Making the Case for Animal Welfare

Making the Case for Animal Welfare

Hong Kong may be an advanced economy and boast of being "Asia's World City", but when it comes to protecting animal welfare, it is in many ways rooted in a deep, dark past.

A 2010 review of animal welfare legislation by Amanda Whitfort, Associate Professor in the Department of Professional Legal Education, and veterinarian Dr Fiona Woodhouse of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, has become a spark for change by pointing out the inadequacies in Hong Kong's laws and suggesting a more humane approach.

Hong Kong laws currently are concerned with prevention of cruelty rather than the promotion of a duty of care, and typically cruelty cannot be proven until harm to the animal has already been done.

"In most cases animals are not harmed by deliberate cruelty but by acts of negligence. However you can't do anything legally until the animals actually begin to suffer – an animal in danger of suffering has no legal protection at all," Ms Whitfort says. So if an animal is left without food or water, they have to already be starving or dehydrated to prosecute for cruelty.

"People who keep animals should provide care for them which is more than just protection from cruelty. They should be legally required to provide a minimum standard of living so animals are not hungry or thirsty and they have shelter, medical attention and a chance to engage in their natural behaviors (such as exercise)."

The duty-of-care approach has been adopted in such other jurisdictions as the U.S., Taiwan, Australia, Europe and New Zealand, and the authors are hoping Hong Kong will be prodded into following suit.

The 180-page review examines the current welfare of animals in all types of situations – slaughterhouses, wild animals, strays, laboratory animals and pets - from both a legal and scientific perspective. So far, political parties across the spectrum have embraced the findings and the government has started to take notice and introduce some changes in its policies.

Slaughterhouses, for example, have reduced the voltage of electric shocks and introduced noise flappers to help get animals moving into pens and along chutes.

The Department of Justice is proactively reviewing sentences for animal cruelty convictions. The report showed sentences had not changed since the maximum penalty was increased in 2006 to three years in prison and a $200,000 fine, from the old standard of six months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

The government has agreed to trial a trap-neuter-release programme for strays, which is more humane than the current capture-and-kill policy, after the review showed trap-neuter-release was legally viable in Hong Kong. It has also been shown in other countries to be more effective in controlling feral animal populations.

And the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department is developing a code of practice for the care of companion animals, and has begun meeting regularly with the police and SPCA to discuss animal welfare cases.

Ms Whitfort said there was still much more that could be done, such as introducing legislation based on a duty of care, but the review had achieved some important aims, most notably putting the issue of animal welfare on the public agenda.

"Laws should do what they were intended to do and when it comes to laws protecting animals, we had to ask, are they actually protecting animals?" she says.

"No one had sat down before and looked at animal welfare laws in Hong Kong like this. We wanted to give the public the data and let the government see how the current legislation is now appallingly outdated."

Ms Whitfort with one of Hong Kong’s local dogs adopted from the SPCA

Ms Amanda Whitfort received the Faculty Knowledge Exchange Award 2011 of the Faculty of Law for the "Review of Animal Welfare Legislation in Hong Kong" project.