Hong Kong’s animal shelters overwhelmed during Covid-19

The city’s shelters and rescue groups are struggling to care for the growing numbers of homeless cats and dogs, which have been surrendered or abandoned by their owners.

Sam Edwards wasn’t planning on fostering a 10-year-old dog named Wallace. But as Covid-19 continued to spread across Hong Kong, he wanted to find a way to help. He reached out to Catherine’s Puppies, a local shelter that is struggling to cope with a surge in abandoned animals since the pandemic began. 

In recent weeks, Hong Kong has been battling a third wave of Covid-19, its most severe yet, with more than 4,000 cases reported in the city so far. As a result, some animal owners have moved away from Hong Kong and could not bring their animals, due to either prices or immigration restrictions.

Others in Hong Kong may no longer have the means to care for their pets. Since March, individuals involved in animal rescue efforts estimate that hundreds of owners have surrendered or abandoned their animals, leaving shelters to care for the animals.

Edwards, who grew up owning dogs and has fostered puppies before, says that this is the first time he’s taken in an older dog. The 27-year-old executive, who lives in Sai Kung, has relatively flexible work-from-home arrangements and a large garden, which allows him to give Wallace lots of attention and playtime.   

“It’s incredibly difficult to rehome an older dog [most families prefer to adopt puppies or younger dogs, according to those involved in rescue operations],” says Edwards.

“But Wallace is the most gentle and loving dog there is. If I could officially adopt him, I would, but it’d be very difficult when I go back to the office. He’s been used to a home environment his whole life, and it will be very hard for him to the shelter if he has to go back.”

 Dogs in need of new homes. Credit: Sai Kung Stray Friends

Wallace’s owners surrendered him at a Sai Kung shelter before leaving Hong Kong due to Covid-19. “It is truly upsetting – and it does make me angry that these pets are getting left behind,” says Edwards. “However, a lot of people don’t understand the circumstances of the family and are quick to judge with nasty posts on Facebook.”

Catherine Lumsden, the founder of Catherine’s Puppies, has been operating the shelter in Sai Kung since 2014. She has rehomed hundreds of dogs, but the impact that Covid-19 has been “shocking”, she says. Like many animal shelters in the city, Catherine’s Puppies faces many: a funding crisis, a decline in volunteers and a surge in abandoned pets.

“I’m getting phone calls daily from people crying on the phone because they can’t take their pets with them [when they move away],” says Lumsden. “The cost of transporting pets has increased, that’s one thing. Another is not being able to transit through certain countries.”

“Immigration rules have changed, too. It’s next to impossible to take your dog with you to Australia for example, as quarantine facilities are full. It’s had a devastating impact on the animals and their families.”

 Rescue dog Honey and her litter of puppies. Credit: Catherine’s Puppies

Family members left behind

The pandemic has made it difficult for families to transport their pets out of Hong Kong. Airlines have increased cargo prices and rules have become tighter. Certain countries do not allow passengers to transit through, while others are not accepting animals at all.

Jenny French, who runs Relopaws, a pet relocation service which transports mostly cats, dogs and the occasional exotic pet, says that British Airways has increased their pet relocation fees by 500 per cent.

A flight that would normally cost HK$13,000 to transport a large dog to Europe, now costs HK$45,000. Cathay Pacific embargoed their pet relocation services altogether, only lifting it in July; they now accept pets only if the owner is on board the same flight.

“Things are changing daily,” says French, adding that it’s been “exhausting to keep up with all the different movements.”

It is truly upsetting – and it does make me angry that these pets are getting left behind.

Sam Edwards

For example, Dubai is only accepting cats and dogs on the condition that the owner provides a government-signed document proving that they have not been in contact with anyone who had the virus.

Frankfurt Airport, in Germany, is currently not accepting any cats or dogs at all. Other countries have increased their quarantine measures, or require additional forms and prerequisites.

Furthermore, the Hong Kong Agriculture, Fisheries, and Conservation Department (AFCD) offices have been closed during the third wave of Covid-19, making it difficult to obtain permits and get documents signed.

“It has slowed down the process a lot,” says French. “That being said, the government is still signing forms. But it’s been very stressful for the families.”

Animal shelters in need

In addition to relocation struggles, Lumsden Covid-19 restrictions have also forced shelters to temporarily close or work with a smaller team.  

“We have always been a pretty friendly shelter, where people can just pop in to see the dogs, but of course, we have had to adhere to social distancing rules,” she says. “It’s been terrible for us, as some of the dogs are not getting walked as much, and are not receiving the socialisation that they are used to.”

For fundraising, Lumsden usually relies on larger-scale, family-friendly events. Though she has been unable to host group events, Lumsden says that many families and their children who are fans of Catherine’s Puppies have taken it upon themselves to raise funds. 

“Kids have organised things like bake sales, car washing, selling lemonade,” she says. “It’s not huge amounts of cash, but it’s really helped over the summer… It’s been heartwarming”

To run the shelter, Lumsden needs to raise about HK$50,000 a month. That covers food for more than 70 dogs, rent, utilities and maintenance bills. Medical fees for the dogs usually amount to about HK$20,000 a month, not including any emergency medical care or surgeries. 

Catherine’s Puppies isn’t the only animal shelter that’s struggling. Hong Kong Dog Rescue had to cancel two of its largest annual fundraising events: a gala dinner in October, as well as a sponsored walk, called Peak to Fong, in November.

Another shelter, Team for Animals in Lantau South has had to cancel its fundraising events as well, while Sai Kung Stray Friends has been seeking donations on its social media pages.

Abandoned across Asia

Covid-19’s devastating impact on animal rescue efforts has plagued shelters across Asia. From Taiwan to Indonesia to Thailand, shelters are simultaneously navigating a rise in pet abandonments as well as lower funding. 

Sean McCormack, the co-founder of Animal Care Trust (ACT) in Taipei, in Taiwan, says their animal rescue efforts have “taken a hit” as incoming funds dropped in recent months. He contacted Lumsden, asking her to share his plea for donations on her Facebook page to increase their chances of raising money.

McCormack said that ACT has had the “busiest six months for rescues” this year – they have taken in more than 100 dogs in the first half of the year, 30 per cent higher than ever before.

A flight that would normally cost HK$13,000 to transport a large dog to Europe, now costs HK$45,000.

At the same time, incoming funds have plummeted over recent months, making it difficult for the organisation to keep up with vet bills, food and other care costs for their other animals. 

In Indonesia, some cash-strapped residents have been forced to sell their pet dogs as food, according to a report by the SCMP. Local doctor, Susana Somali, has been rescuing these animals.

She currently has about 1,400 canines in her Jakarta shelter. During Covid-19, she has taken in about 20 dogs per week, representing a 900 per cent increase compared with 2019, the shelter’s first year of operation.

In Phuket, Thailand, Soi Dog Foundation founder John Dalley has seen the number of abandoned pets skyrocket in recent months. In need of more support, he appealed to the shelter’s 1.3 million Facebook followers for donations.

“These innocent dogs have absolutely nobody else,” said Dalley in the video. “They have no idea how to survive and it’s heartbreaking to witness.” Back in Hong Kong, Edwards, who has been fostering Wallace for nearly four weeks, says: “The most important thing is to try and find a home for these animals.”

“The pandemic has hit [the shelters] hard. And their relentless rescue efforts are what helps these animals during this unprecedented time.”

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