Hong Kong may be one of the most densely populated places on Earth, but it’s not just humans who are feeling the squeeze. At the last census, one in eight households owned a dog; that’s a total of 317,024 dogs in a city of just over 1,000 square kilometres, and that’s only counting the ones that carry an official licence. Staggering numbers when you consider that the average Hong Kong dwelling is just 600 square feet – hardly room to swing a cat!
When Sally Anderson, the founder of Hong Kong Dog Rescue, started her charity back in 2003, the number of dogs was almost 372 percent lower, but the issues resulting from an over population of dogs was already becoming evident.
“I lived on Lamma at the time, and I still do, overlooking George Island that I renamed Dog Island,” recalls Sally. “I used to watch local fishermen dump unwanted dogs there so I started rowing over there and feeding them. Eventually that led to me re-homing a few of the puppies with friends and through Dollarsaver.”
What started as a small act of mercy for a few dogs became something more when she made her first visit to the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department dog pound in Pokfulam. “A litter of puppies was born to two wild dogs on the island and I couldn’t catch them, so I asked the AFCD for help. When I followed up with a visit to the kennels there was a little Schnauzer there and it was going to be put to sleep so I decided I had to take him. I couldn’t take a dog out of the AFCD as an individual so I had to set up HKDR and that’s how it all began.”
Sally arrived in Hong Kong on a yacht from Taiwan with a friend in 2003. Her intention was to see the sights of Hong Kong for six months and then move on. Thankfully for dogs and dog-lovers alike she didn’t, and since founding the charity she has successfully re-homed countless dogs to loving families.
When I met up with Sally at the end of May things at HKDR were not exactly rosy. Despite the excitement of being in the final phase of the refurbishment of their new education and training centre, proceedings were tinged with an air of desperation. No adoptions were made at the last two puppy re-homing days hosted at Whiskers N Paws in Horizon Plaza, an occurrence that has never happened in HKDR’s 10-year history. A combination of factors are to blame; the endless bad weather, numerous public holidays, job market uncertainty and the impending summer holidays. The timing couldn’t be worse. “We are right in the middle of breeding season; puppies are being born all over Hong Kong and if we don’t home the older dogs then I can’t take in any new ones,” explains Sally.
The dogs, thankfully, are blissfully unaware of the rising panic. In the Mini Homing Centre at the end of Ap Lei Chau Main Street, 30 of the smaller dogs are housed on two floors of an average Hong Kong shop building. Walks are taken at the nearby dog park and everyone – from Mac, a crossbreed abandoned by his owners, to Teeny, a tiny one-year-old Chihuahua who was surrendered by its owners to AFCD – seems to be living in almost perfect harmony.
The desperate reality of the current lack of adoptions becomes all too apparent at our next stop. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department’s dog pound in Pokfulam; one of four such kennels in the city. Here, unwanted dogs are surrendered by their owners; many are found on the street, others are stray village dogs from rural areas. All of them have one fate: be destroyed within four days if they are not claimed by their owners or taken in by a charity such as Hong Kong Dog Rescue.
Sally visits the AFCD up to three times a week to choose dogs that she feels are suitable for re-homing or those that she feels just need her care. Unfortunately she can’t take all of them and has to take a very unemotional view of proceedings. “I can’t look at dogs more than once,” explains Sally. “If I have chosen not to take them, then I just have to walk past them on subsequent visits. It’s dreadful but it’s the only way I can manage.”
On this visit, room back at HKDR in Ap Lei Chau and at the other kennels in Tai Po is scarce so only two lucky ones make it out; Chloe an eight-month-old cross and Molly, a Labrador-cross whose litter of puppies was rescued by Sally two weeks previously.
After rabies shots and microchips, it’s off to visit vet Tony at Acorn Veterinary hospital for heartworm checks and a general health MOT. Sally’s annual vet bill is $100,000.
Although Sally provides a wonderful service to many dog lovers in the city, her true love and loyalty lies with her four-legged friends. She personally selects every animal that comes into her care and has an instant and unique rapport with each of them, be it a placid labradoodle or a boisterous Labrador.
