A prison on Lantau Island has been accused of ordering officers to remove around 70 stray cats from its vicinity, and hunting for the person who leaked the incident to the media.

The new senior superintendent of the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution recently ordered staff to kick out the cats, saying that there are too many of them and that they have led to “arguments among inmates,” according to an officer at the prison who wishes to remain anonymous.

Update: Lantau prison agrees to keep stray cats after head office and SPCA intervene

Tong Fuk Correctional Institution
Tong Fuk Correctional Institution. Photo: Google Street View.

There are around 30 cats left after the manager ordered prison staff in late-June to evict the cats within a month, the officer said. The felines were to be moved far away from the jail – to places like Mui Wo and Shek Pik Reservoir – in order to stop them from returning.

The officer said many inmates and prison officers enjoy the cats’ company and want them to stay. He told HK01 that every cat had been given a name and that they would come to people who called them.

“You may say there is a wall between officers and prisoners, but when it comes to cats, everyone is on the same side,” he said. He added that inmates and officers often talk about the animals, and prisoners would seek help from staff if they see any injured cats.

The officer admitted that there had been arguments among inmates over whether they should let the animals “eat or play first,” but he said the felines have had a positive impact on the prisoners.

Tong Fuk Correctional Institution
Cats at the Tong Fuk prison. Photo: Leung Yiu-chung.

Decade of relationship

The Correctional Services Department did not address the whistleblower’s claim. It told HKFP that it sought advice from animal welfare organisation SPCA last November about the rising number of cats, and sent them to the SPCA for desexing surgery and adoption last month and last November.

It added that stay cats are often found in the vicinity of the Tong Fuk prison, but the increase of cats in recent months has “created disturbance and hygienic problems to the institution.”

A spokesperson for the SPCA told HKFP it did not know about the incident until news emerged on Thursday. She said the organisation is “very concerned” about the incident and had scheduled a meeting with the institution for Friday morning.

The spokesperson said the Tong Fuk prison has been a member of the SPCA’s Cat Colony Care Programme since 2008. The programme aims to control the number of stray cats by trapping and neutering them, then returning them to where they were or putting them up for adoption.

Tong Fuk Correctional Institution
Cats at the Tong Fuk prison. Photo: Leung Yiu-chung.

The SPCA visited the site almost every year to neuter stray cats caught by prison officers who serve as the programme’s volunteers. It said a total of 151 felines were neutered in the past nine years, with some of them being adopted.

“The staff and prisoners take care of them very well and we have never received any complaints or calls for assistance from them,” the spokesperson said.

She added that several other correctional institutions have also joined the programme. “Such an incident has never happened before,” she said.

Whistleblower hunt

Meanwhile, the officer told lawmaker Leung Yiu-chung that the manager was looking for him after he exposed the incident. He sought help from the lawmaker earlier in an effort to stop the manager.

“If this is true, it would undoubtedly be a severe disregard to public demands, violation of animal rights, oppression of employees and suppression of their freedom of speech by an individual senior officer,” Leung said on Friday.

Tong Fuk Correctional Institution
Cats at the Tong Fuk prison. Photo: Leung Yiu-chung.

The lawmaker urged the Commissioner of Correctional Services Yau Chi-chiu to intervene.

The Non-profit-making Veterinary Clinic (NPV) Director Mark Mak told HKFP that the felines – unlike feral cats – might not be able to survive in the wild. “It would be very dangerous for them, as they could be attacked by dogs and wild boars,” he said.

“We need more education, not just for children but also for decision makers. Are they aware of the positive impact the cats have on prisoners?” he said.

“Rehabilitation should not be just about preparing prisoners to return to society, but also teaching them about kindness and peace. The cats play a role in this.”

Mak urged the Tong Fuk prison to contact animal groups about how to resolve the issue without harming the cats. He said the NPV would be happy to help neuter and arrange adoption for the animals.

The Lantau-based NGO Tai O Stray Cat Home has also offered to step in.

Besides Leung, pro-democracy lawmakers Roy Kwong and Jeremy Tam have also demanded an explanation from the Correctional Services Department.

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