Society’s obsession with pedigree breeds has fed an underground economy of dog trading. In one of the city’s largest raids on illegal puppy mills, police rescued 149 pedigree dogs near Yuen Long in 2010. Most of the rescued animals were suffering from long-term abuse and diseases, local media reported at the time.

These breeders take advantage of a legal loophole that allows unlicensed breeders to operate puppy mills undetected inside private residences. It is difficult to hold them accountable. Only nine prosecutions were brought against illegal traders over the last six years, according to the government.

Puppy mills. File Photos: Apple Daily.

Currently, only animal traders are required to obtain a licence to sell animals under the Public Health (Animals and Birds) (Animal Traders) Regulations. Pet owners who sell animals they keep are exempt from applying for a licence. The exemption creates a loophole and poses a threat to the welfare of animals used for breeding.

To address this issue, the government has changed the regulations by introducing a new licensing system requiring anyone selling a dog to obtain a trading licence or a one-time trade permit, even if the dog is kept as a pet.

Those who own a female dog for breeding purposes must obtain a “dog breeder licence” and follow a code of practice, such as attending 24 hours of training and allowing dogs to exercise for at least an hour a day. The maximum penalty for selling a dog without authorisation is a fine of HK$100,000.

The new system “places a stringent control on the sale of dogs, which exceeds the regulatory requirements of most comparable overseas jurisdictions,” the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) told HKFP.

In a joint statement issued last April, 18 animal welfare NGOs supporting the bill urged the Legislative Council to approve the proposed regulations. The SPCA, which led the campaign, said “pet breeding establishments are one of the worst culprits” for keeping animals in substandard conditions.

The Non-profit-making Veterinary Services Clinic (NPV) found another suspected puppy mill in 2010. Photo: NPV.

The bill was finally passed by the legislature last May, four years after the government began consulting the public and drafting the new regulations.

SPCA Deputy Director Fiona Woodhouse told HKFP that the legislation marked a “big step forward” as improvements can be made over time “once you set that framework in place.”

“[It’s a] good framework, a good start – better than many jurisdictions,” she said, adding that the SPCA would like to see some improvements such as setting a maximum frequency of dog pregnancy.

She said having a code of practice would be helpful for pushing for changes in the future as there will be “no need to go through a rigorous legal process” and long time periods in discussion.

“It is not perfect, but a good step to work around and work forward,” Woodhouse said.

‘Encourage animal trade’

But not all animal lovers are pleased with the change. Animal rights groups argue that the new dog breeding law sets a low bar of eligibility for home breeders, which would actually encourage pet trading rather than promote the goal of “adopt, don’t shop.”

Animal rights activists protested against the amended bill. Photo: Jeremy Tam, via Facebook.

Animal rights activist Roni Wong told HKFP that the weak enforcement mechanism built into the proposal was worrying. “The AFCD relies on a self-reporting system whereby breeders judge by themselves whether they are in compliance with the code of practice,” he said.

Other issues Wong identified included the AFCD’s adoption of an appointment system for inspection, which he said would allow breeders to hide problems from the authorities. Then, there is the unresolved issue of the right to enter, as law enforcement agents cannot enter a premise for investigation without a warrant, which is difficult to obtain.

He is also critical of the low requirement of 24 hours training and the fact that breeders do not need to show the living conditions of the animals meet minimum standards.

“It is a bizarre bill, as it legitimises abusive practices of commercial breeding and perpetuates injustice against animals,” Wong said.

Days before the bill was passed by the legislature last May, more than 50 civil society groups came together demanding the government ban private dog breeding practices altogether, Apple Daily reported.

In a last-ditch effort to stop the bill from taking effect in March, pro-democracy lawmakers Claudia Mo and Jeremy Tam each tabled a motion earlier this month. Mo proposed scrapping it altogether, while Tam suggested postponing it from taking effect until a later date so as to allow more time for the government to address enforcement issues. Their motions were voted down.

Jeremy Tam. File Photo: Jeremy Tam, via Facebook.

Tam told HKFP that he was disappointed by the outcome. He pointed out an unresolved issue with building lease conditions: “Many agreements state that you can only keep animals for non-commercial purposes. If after the bill comes into effect people begin applying for licences to breed animals commercially at home, they could be violating their agreements and that could create another social issue.”

“I wanted the government to require every applicant to submit their building management agreements for assessment.”

In response to criticism of its enforcement issues, the AFCD told HKFP that its officers will inspect licensed animal traders and dog breeders to ensure compliance with the new statutory requirements. They will also monitor online trading activities, respond to complaints from the public and investigate suspected cases of illegal dog trading.

Commodification of animals

But to some animal rights activists, the issue is one of principle and promising to strengthen enforcement is no remedy.

“To animal rights advocates, it is a matter of principle. We must oppose the pet trade and commercial breeding. But animal welfare groups think that human desires should not be ignored,” Mark Mak, director of Non-profit-making Veterinary clinic (NPV), told HKFP. NPV does its own investigations into illegal dog trading and breeding.

“This bill is a prime example of society using the law to declare that animals are commodities,” Mak said.

Mark Mak with a banner opposing the bill. File Photo: Mark Mak, via Stand News.

He criticised the government for lacking the will to push for a total ban on the pet trade. “If the government truly had a sense of responsibility, it would join the global trend to achieving ‘zero pet trade,’” he said. “If it really wanted to, the government could introduce such a bill and I can guarantee it will be passed by the legislature with the support of the pro-government camp.”

In response to Mak’s criticism, the SPCA’s Woodhouse said: “There is a fundamental issue… animals are treated as property, but it is a fact in our legal system that they are treated as property [and] you have a legal right to dispose of your property. At the moment with this framework, it is not possible to treat animals not as property. Globally, it is very difficult to ban the trading of animals.”

But she said the bill would close “a lot of the loopholes” and eradicate many appalling conditions on canine breeding sites, as everyone will soon be required to obtain a breeder licence.

Public education

Woodhouse believes public education is key to ending inhumane breeding practices. “We are hoping to push people to a higher standard through education. This is probably the best tool – having legislation is to punish poor behaviour, but we want to encourage good behaviour,” she said.

This is why instead of advocating a total ban on commercial dog breeding, the SPCA runs a “Boycott the Bad Breeder” campaign to educate the public on breeding-related animal cruelty, while endorsing “good” breeding practices.

While education may be a long-term solution, the new regulations remain a key instrument in the near future for dealing with inhumane practices of commercial dog breeding. However, not everyone in favour of the bill is as convinced about the effectiveness of the new law as the SPCA.

Sally Andersen of Hong Kong Dog Rescue told HKFP that she is “not really” optimistic that the government would be able to enforce the new regulations effectively.

“Unless the AFCD is recruiting a lot of extra staff… I can’t see how – I think the only way it’s going to work is for members of the public to be vigilant and keep an eye out and report issues,” she said.

The dog charity is among the animal NGOs that endorsed the bill, but Andersen said she was sitting on the fence until the SPCA approached her for support. “Something is better than nothing, even though I’d like stronger control [over breeders],” she said.

Sally Andersen at HKDR’s Tai Po Homing Centre. File Photo: Gene Lin/HKFP.

“Everyone knows about the [problems with] breeders and they still buy from them. I find it incomprehensible that people would put their own desires for a bulldog puppy above the welfare and suffering of the animals,” Andersen said.

“Although I would like to see the end of all breeding [practices], that’s unrealistic and I accept that. If I’m going to have breeders, let’s make them accountable. I think it is really not even remotely realistic to think that we can just end the pet trade.”

Ellie Ng

Ellie Ng has written for Foreign Policy, the Daily Telegraph, Global Voices Online and others.