More bite, please: Hong Kong animal rights groups say new anti-cruelty bill with stiffer penalties not tough enough
Amendment to Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance will require owners to ensure welfare of pets
Rights activists want law to protect animals at abattoirs, markets, and rules on feeding strays
Hong Kong animal rights groups have welcomed the government’s move to tighten anti-cruelty laws, but some say the proposed changes do not go far enough to deter abusers.
A bill to amend the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance will go before the Legislative Council later this year, increasing penalties, introducing a new indictable offence and strengthening enforcement powers to prevent pets from suffering physically and mentally.
The proposals include imposing a “duty of care” on those responsible for animals, requiring owners to safeguard their welfare.
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Owners may be penalised if they fail to take care of their animals, including keeping them in good shape and health, letting them exercise and play regularly, and providing them clean water and a balanced diet. They must also take sick pets to the vet, and vaccinate them.
The bill proposes increasing the maximum penalty for offenders to seven years’ jail and a fine of up to HK$1,000,000 (US$127,000).
It also recommends extending the time bar for prosecution – currently six months – to allow more time to initiate action in more complex cases.
Adding a duty of care to the law would help by making owners responsible for their pets’ welfare, some groups said.
“Currently anti-cruelty legislation in Hong Kong cannot protect animals at risk of abuse and suffering, as authorities cannot step in to help a neglected animal until it has actually been harmed,” said a spokesman for the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA).
But others wanted the bill widened to cover more types of animals and provide for heavier punishments.
Amanda Whitfort, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong (HKU), said it was wrong not to extend the duty of care to food animals meant for human consumption, including those in farms, slaughterhouses and markets.
“It’s not just about pets,” said Whitfort, an expert on animal-welfare legislation. “Go down to a wet market, have a look at the way animals are tied up or kept, or fish being flipped from one container to another to show off how fresh they are by the stallholders.”
She said food animals were protected in other jurisdictions as the duty of care principle was rooted in concern about the way all animals were treated when alive.
“Leaving food animals out is extraordinary for Hong Kong to do,” she said.
However, in a reply to the Post, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said methods of rearing, transporting and selling food animals were “currently accepted by society”.
Whitfort also urged the authorities to impose a complete ban on “mercy release”, when people set animals free into the wild, including turtles released into waterways.
The bill only specifies an act of cruelty if releasing an animal leads to its “unnecessary suffering”.
Linda Tse Hiu-mui, founder of the Hong Kong Saving Cat and Dog Association, called for more protection for strays, and urged the authorities to do more to regulate the feeding of such animals.
Feeding wild birds or animals is not illegal, but people who feed strays risk being slapped with a HK$1,500 fixed penalty for contaminating public areas by leaving food.
“Many animal lovers are afraid of being prosecuted for feeding stray animals and can only feed them sneakily. It would be helpful if the government could collect data on strays and set up designated feeding stations,” she said.
All those interviewed were concerned by the relatively low proportion of cases prosecuted successfully, and wondered if this situation would persist even after the law was tightened.
In a study of cases between January 2013 and December 2019, the SPCA and HKU found that fewer than half the 143 people convicted for serious animal cruelty went to jail, and for an average of only 2.4 months.
Police said they received 70 cruelty complaints in 2020, with 39 cases detected and 50 people arrested.
Whitfort, who conducted the joint study, said many cases were not prosecuted because the offender could not be found.
Alex Wong Hoi-ming, founder of Hong Kong Bunny Rescue, called for “animal police” to step up action against abuse.
In 2018, the force set up animal crime teams in 22 police districts to investigate cruelty cases, with officers trained to spot abuse. But team members also dealt with other crimes.
Calling for a dedicated team, Wong said: “No matter how strict the penalties are, if there are insufficient police officers to investigate, the amended law will not deter abusers.”
Avis Fung Suk-kwan, chief executive officer of Paws Hero, an NGO focused on animal protection education, agreed there was a need to step up investigation and prosecution.
“The current failure in addressing animal cruelty lies with passive law enforcement,” she said.