Kadoorie Log #9: Tung Choi Street: The Reality of the Pet Market




L-R: Zack Langille, Michelle Cheng, Jacqueline Ma, Shirley Choi & Shuping Ho

During my stay with the SPCA I had the opportunity to visit Tung Choi Street with Shuping Ho (a researcher at the SPCA) and four SPCA interns, all studying law at Hong Kong University (Jacqueline Ma, Michelle Cheng, Jane Li and Shirley Choi) .  Tung Choi, also known as Goldfish Street, is famous for the sheer number of shops selling all sorts of animals from local species to exotics, but mostly fish and reptiles.  These shops waste no space when it comes to the display of their animals. They are often in small overcrowded tanks and not provided with the proper housing conditions (such as heat and UV lights for reptiles), and many of them are even sick. It is a stark contrast to what pet shops are like in Canada, for the most part. While most of the stores were selling fish and reptiles there were nonetheless plenty of puppies, kittens, rabbits and hamsters also available. Almost all the pups and kittens were high end, very expensive breeds; no mutts in these stores.  While the animals were being kept in clean and reasonably spacious cages out front, our suspicions were that out the back of the stores was another story. It was easy to hear barking from behind the closed doors where customers were not allowed to go. Another suspicious feature of all the pet stores was the ‘no photo’ signs everywhere.

Pet Shops HKPuppies for sale in Mong Kok






During our time at the SPCA we learned that the reality of the origins of those designer pups and kittens in the pet stores is an unregulated puppy and kitten mill industry where animals are kept in shockingly poor conditions. Much of the SPCA’s investigation work is directed towards finding these mills and shutting them down, while their lobbying work is directed towards encouraging the government to regulate breeders. The pictures below depict the real conditions behind the scenes of the Tung Choi pet shops. The SPCA website has lots of information on the pet industry and especially the puppy trade.  Please visit this link for more information on the Boycott the Bad Breeder Campaign http://boycottbadbreeder.com. For information on the upcoming legislative reforms around breeders, see http://www.spca.org.hk/en/outreach/campaigns/spca-hk-urges-for-cap-139b-amendment









Goldfish Street, as the name suggests, is really known for the phenomenal array of fish shops. Many species of fish are put into bags and hung on display on wire racks, often in the baking sun. Not only do the fish end up overheating in water too hot for them, they also run out of oxygen.


This pushes the fish into extremes and ultimately causes their death as they cannot survive either the low oxygen levels, nor rapid temperature changes. At night, once the shops close, the bags are simply cut open and dumped into the street, including the dead or near dead fish. fish To the store owners, the dead fish don’t even put a dent into their pockets as they cost so little in the first place and are sold at a much higher market value. Even if they only manage to sell a few fish and lose considerably more, they are still profiting. While the display practices might be different in Canada – ie we’re not baking fish in the sun in plastic bags, the idea of disposability at the heart of breeding them in vast numbers is the same.IMG_4911

For example, I used to breed fish and would sell some to pet stores. They would purchase the fish from me at $3 apiece and then turn around and sell them for $12.99 apiece.  For them, there is a 430% price increase so with those economies of scale, we can see how individual fish lives become irrelevant in the big scheme of things where profit margins mean more.

From Tung Choi Street our tour of the pet shop trade took a slight detour. While snakes are kept as pets in Hong Kong, just as they are in Canada, they are also eaten. So our HKU law intern friends led the way as we went off in search of the snake soup shops. IMG_4931 Eating snakes is part of traditional Chinese medicine, more specifically it’s a Cantonese delicacy and it supposedly has high nutritional value. Snake eating is a practice more common in the winter and it seems to be decreasing in popularity with the generations. Young people are less inclined to follow this tradition and in fact none of the HKU interns had ever tried it.  The soup typically contains two species of snake, and they could just as well be deadly, along with spices. At the stores we visited, one had ball pythons on display, and the other had cobras. The snakes are kept live in drawers, like the ones in the photo below, until you want to order the soup and are thus killed and prepared fresh.


