pet owners in the city in recent years. But while the trend is encouraging, he says outdated laws are a pressing issue.
He cites Section 56 of the city’s Road Traffic Ordinance, which stipulates that “when an accident involving a vehicle has occurred on a road and caused damage to an animal, the driver of that vehicle must stop and report the accident to police as soon as possible”. However, the provision is only applicable to horses, cattle, sheep, pigs and goats, with no mention of cats or dogs, Mak points out.
“The law might have been effective 30 or 40 years ago, because in the old days these were properties to people. This reflects that the purpose of the set-up is to protect humans rather than animals.
“And it’s worrying to see that the government has stopped short of covering cats and dogs, implying that if a driver hits one, he or she is free to drive off without any legal responsibility,” he says.
Authorities have taken steps to address the issue. In 2006, the maximum penalty under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance was raised from a fine of HK$5,000 and six months in prison to HK$200,000 and three years behind bars.
Mak admits that a tougher law would deter offenders, but argues that lax enforcement is driving up the number of animal cruelty cases.
Efforts on all fronts
Fiona Woodhouse, deputy director of welfare at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, says setting up a special police unit and updating the law is not enough.
“On one hand, it’s good to have trained police who are aware of how to interpret such cases and initiate investigations,” she says, but adds that there’s room for improvement on all fronts.
“It’s a combination of things, having informed frontline officers but also having better prosecutors, lawyers who know how to argue the cases, and also a judiciary with relevant understanding.”
She says the social environment in Hong Kong may have contributed to the spate of pet abandonment and animal cruelty cases.
“Historically, we may have had a disposable attitude towards animals [that contributed to] abandonment and the lack of consideration that they can feel pain,” Woodhouse says.
She adds that cramped living conditions also give rise to a higher chance of animal abuse. “You have a situation where housing is expensive, prompting a high number of family members living together in one compact flat.
“Sometimes, under such conditions, conflicts arise because an occupant in the house may not like the pet belonging to another member.”
Woodhouse also suggests the public should be more willing to come forward as witnesses in court cases. “Most of the time when someone spots a suspected case, the person may be reluctant to give statements in court. It’s not just about detecting the case, it’s also about rescuing the animal and providing evidence so we can put criminals behind bars.”
She suggests members of the public take pictures or videos that can be presented as evidence, if they come across a case of animal abuse or neglect.
Recent high-profile cases of dog poisoning
Location: Cha Kwo Ling, East Kowloon
Date: April 7, 2018
A woman made a police report after two of her dogs started vomiting and suffering from cramps. When officers arrived, one dog had died. The other animal was sent for treatment. Initial investigation showed both were believed to have been poisoned.
Location: Wah Ming Estate, Fanling
Date: April 5, 2018
At least six dogs died from suspected poisoning after going on walks with their owners around the neighbourhood. Among them was Micro, an 8-year-old chihuahua. No arrests have been made and the cases have been temporarily classified as cruelty to animals.
Location: Cheung Sha Wan
Date: April 4, 2018
A 10-year-old Japanese spitz was found dead next to a residential block. It was believed to have been thrown from the top of the 23-storey building. Just two days before the incident, marine police had rescued what was believed to be the same dog from the waters off Victoria Harbour. The dog owner’s son, 23-year-old Ho Tsz-kwan, was arrested on suspicion of animal cruelty. Ho was denied bail and the case has been adjourned to May 18.
Location: Wai Tau Tsuen and Tai Wo Village, Tai Po
Date: April 3, 2018
A woman filed a police report over the suspected killings of two dogs. When officers arrived at the scene, another dead dog was found, totalling at least seven canines found dead in the New Territories villages.
Location: San Tau Village, Lantau Island
Date: November 6, 2017
Eleven pet owners lost their dogs, with all the animals having showed signs of poisoning after a walk around the remote village. Police said it was unusual for so many dogs to die in one location within such a short period of time, and classified the case as animal cruelty.