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City Weekend

Hong Kong sisters spearhead pigeon rescues but face prejudice and legal obstacles

Inez and Gian help the city’s wounded birds in the face of opposition from the public and they want the government to do more to help combat misconceptions about the health risks from contact with pigeons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 10:04am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 October, 2018, 10:04am

In Victoria Park, an elderly man, visibly annoyed, spits a mouthful of water at a flock of feeding pigeons.

He turns to sisters Gian and Inez and snaps at them: “The reason they’re here defecating and spreading germs all over the place is because people like you feed them!”

The man, who declined to give his name, then takes a fresh mouthful of water before launching another attack on the birds.

Inez says this outburst is relatively mild, adding that she has seen people pour boiling water over pigeons.

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She and Gian run “Hong Kong Pigeon and Dove Rescue”, a Facebook group dedicated to promoting awareness for the well-being of pigeons, and which teaches members how to nurse sick birds back to health.

When Gian rescued her first pigeon four years ago, she took the injured bird to several vets before one was willing to take a look at it. The pigeon had a broken wing and it was likely it would never fly again. On the vet’s advice, Gian reluctantly had the bird put down. “Looking back, I think I could’ve nursed it back to health and kept it,” she says. “Even if it never flew again, at least it would’ve lived.”

It was this loss that inspired Gian and Inez, both in their 30s and who prefer to be mentioned only by their first names, to start the Facebook group. With the help of a few like-minded friends, in one year, the group has developed into a community of more than 1,100 members.

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“There aren’t many locally available pigeon care resources and providers, unlike those for cats and dogs,” says Gian, a self-taught pigeon rescuer.

“So we created a platform where people can exchange pigeon care tips and learn how to care for sick and injured pigeons without professional intervention.”

For many Hongkongers, like those in the park, what they are doing is unthinkable.

“Pigeons are filthy!” Leung Iok-lam, 70, says.

A pair of Form Six students from a nearby secondary school seem to agree. “I wouldn’t touch a sick pigeon if I saw one,” Melody Ni Tak-yan says. “I’d worry about contracting some sort of disease.”

“Or making a sick pigeon sicker,” Lim Chi-ling adds.

Gian and Inez however, believe pigeons are the victims of misconceptions.

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“Many people automatically associate pigeons with avian flu, partly because of public health campaigns,” says Gian, referring to government regulations that forbid feeding feral pigeons to prevent the spread of so-called “bird diseases”.

“I see where they’re coming from, but I hope they would delve deeper into this issue instead of simply believing everything they hear.”

The regulations were introduced in 2003 as part of the government’s efforts to slow the growth of feral bird populations, which authorities claimed were a public nuisance and the cause of hygiene problems. Offenders face fines of HK$1,500 (US$191).

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However, according to findings by the World Health Organisation (WHO) from 2002, comparative studies involving pigeons and other bird species showed pigeons were resistant or minimally susceptible to coming down with bird flu.

Subsequent studies on pigeons sampled in China, Japan, Turkey, Romania and Ukraine suggest that pigeons have played a minimal role in the spread of the H5N1 avian flu virus, which emerged in 2004.

Still, the WHO cautioned against unnecessary close contact with pigeons, citing other studies that demonstrate an increased susceptibility of pigeons to the H5N1 strain.

Gian and Inez, who have cared for more than 100 sick or injured pigeons over the past four years, say they have never contracted diseases from the birds, despite not using gloves, surgical masks and other protective gear when handling them. The sisters believe the government’s persistent warnings have created an unwarranted fear of pigeons among many Hongkongers, including even animal health care workers.

“One time, I took a pigeon to the vet to get an X-ray – and it was returned to me with a broken leg,” says Inez. She suspects the medical staff, whom she says were reluctant to handle the bird , broke the leg during the scan.

Meanwhile, Gian recalls being turned down by multiple vets: “Many vets are concerned about taking in pigeons because they do not want to risk getting in trouble with the law, or worry about bird flu affecting business.”

“Many vets are concerned about taking in pigeons because they do not want to risk getting in trouble with the law, or worry about bird flu affecting business”

In Hong Kong, premises where more than 20 pigeons are bred, housed, or cared for require a licence.

Gian has had to rent a second flat to accommodate her work. Her retail career, which requires shift work, means dedicating time to the pigeons can sometimes be difficult. “When you really believe in something, you’ll do whatever it takes to do it right,” she says.

Looking ahead, the Facebook group hopes to involve more experts and professionals from relevant fields to conduct research on the impact of pigeons on public health and the environment, and potentially propose changes to legislation and education – for example, designating feeding zones and implementing measures to control the pigeon population.

Passionate as she may be, Gian is careful where she draws the line between her career, personal life and volunteering. “Many people take it for granted that we would drop everything and help out whenever there is a pigeon in need,” she says. “But I have my own life to lead. If we’re going to push for change, it’s got to be a team effort.”