Sally Andersen founded NGO Hong Kong Dog Rescue in 2003 in order to spare dogs from the government’s animal shelter. Her organisation rescues and re-homes hundreds of dogs each year. Andersen has been in Hong Kong for over 30 years and lives with more than 100 dogs on Lamma Island.
It was during Christmas 2004 that Sally Andersen went to the government animal shelter to pick up a batch of rescued dogs, only to be told that they were about to be killed.
The year before, Andersen launched Hong Kong Dog Rescue (HKDR) with the sole purpose of taking dogs from government kennels. The humble organisation had yet to garner the momentum and reputation it has today.
“I built up this collection of dogs that I was holding at the AFCD [Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department] centre,” Andersen recalled.
“They said ‘It’s a holiday and we’ll be short-staffed, so if you want these dogs you’ll have to take them, because otherwise we’re going to put them to sleep’,” she said.
Andersen left the government kennel that Christmas with no less than 21 dog. They still live with her on Lamma Island today, though some have passed away due to old age.
13 years later
More than a decade later, Andersen’s house has only become more crowded, home to more than 100 canine residents.
HKDR has become one of the largest non-profit animal rescue organisations in Hong Kong. Since relocating to their Tai Po kennels in 2010, the NGO now has around 600 dogs in its care. It rescues and re-homes approximately 500 adult dogs and puppies every year.
“It costs a huge amount of money to take care of 600 dogs… a lot of our time – 50 per cent of our work – is raising the money to take care of the dogs,” she said.
Despite their efforts, the number of dogs that are killed at the AFCD each year has remained high. Each year the government puts down over 2,000 dogs: partly, Andersen says, because of Hong Kong’s pet shop and breeding industry.
“The whole concept of pet ownership became popular and obviously it was a business opportunity,” said Andersen. “So people saw how easy it was, you just get a male and a female and you put them together… and then you can sell [the puppies] for money.”
The pet shop and breeding industry is largely unregulated in Hong Kong.
“With so many dogs being destroyed every year – to me it just seems completely wrong that there should be breeding going on… It’s just wrong that thousands and thousands of dogs are being killed and more and more are being pumped out,” she said.
It is not uncommon to find puppy mills in poorly managed environments, where dog cages are stacked on top of each other with urine and faeces dropping from the top layer onto the lower ones. Inbreeding is also common due to the demand for dogs of a particular breed. The selective breeding process often causes physical deformities or mental problems in the dogs’ offspring.
“It’s the most miserable and cruel life for the dogs concerned. Only when they either die or are in such a bad condition that they can’t produce any more litters then [the breeders] throw them out,” said Andersen.
The animal NGO founder said that it is common to find pet shop puppies with infectious diseases such as parvovirus and canine distemper virus, although it is difficult to see the symptoms at first glance.
“While we’re doing what we can to try and home the dogs, the breeders and the pet shops are adding to the problem. And it’s frustrating because it doesn’t matter what we do, because that’s where you have no control on the number of dogs that are being bred,” she said.
‘The law hasn’t changed’
In 2012, the AFCD attempted to introduce an amendment to the Animal Traders Regulation in order to impose stronger restrictions on pet shops and breeders.
The amendment would require all breeders to be licensed and would limit the number of dogs that may be kept for breeding purposes. An exercise area for the dogs would be required, otherwise their business practice would be deemed illegal with penalties of up to HK$100,000.
“The law hasn’t changed… [the AFCD] had opposition not only from the breeders and pet shops themselves obviously, but even from some animal organisations who felt that the proposals didn’t go far enough. So we’ve got the majority of animal NGOs supporting the amendment but you’ve still got a very vocal group of animal NGOs who were trying to block [the amendment] because they want [it] to go further,” said Andersen.
According to the AFCD, the amendment for Animal Traders Regulation was recently enacted after it was tabled at Legislative Council in May, 2016. However, it will not be in effect until the next legislative year.
Andersen said that she is not anticipating the amendment to be in effect until early 2017. In the meantime, there are still no laws in place to prevent breeders from keeping an unlimited number of dogs.
“Hopefully, at least the licenses will come with conditions – the dogs have got to have so much space… the number of litters they can have will be restricted, the age after which they can have puppies will be restricted as well,” she said.
She said she hopes that once the license becomes mandatory, the breeders will find it too difficult to comply with the restrictions and will gradually be deterred from the industry.
“If you are a dog lover, then you shouldn’t be supporting the pet shop and the breeding trade. Or at least you should be supporting any move to introduce new laws that will protect the animals that [the breeders] use for breeding,” Andersen said.
“People really really care about dogs. And people, you know, love dogs now – want to have them. There is still a lot of ignorance about keeping them… unfortunately that’s why the pet shops do so well,” Andersen said.
She added that she does not understand the need for people to have a specific breed of dog such as Husky or Tibetan Mastiff in Hong Kong, as they are unsuitably large for the city’s compact environment.
“For me a dog is a dog… they are all the same underneath,” said Andersen. “You can’t say you don’t like that person because of the colour of their skin or their nationality, the same should apply for animals… I’d love to see more people move away from that breed obsession.”
Andersen drew a contrast between the dog world and fashion world. She explained the irony that while people will pay thousands of dollars for a piece of unique designer clothing in the fashion world, the pet world is the opposite in that every mongrel or mixed breed dog is unique but they are seldom wanted.
Andersen further commented on pet owners’ tendency to purchase dogs impulsively without considering the implication of owning one.
“[Pet lovers] decided that they want to have a dog, so then they either go on the internet and they look up all the breeds or they get a book or whatever, a magazine – you know these ‘pet magazines’… and they see a picture, and it looks really cute… in the same way that they would pick a dress or a pair of shoes or anything like that, they are totally led by the way a dog looks. They don’t think anything outside of that.”
Without the knowledge of how to care for dogs in a domestic environment, pet owners often unintentionally cause their pet to develop behavioural and health problems. By the time the dogs get passed to a rescue organisation it is difficult to undo the damage.
Andersen mentioned a recent incident in which the HKDR received dozens of adoption requests for a Corgi dog. She said that people do not realise Corgis are challenging dogs as they were bred to bite the ankle of larger animals. She added that even the British monarch, Queen Elizabeth, has moved away from keeping pure-bred Corgis due to their troublesome nature.
“It’s not only a Hong Kong problem, it’s a societal problem, and I don’t know that society is heading towards the right direction to be honest.”
No holiday in ten years
Andersen said that her life is now completely taken over by her dogs and there is not a square inch of her home that is not occupied by a dog.
Each day, the dogs wake her up at sunrise – which is around 5am in summer – before she takes as many as 20 dogs out for a stroll. Many of these dogs belong to the original pack she picked up during Christmas 2004.
“I work seven days a week, I haven’t had a holiday in ten years,” she said. “So I have to say that, not infrequently, I think ‘God I’d love to retire’, but I can’t because what would I do with all the dogs? I mean there are 600 dogs now at HKDR!”
Andersen said that if she retires now, the HKDR kennels in Tai Po and Ap Lei Chau will probably not stop working but she still has a responsibility for the dogs that live with her.
“My dogs will walk with me until they literally drop dead,” said Andersen, when asked how she envisions her retirement.
“[Dogs] are creatures of habit, they’ve always done it, they’ve done it every day of their life, they are not going to stop… and I suppose I see myself doing the same – one day I am just going to drop dead on the path,” she laughed.