Turns out, snake soup shops don’t just offer snakes, they also sell steamed crocodile and turtle soup! While eating turtle jelly – a derivative of  the plastron of turtle shells, is fairly common in Asia, the experience of actually eating turtle soup was as new to the interns as it was to us. But we found ourselves in one of those situations where the hospitality of the shopkeeper who welcomed us in to look at the snakes, also put us in the position where we needed to return the favour. When she offered turtle soup – we were in a jam. So the compromise was one bowl and 6 spoons! This was one of those moments where I wish I was vegetarian!    IMG_4952                                   None of us liked it, but the pressure was too great to refuse. Thankfully, Shuping was a champ and finished off the soup for us.


After that experience we went to a local café to rid the taste of the soup! Bring on the Hong Kong version of high tea!DSCF8627

One of the most surprising things about the day was learning that, at least on the face of it, the stores weren’t breaking the law, whether they were selling exotic, Cites listed animals – as many of them were  – or not (Cites is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora and is the reference point for regulating the trade in endangered animals).  All the pet stores needed to be lawful was to be licensed by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department and as long as the animal can sit down, stand up, turn around and lay down the enclosures then they comply with the existing standards of care required by the animal protections laws. Even the turtles kept in the tiny tanks filled with water were considered ok, because they met the above requirement. So while it seems the pet stores at least comply with certain laws, questions remain about the industry overall. Puppy mills, for example, are also an enormous problem in North America, with Quebec in Canada having the dubious reputation of being the puppy mill capital of the continent. So while pet stores in Canada may not be the primary way puppies and kittens are making it to market, the same problem of designer dogs bred in awful welfare conditions for a seemingly insatiable market applies. And like HK, Canadian animal shelters are full of the very same dogs and cats who later get abandoned or surrendered or dumped – along with their mutt cousins! So whether it’s Cites listed endangered animals whose commercial sale gets around the law because they were supposedly bred in captivity, or puppy mill kittens and puppies whose lives begin in appalling conditions, or goldfish whose lives as individuals simply don’t register as a welfare concern, the gaping holes in the regulation approach to animal welfare seem really apparent. Without the means to implement even the existing regulations, these laws are unable to offer much to the animals who are their subjects.



Kadoorie Log #6: Conservation Success Stories


The pig nose river turtle, an animal that is indigenous to Northern Australia and South Western New Guinea, is listed as a vulnerable species under the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List (http://www.iucnredlist.org). Unlike any other species of freshwater turtle, the pig nose is extraordinary in having flippers resembling marine turtles. According to the IUCN, the term ‘vulnerable’ is defined as “a taxon which is facing a high risk of extinction in the wild in the near future” (IUCN 2001).

KFBG received a shipment of 785 pig nose turtles from the government as a result of an illegal import in 2009. They were being smuggled into the country for the pet trade and the clock started ticking immediately on the fate of these hatchlings. At a mere 10 cm, the turtles required a lot of care as they were originally shipped in such poor conditions. Many had died as a result of stress and malnourishment but during the eight months that it took the governments of Indonesian West Papua and Hong Kong to work together to determine what would happen to them, the staff of Kadoorie managed to save 609 of the original shipment. But the biggest question facing all the stakeholders who were involved in the turtles’ long term fate was determining for certain where they had come from in the first place. Releasing animals back into the wild is a very complicated process, something we will detail more at the end of this post. Fortunately for these particular turtles, there was paper evidence from shipping which helped determine that the turtles were in fact from Indonesian West Papua.

turtle 2

A decision was made to release the turtles back into the wild, however the logistics of such a task are considerable. Custom shipping boxes had to be built, and the turtles could only be in the boxes for a limited time. On top of that, a constant and specific temperature also had to be maintained as well as fresh water supplied, but not too much or they could drown. KFBG felt it was important to do a trial run with 8 turtles to see if they could survive the trip before sending them all. These are but a few of the issues faced with the return and release of these animals. Eventually, however,  various hurdles were jumped and the turtles were released in October 2011 in the Maro River in Indonesian Papua. This was an all too rare repatriation success story for KFBG and the various governments. The complexities of returning to the wild animals seized from the illegal pet trade is more often than not stalled by insurmountable barriers around international and national laws, which compound the more obvious problem of just working out where they came from.

