Like most countries around the world, Hong Kong has been facing more than two years of Covid-19 outbreaks.
Coupled with a startling number of people who have left the city — many of whom we dearly miss — it would not be an overstatement to say that the past few years have not been easy for those of us living in Hong Kong.
But behind the massive — and sometimes disruptive — efforts to keep the pandemic under control and the tearful farewells with our loved ones is a lesser-told story, that of the animals who have been left behind or largely left out of the Covid-19 and emigration discourse.
Various animal welfare organizations in the city have raised concerns over the growing number of animals given up to their shelters due to the emigration crisis.
Ivy Tse, the founder of House of Joy and Mercy, noted that her shelter has been taking in more animals due to people leaving the city, and receiving an increasing number of such inquiries in recent years.
The numbers rose to a peak the past year, she added.
“On average, we receive one inquiry phone call a day. We have taken in maybe dozens of dogs [from the beginning of last year until now],” said Tse, who founded the Yuen Long shelter in 2015.
Most of the animals taken in are dogs and some are cats. They all tend to be on the older side, she added.
“The oldest one I took in was a 16-year-old pug. I did ask the owner whether he would consider taking care of her for the rest of her life since she’s already 16. But he said no because he was rushing to emigrate and did not have any friends or relatives willing to take care of a senior dog,” she said.
More animals abandoned but support wanes
While the number of animals House of Joy and Mercy has taken in has increased, the donation amounts and number of volunteers it has to take care of them have dropped drastically.
“A lot of those who donate are [financially] able and will choose to migrate,” said Tse.
Coupled with the tightening of donor purse strings due to a Covid-related economic downturn, the shelter has suffered major financial setbacks.
“I believe the donations have gone down by about half recently,” she said.
According to Tse, House of Joy and Mercy has monthly expenditures that can go up to as high as HK$700,000 (US$89,181) a month. Just the rent itself costs the shelter HK$45,000, but the majority of the expenses go to footing its exorbitant medical bills.
The downturn has also brought about more requests for assistance with vet bills from owners or volunteers taking care of stray animals who have been affected financially or lost their jobs.
Struggling to make ends meet, House of Joy and Mercy even posted an emergency call for donations of dog food in February.
Besides the dwindling financial support, the coronavirus crisis has also put a strain on manpower at the shelter.
“Previously, we had schools and organizations coming over every Saturday and Sunday to help out. But because of the Covid-19 situation now, we have a lot fewer groups coming,” said Tse, who has only eight to nine colleagues to help take care of the shelter’s some 200 dogs, 20 cats, seven goats and around 30 birds, turtles and tortoises.
She lamented that they cannot organize as many events these days, which means the dogs, who spend most of their time in the shelter, cannot go out as much.
Veterinary clinic for stray and shelter animals
Despite the challenges, Tse, who is a Buddhist and sees caring for the animals as her calling, set herself up for an almost unthinkable task a year ago — establishing a veterinary clinic to provide free services for stray animals who are ill, as well as those from her shelter.
“Our own shelter has a lot of expenses, especially for medical care. I recall spending HK$300,000 to HK$400,000 one month just on medical bills. That’s the minimum,” she said.
“So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be better to have a clinic that helps ourselves and stray animals?’ ”
She added it is better to concentrate resources.
With the support of private donors, the clinic had been in soft opening since July and has so far helped a dozen animals from House of Joy and Mercy.
Just this month, it opened to the public.
Because of the lack of certain medical equipment, the clinic does not provide services such as CT scan and MRI.
To ensure that the free services are not abused, Tse said those who intend to bring stray cats and dogs to the clinic for consultation have to first register as a member with House of Joy and Mercy. Volunteers from the Hong Kong Jockey Club will then visit them to assess their eligibility.
For now, the clinic in Sham Shui Po, called Merit Veterinary Medical Centre, is open for seven days a week with the vet present for four days, the days of which are not fixed yet. Hence, bookings are required before people bring the strays over.
Having to manage both the clinic and shelter, Tse admits that there are times when she has to say no to taking in more animals or helping the needy foot their vet bills because of the limited support her shelter now has.
She calls on those leaving Hong Kong to think twice before abandoning their animals.
“I recall some animals having difficulties adapting and were not eating and drinking when they first arrived here. They really know that they are being abandoned. The feeling is horrible. You can see them hiding in a corner. They are also victims,” she said.
While it is an uphill challenge for Tse and many other welfare groups to continue to care for these animals, she said it is one she is not going to give up on.
“It’s actually very tiring. Every day, you work until you lose your soul,” she said.
But after venting a bit, she gets right back on her feet to continue to help the animals, whom she sees as her children.
“I’ll try to shoulder this responsibility for the rest of my life. I just want them to be well. It is my wish to help them through the difficulties in this life,” she said.
For more information on House of Joy and Mercy and Merit Veterinary Medical Centre, visit House of Joy and Mercy’s Facebook page or Instagram page. To make a booking with Merit Veterinary Medical Centre, dial 2151 9911.