In April 2016 I was invited to help get some footage of the SPCA Hong Kong's rescue teams in action. I've never seen the full scale of their rescue work, and despite working together many times in past years, I was still surprised by the scope and dedication that I saw.
And we're off! No sooner do I arrive than the day teams check their call outs and start on the road to check out today's cases. I joined one of the day teams, but the SPCA HK's hotline is 24-hours and there is always a team on duty. At this point in the day a round-the-clock rescue team sounds pretty reasonable, but later on I realise that more than reasonable, it's necessary.
I'm introduced to my team for the day, who get assigned a few of the most recent calls to check out and a few of the rescue teams hit the road while the rest man the telephones, receiving more calls from the public and public services.
1. Highway Dog
Our first stop is not a stop at all, but a drive-by. A stray dog has been reported crossing a highway, which is obviously dangerous for the dog, but also for anyone driving in this area. The SPCA handles as many calls as they can and are legally allowed, for all types of animals, no matter the situation. I ask the team whether they get any cases they think are too trivial to investigate. "No, we will always try to help, who else will care?"
Indeed, there is very little legal help for animals in HK, and the SPCA HK work with the police, fire brigade and local authorities so that they can help where these other organisations have no remit. This also means that as is common across Asia, welfare charities' hands are tied in a lot of cases we would consider cruelty: there are just no laws to enforce no matter how hard they want to. This is so common, and I see the will to fight as hard as possible in all the charities I work with.
We don't spot the dog this time, which has probably moved on by now, but they take their responsibility to check out these calls very seriously. These types of call regularly come in and often don't pan out, but the team will usually circle the area a few times to make sure there's no obvious danger to human or animal.
2. Flying a Kite
It's not just call-outs for the teams to handle. We took the call not too far away from Tai Po so that we could also drop one of our passengers off at Kadoorie Farm and Botanical Gardens, who care for countless species and injured animals in HK.
Last night the SPCA night-shift picked up an injured kite, which needs specialised care, and KFBG are just the folks to provide it. They are just one of the many organisations that co-operate throughout HK to make sure animals get the best care they can.
These kites are a native and popular species in HK and can be seen while you're hiking in the hills or sitting in your 50th floor office. I start to worry as there's very little movement, but I'm reassured by the team "Kites will often 'play dead' when they are scared, so they might not be injured too badly." The bird is handed over to Kadoorie who do an initial check, and with nothing critical they leave her to rest and recover from the stress of the rescue.
3. Dog Droppings
On the way to our next stop we drop off another passenger, this time an old poodle. When lost dogs are found or handed over to the SPCA, they first check if they are micro-chipped (which all pet dogs legally have to be in HK). If they are chipped with owner's details, they are required to be passed to the government centre, the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) for collection. If they are not collected, the SPCA will collect them to try and re-home them. Indeed, as you can guess, some 'lost' dogs are not lost at all, but abandoned. We'll meet some more of these later.
The AFCD facilities are also for quarantined dogs (like my poor mutt was after my return from Cambodia), as well as for euthanising stray or unwanted dogs. Photography isn't permitted at the AFCD, and it is just as well. We move on.
4. Cat TNR Programme
We head to the latest site for the SPCA's Cat Colony Care Programme (CCCP), the only legal programme in HK for Trap, Neuter, Release of cats in HK. Members of the public can sign up to the CCCP and will be provided with everything they need including cat boxes to catch them. Once caught, the SPCA will chip, de-sex and vaccinate the cats, and clip their ears to indicate they are part of the programme. They are then returned to their home to live out their lives as they wish. It's an excellent project.
This site is new and being recorded and assessed for suitability by the team. Meanwhile we head off to pick up another trap.
A local restaurant had called in to help with catching a cat that had found its way in to their restaurant and decided not to leave. They weren't able to catch it (there are lots of nice warm hiding places in a restaurant!) the SPCA loaned one of their CCCP traps to the owner, who managed to send the cat on its merry way. Just another example of how the SPCA help the community solve animal related problems as peacefully as possible.
6. Stray Dog Pickup
It's not even midday and we're off on our 6th job in another part of HK. A member of the public has reported another dog wandering around near a highway, this time not seeming so healthy as the one who we failed to spot earlier in the morning.
I manage to see him as we pass by, he's holed up around the side of a building, and we park nearby. Quene approaches and puts a lead around his neck. She is obviously well practiced and it doesn't take long. He struggles a little once the lead is on (and he has a go at biting it off), but they put a towel over his head to calm him down (and isn't a bad idea to protect a little against bites either).
Capturing a stray is a tough job that I've seen many times, and this guy is scared but doesn't put up too much of a fight compared to many I've seen. It doesn't look like he has the strength, he's extremely skinny.