Thanks to the extraordinary efforts of the KFBG teams the villagers in the Maro River were educated about sustainability and the importance of preserving the turtles, thereby minimizing the risk to the potential of this population from human poaching and fishing. But  pig nosed turtles take up to 15 years to reach full reproductive maturation and the average survival rate to that point of many wild turtle species is often not much more than 1%. When released these turtles were still juveniles, thus their capacity to repopulate the region would not be achieved, or even measurable for nearly 15 years. So this is obviously a very long term research challenge. While 609 turtles were released the reality is that it is likely that only a very small percent will survive to adulthood. Tracking the survival rate data of the pig nosed turtles was left in the hands of the villagers who, along with two other communities along the Maro, had pledged to protect them and to provide the local Forestry Officers with updates if sightings occurred. Given the remoteness of the Maro community this was perhaps the most resource rational way of trying to ensure some longer term data could be made available but anecdotal evidence is the weakest level of evidence, often yielding fairly unreliable results. So the repatriation of the turtles raises some critical conservation questions. If we don’t fund the research to reliably assess long term survival of returned species can we really claim anything much more than provision success?

Taking a different angle on the question of success though, the repatriation  of the pig nosed turtles was a worldwide success from a number of different points of view. Kadoorie was able to identify where the smuggled species originated, which, given the illegal nature of smuggling is very rare. Compounding the typical suppression of shipping details is the fact that there is often insufficient data summited to GenBank (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/genbank/), the open access DNA databank that is a vital resource to tracing the exact provenance of particular animal species. So after locating the area where the pig nosed turtles could be released attempts to create a grassroots movement within the community surrounding the river were initiated. This was a large part of the turtle’s release success because such communities are likely to also be the poachers who sell the turtles to the trade involving animal trafficking in the first place. Educating them and providing them with viable economic alternatives were central aspects of even the provisional success of this wildlife restoration attempt.

Interestingly, the particular approach to education in Maro was extensively focused on educating the youth of the nearby tribes to value the importance of conservation in terms of local wildlife preservation. Once again, this is a long term investment that works on the assumption that changing the hearts and minds of the children is the equivalent of investing in the leaders of the future. But in Maro it was also the case that the Chief was very instrumental in the success of the release and in educating the rest of the villagers. So he was a key player in managing the immediate issue of preserving the turtles while educating the children on sustainability managed the future. The turtle restoration wouldn’t have taken place without extensive collaboration from numerous stakeholders in addition to the folks at KFBG including the Hong Kong and Indonesian governments, various other conservation NGO’s, even the commercial airlines who helped with transport costs of the turtles and of course the villagers of Bupul. Investing in these collaboration not only advances global conservation efforts they help to raise global consciousness about the potential to preserve and even save critically endangered species.

Wildlife-conservation-society. download

As noted above, as far as releasing animals back into the wild goes, it is a very long and complicated process. One cannot simply release an animal anywhere as it may not be native to that region. Increasingly scientists are revealing the importance of micro-environments to the particularity of certain species. Releasing animals of a separate sub-species could alter the gene pool of the existing population negatively, and the animals might find themselves in ecosystems that cannot sustain them.  There are a number of potentially negative impacts to be considered very carefully before any decisions can be made regarding the release of animals which have crossed international borders. GenBank is a critical resource for this kind of aspiration. It allows DNA to be matched with DNA of animals in other areas and can offer information on where the animals originate. However, this system currently has its limitations because it relies on scientists voluntarily submitting samples. While the database is growing all the time the task of logging all the DNA of all species in all regions of the globe is an insurmountable one. And  in the case of the pig nose turtle it wasn’t GenBank that provided the provenance of the turtles in the end, it was a combination of reasoned logic and paperwork. It was highly unlikely the turtles were smuggled from Northern Australia. The Australian Navy is constantly patrolling those waters for illegal human smuggling so it’s unlikely that the turtle smugglers would risk an encounter with the Australian military. It was therefore more logical  to look towards West Papua as the origin of the turtles and sure enough on this rare occasion the shipping documents had enough information to actually support this hypothesis.  Through collaboration with International Animal Rescue Indonesia, the Wildlife Conservation Society and the ministry of Forestry of the Republic of Indonesia a suitable release site was determined near Bupul, in the Maro river. Had there been a DNA profile of these and similar turtles in GenBank, however, a release site may have been found much faster. As it happened, the pig nosed turtles were released into a river where once pig noses had thrived but where they had not been seen for over 20 years. The gamble was that the river system could still support them.