When it comes to humans in Hong Kong, she doesn’t have quite such compassion, having witnessed some jaw-dropping animal cruelty and selfishness over the years. Despite the propensity of dog groomers, dog outfitters and even dog bakeries in our city, a staggering number of dogs are abandoned by so-called dog-lovers for whom the novelty of dog-ownership has worn off. “Unfortunately buying a dog in the city can sometimes be an impulse buy,” explains Sally. “You could be walking past a pet shop and see a corgi (currently very much in vogue) and decide to buy it, but after a few months realise the reality of owning a pet and dump the unwanted dog on the street. A lot of expats bring their dogs to me when they are being posted elsewhere or returning home.”
Sally is trying to educate people about the realities of dog ownership. She has just opened an education and training centre in Ap Lei Chau where would-be dog owners can take pre-adoption training courses. Regular open days are held for corporate and school groups to learn about the work of HKDR and lend a hand. Positive Partners training courses are held at Whiskers N Paws once a week, where dog owners can come to learn new techniques from HKDR’s resident dog whisperer Cactus.
Before adopting from HKDR, every prospective dog owner has to fill in a questionnaire and that is where the reality between what first-time dog owners expect and what is needed by the dog becomes clear. “One of the main questions is ‘How often will you walk your dog?’” explains Sally. “We regularly get people responding with ‘Once a week’ or ‘Never, the street is too dirty’. Obviously we have to turn those candidates down.”
Unfortunately, genuine dog lovers often prefer to import purebreds from other countries or from hobby breeders, a practice which just adds to the problems created by an over-population of dogs. “People are wrongly under the impression that we only have ‘Hong Kong dogs’. We don’t. We have almost every breed and if you are willing to wait we can meet almost any requirement.”
Many believe that purebreds will be healthier and have a better temperament, however, the opposite can sometimes be true. Often, so-called ‘purebreds’ come from puppy farms where the mothers are kept in poor living conditions and the puppies are taken from them too early. The result? Dogs that are weak and unhealthy with inherited problems. HKDR believes that a dog’s health and personality are far more important than its breed.
Sally faces an uphill struggle every day and it’s no wonder when I ask her if she ever wants to close the doors and walk away that she answers honestly: “Nearly every day”. But she wouldn’t; Sally eats, breathes and sleeps her beloved dogs – literally, with several puppies sleeping in her bedroom every night and over 20 sharing her home on Lamma. She admits she never takes a holiday and her social life is almost non-existent.
Her abiding wish is to find a permanent home for Hong Kong Dog Rescue, but with strict zoning regulations and the reluctance of village elders to welcome her with open arms, it is proving difficult. Currently, the main re-homing centre, a former lychee farm in Tai Po which houses over 300 dogs, is on a year-by-year lease and the lease on Sally’s own home on Lamma where she houses most of the puppies is up for renewal next year. It’s a very unsatisfactory situation.
Afterwards, I walk up Ap Lei Chau Main Street only to be met by a brand new pet shop. Chow chow puppies stare out at me from their cages, no doubt with hefty price tags. Their fate a loving home perhaps, or maybe a much-desired fashion accessory which will soon be discarded when trends change and reality hits. Sally has dedicated her life to saving these dogs but the real battle still to be won is educating the humans.
How to Help
It costs $600,000 a month to run Hong Kong Dog Rescue. Even if you can’t adopt a dog you can help in the following ways:
- Foster a dog for a short time to get it used to living in a home or to give it a quiet space to recover after illness or surgery. Sally currently has 20 foster families.
- Raise funds by attending one of HKDR’s regular events including the annual ball or Peak to Fong charity walk.
- Volunteer as a dog walker at the Ap Lei Chau or Tai Po homing centres.
- Donate your time and experience. HKDR is always looking for handymen, photographers, designers, drivers, event planners and so on.
- Organise a corporate or school visit to HKDR.
- Get your children involved; suggest that they fundraise by asking for donations to HKDR rather than birthday gifts. Donations can be made through twopresents.com or www.simplygiving.com.
- Visit Sally’s blog at www.hongkongdogrescue.com for updates on her amazing work.
- Most importantly, if you are considering getting a dog, speak to Sally first before heading to a pet shop or breeder.
Hong Kong Dog Rescue
21 Main Street
Ap Lei Chau
3480 0061 | hongkongdogrescue.com
Puppy Adoption Days every Sunday 2pm to 5pm
Whiskers N Paws
10/F Horizon Plaza
2 Lee Wing Street
Ap Lei Chau
2552 6200 | wnp.com.hk