We head back to the centre and he is assessed by a vet. There's nothing critical, but he is emaciated and potentially has tick fever. The main vet and homing facilities are in their Hong Kong Centre in Wan Chai, so we leave him some food and water, and come back to load up the van again to take him to get a full assessment and observation.
7. More cats, More Dogs
Every time we made it back to base, more dogs and cats had arrived. I'm more used to working in the forest than the city, and the scale of the work here is astounding. An abandoned golden retriever (too old to care about?), a bull terrier (too energetic?), two puppies from a village, and a few others, plus 10 or more cats from the CCCP project that will be released back to their homes.
10-20 animals just at the SPCA Kowloon Centre, not including their Wan Chai Centre, today and every day. By that count it's around 5500 animals per year, each with their individual health, personality and situation. I love to work with smaller charities who I feel need help more than larger ones, but today was a reminder that no matter how big you are, there are always enough problems to stretch your resources to the limit, and then some.
8. A Nest Egg
Another vigilant member of the public had found 3 sparrow hatchlings, and we're reminded that the season for baby birds is approaching. In many cases the best thing you can do for baby birds found on the floor, is leave them alone. In this case however, they were very young and 2 had already died, so off we went to pick up this little sparrow. We battled the rush-hour traffic and they handed him over in a little box.
He has an assessment too, and he looks good. They keep him warm on a rubber glove with warm water inside, and feed him some mashed up chicken feed and some water, which he takes (which is a very good sign).
Just like the kite, this is a native species who needs careful looking-after, so he will also be taken to KFBG tomorrow.
9. The Hong Kong Centre
We take our stray dog to the SPCA HK HQ on Hong Kong Island, and also took along a cat that was caught by the CCCP programme. This cat was already chipped, but seemed badly hurt and was also extremely skinny. To give you some idea of the care that is given to each animal, the entire top was taken off of the travel crate, because the cat was scared of being taken out from the front. He ran and hid in a corner and was given time to calm down before he was assessed by the vet team. Not only was he emaciated but also had pressure sores on his underside and legs. This means he has been barely eating and barely moving for weeks, and is likely to be in a lot of pain too. The vet team discuss with the rescue team on this cat's chances and how to proceed, and they all agree that euthanasia may be the best option.
This kind of discussion, the vet team taking everyone's viewpoints into account, is something I have only seen at the very best organisations during these difficult decisions. Ultimately it is a veterinary decision, and this is correct (I once heard of an appalling case where bad publicity was put before the welfare of the animal and the vet was let go). I see this kind of care when dealing with things like bears and elephants, at organisations who deal with fewer animals for longer periods. It is a small but very telling thing, and I was so happy to see it here. Whatever your views on euthanasia, I can say I haven't worked with any person or organisation working in welfare that simply opposes it, and it should always be decided with as much input and consideration as possible.
In this case, they contacted the people who caught this cat, who decided to pay for ongoing care and see if it is possible it can survive.
It was then our dog's turn. He was scared but well behaved, maybe realising he wasn't in danger, or maybe just lacking the strength to fight any more, it's impossible to tell. His condition became a bit clearer, his blood was taken for testing and he was given some tick-spray (you can see one of the little devils below). He could barely stand, and wouldn't take any food or water.
He was treated with so much patience, care and trust. His case was not as clear. He will be kept for observation to see if his health improves, or will ever improve. If he survives, as with the thousands of dogs that arrive every year, he will be assessed for homing. This is the difficult part.
There are too many dogs in HK and not enough space. Dogs that can't be homed or for which there is no space for in the shelter, are euthanised. There is a lot of emotional discussion over this everywhere in the world. Even 'no-kill' charities will usually euthanise for health reasons. On euthanising dogs based on their behaviour or potential to be homed, the issue is muddier. Some charities euthanise their dogs, some hand them to the government to be euthanised, some don't have enough room for more dogs, so some are left to be euthanised by the government. There is no difference between these for the dog, apart from perhaps the relative kindness they will get in their last days if kept by a charity. It is heartbreaking and no-one wants to do it. No-one.
It was a tough day for me in this regard, with a thousand thoughts running through my head about this, but my final thought was for the staff. They go through this many times tomorrow, the next day, and every day, I can promise you they don't care less than you, I, or angry people on the Internet. They have dedicated their lives to this: if anything they care more than we do.
UPDATE: June 2016!
This dog is now named Mars and is much healthier and happier, and waiting for adoption at the SPCA's Hong Kong Centre! He is fatter, and less nervous, and I can't tell you how happy I am for him.
I couldn't stop thinking for weeks about the difficult issues around euthanasia for weeks after meeting him.
After working with the SPCA I 100% trust the decisions they and their veterinary team make either way, but I'm so happy this this bright-eyed dog can have a new chance at life.