Mar 04, 2010|
It was supposed to be a happy day for dogs and their owners, but when “Pet Corner,” the Sheung Wan dog park opened in January, it was with a disappointed whimper rather than an enthusiastic woof.
Not exactly a green oasis for our furry friends, it is actually a pokey fenced-off area located right next to a busy bus terminal, with a 3,200 square-foot lawn and four benches. Even Frederick Ho Chun-kei, the Central-Western district councilor who advocated for the construction of the park, is disappointed by the small size. Yet the significance of this particular park is huge for dog owners in Hong Kong, as it is one of the very few areas where they can freely walk their pets. Only eight of Hong Kong’s 18 districts have dog parks and there are only two dog parks on Hong Kong Island, meaning thousands of pooches have no dedicated place to run and play.
The last report by the Census and Statistics Department revealed that half of all pet owners in Hong Kong choose to keep dogs, which could put our canine population at around 130,000. So the fact there are only dog parks in eight districts means thousands of dogs must be walked on busy streets and narrow, congested roads instead. This is worrying considering regular exercise is so important for a dog’s health and well-being. Ho Loy, an activist and host of an online radio program about animal welfare, criticizes the lack of overall government planning when it comes to dog parks and dog-friendly facilities. “It seems that whichever district has the loudest and most demanding voice will get one. But the authority never runs surveys on the actual needs of dog owners.”
So are the needs of Sheung Wan pet owners being fulfilled by the new dog park? You may think people are delighted by its central location, next to the Shun Tak Centre. After all, it is now the most convenient dog park for Hongkongers since the closure of the 1.2-hectare temporary dog park at the Wan Chai promenade, which shut to make way for the Central-Wan Chai bypass project. It saves owners and their hairy hounds long journeys up to the Peak—the other of the only two designated pet gardens on the whole of Hong Kong Island. In order to find out what dog owners really think about Pet Corner in Sheung Wan, we went down to the park on a weekday afternoon. We chatted to six people who collectively owned eight dogs. Everyone agreed the area was too small and crowded, and not suitable for bigger dogs. As we chatted, they had to keep a constant eye on their pets to make sure they didn’t run into the road, because there is no gate at the entrance. They also had to pay constant attention to stop their dogs from getting into fights because the park is so cramped and busy.
With Hongkongers being such a pet-loving lot, you may ask why the city has such limited space for dogs. Well, not everyone loves dogs. Sadly it is neighborhood opposition groups who could be stopping the building of more dog parks. For example, in 2007, a group of dog owners in Yau Ma Tei protested for the right to walk their dogs in the King’s Park High Level Service Reservoir Playground between 10am and 6pm. This triggered a counter-protest by regular park users who opposed the idea. In the end, the LCSD built a pet park on the junction of Ferry Street and Yan Cheung Road, which is closer to Jordan. This meant dog owners had a long walk through busy streets and had to cross major roads just to access the park.
But the case of the Yau Ma Tei dog walkers highlights a more fundamental question—why aren’t dogs allowed to use regular parks in urban areas? One possible reason is for the sake of easier management. “The department [LCSD] only thinks about how to keep the place clean and not having dogs disturbing people in order to avoid complaints, but it never thought about the positive benefits of animal and human interaction,” says Ho. The other possible reason can be traced back to the kind of education people receive when growing up. “We frequently hear parents telling their kids to stay away from dogs, or they’ll bite you,” says David Wong, chief officer from Animal Earth. “But they will not tell their kids how to treat dogs kindly as to avoid such things from happening.” Therefore, some people are scared of dogs for no real reason.
Wong thinks dedicated dog parks may actually encourage isolation and discrimination towards dog owners because the general public may think dogs should only be allowed in designated areas. Wong himself says he was once chased away by people in a park when he simply walked by the area on his way to a designated dog zone. “We just want to walk our dogs, but we are being seen as monsters.”
Vets say dogs need regular exercise and should be walked twice a day. Dr. John Wedderburn, a vet and animal welfare campaigner, says, “dogs need space to run freely, and letting your cleaner take your pet to the corner of the street on a leash doesn’t count.” Not everyone has the time to take their dogs to the countryside for fresh air and wide-open spaces, and busy city streets can be stressful and confining for our furry friends. With so many pet owners and dogs in Hong Kong, it seems more dog-friendly parks would be a great idea. We asked the the LCSD if they have ever conducted any studies into the feasibility of building more dog parks.
They did not answer our question directly, but did say they will keep an open mind regarding proposals and will continue to select suitable areas in existing and planned parks and leisure venues for such purposes. Until then, let’s hope Hong Kong’s dogs can all squeeze into the limited dog parks and get the exercise they so desperately need.