Around 6 a.m. on a beautiful Sunday morning in 1995, lawyer Jonathan Midgley was walking his dogs on Bowen Road, a popular dog-walking road in the Mid-levels when he came across a Chinese man with a pink plastic supermarket bag who appeared to be putting down food on the ground.
The man, approximately in his mid-40s, had a particularly round face, spoke broken English and wore cotton blue tops and matching bottoms. As Midgley was suspicious and challenged him politely, the man responded that he as an animal lover was here to “feed the birds and animals that are around”.
Very soon after the man departed, Midgley’s dog Ruth began to shake and foam. Midgley gathered up some of the food and took it to the university for testing. And a cocktail of poisons was found.
Since the 1990s, poisonous baits have been continuously found in the popular dog-walking areas, Bowen Road and Black Link’s areas. At least 200 dogs have been poisoned and the perpetrator remains at large.
“The big problem with this type of poisoning incidents is that it tends to be a crime that occurs at a distance from the victim. The bait can be laid a day or so before the dog actually gets around to eating it,” Fiona Woodhouse, SPCA Director of Animal Welfare said. “So it can be very difficult to identify potential suspects with the incidents because there may be a big time gap available.”
SPCA, Hong Kong’s largest animal non-profit, has taken various strategies looking into the poisonings. Apart from visual patrols by security guards, the organisation has had undercover patrols with inspectors and volunteers pretending to be hikers around the areas. A reward of $200,000 is also offered to capture the poisoner.
Amanda Whitfort, associate professor in the Faculty of Law at the University of Hong Kong who specialises in animal-related crimes, believes that it all has to do with the outmoded animal laws in Hong Kong.
“Cap. 169 hasn’t been amended since it was introduced into Hong Kong back in the 1930s. It has a very out-of-date view as to what is animal cruelty. It only thinks about cruelty in the same way that the Victorians thought about cruelty.” Whitfort said.
The Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, also known as Cap. 169, was modelled after the British Protection Act of 1911 drafted a century ago. Under this ordinance, only averted acts of cruelty are recognised, such as cruelly beating and kicking.
“You have to be able to prove that there was an averted acts of cruelty involving that event with that animal in order to prosecute the poisoner, which is difficult to prove to the criminal recurrence and standards and beyond all reasonable doubt at court,” she said. “Unless he is caught in the act it will be very difficult to prosecute him under the current law.”
Whitfort suggests an amendment to the law to ensure the person caught can be prosecuted simply for leaving the meat behind, regardless of whether they are seen at the crime or that there is any other kind of witness who can provide evidence of “that was the particular individual who poisoned that particular dog”.
A combination of outdated laws and poisoning cases that show no signs of stopping has put the government under fire, with dog owners blaming them for taking a passive role. Sarah James, who has had three occasions when her two dogs Holly and Max were poisoned on Bowen Road, is one of them.
“I don’t think the government are animal lovers. If they were, perhaps they would take these crimes more seriously,” she said. “It’s a shame that they don’t realise how much love we have for them and how much we care, and how much pain this poisoner causes us.”
“It shouldn’t matter if it was a human. If this kind of thing happen to a human they would of course call it a crime. But just because it’s a dog they don’t care? It’s not right.” she added.
Midgley also described the police as “not being terribly interested” in the poisoning when his dog got poisoned.
“They weren’t interested to take a statement,” he said. “They became interested actually when Chris Patten’s dog Whiskey was hurt by the poisoning. And at that point they became very interested in the whole thing.”
And poisoning incidents never left town. In April 2018, 10 dogs were found dead in Fanling due to suspected poisoning.
While public demand for the government to do something escalates, legislator Claudia Mo was pessimistic about the future of local animal laws after a one-on-one meeting with Chief Executive Carrie Lam when she took office last year.
“The impression I got at the time is that Carrie Lam couldn’t care less about animal welfare or animal rights. She’s got too much already on her plate.” Mo said. “She just couldn’t have the time nor the energy, and probably not the heart to deal with it.”
“I would suspect that in the next four years of her term, Carrie Lam is unlikely to do anything to upgrade Hong Kong’s laws.” she said.