Given how important DNA is to the possibility of returning to the wild animals that have been seized for the illegal food and pet trade, the DNA database is a critical resource. Yet how plausible is it to begin DNA testing animal populations around the world, including those in remote areas for conservation efforts? What would the resource implications of such an effort be and is it the best use of conservation resources at this time? What would the cost of such a mass project be? GenBank is an attempt to do just this but the fact that it’s voluntary has implications on how comprehensive and therefore how useful it can be. It’s like the wiki of genetic material but hasn’t yet taken off in quite the same way.  Even if we could conceivably accomplish a complete biodiversity DNA map, we are in a period of mass species loss right now. And then there’s the question of evolution and the fact that genes change over time. Perhaps that makes the task easier – for all the wrong reasons – but another question emerges anyway. How useful can a DNA bank be in the face of gene flow and genetic drift? These are just some of the complex questions raised by even a successful conservation effort like the project to return the pig nosed turtles to the wild.



Zack and Jacqueline

Kadoorie Log # 2: How the wild become captive

On Wednesday, Jacqueline and I worked in the Live Educational Display at Kadoorie. We were matched with one of the zookeepers to assist him in his daily routine for the morning. His area includes both the mammals and the reptiles. The morning work consisted of cleaning the enclosures and providing the animals with fresh water, checking animal behavior, counting all of the bats, scattering food in the animal enclosures to encourage foraging, and assisting with the wild boars. We worked specifically with fruit bats, barking deer (that’s me, Zack, and the barking deer below), several turtle and tortoise species, Chinese water dragons, wild boar, water monitors, a masked palm civet and leopard cats.

barking deer

Animals can arrive at Kadoorie multiple ways. Most of them are injured or rescue animals from the wild. Some come from illegal imports via the government until a court case is settled and the government decides the fate of the animals. Other animals (primarily snakes) are brought in by the police because they were in close proximity to humans who they want them removed. A few even come in as abandoned exotic pets. Depending on the time of the year, the number and species of animals that arrive at Kadoorie changes. For example, only in the winter for a timeframe of two months, there is a species of bird that ends up at Kadoorie due to its migration path as the birds often run into the skyscrapers in Hong Kong. Due to such a variety of ways animals arrive at the center, the work is hectic and constantly unpredictable. Kadoorie frequently receives confiscated shipments from the exotic animal trade and once received a shipment of what ended up being 7 000 turtles. They then must care for and maintain the turtles until the government and various other often international stakeholders, decides what to do with them.  This process can sometimes take years, as multiple governments become involved since these imports usually pass through a series of countries on their way into China. Futhermore, the courts might have cases they deem more important and therefore put off the animal case until they deal with the other cases. This raises interesting questions about the status of animal in relation to the law. Kadoorie, however, sometimes has to turn down animals. This is done primarily because they either do not have the housing available, the animal has no conservational value or they know there is no positive outcome so the animals will end up euthanized.


While helping the keeper with his daily tasks we got a sense of how much work it is to maintain even the few animals that are kept at Kadoorie for educational purposes. Just the two wild boars alone, which are a part of their Live Animal Educational Display, take an enormous amount of time and work.  The daily process of maintaining them includes cleaning the pen area, feeding the animal and providing care for their specific needs. For example, treating their hooves and providing mental stimulation are essential to their long term health. These tasks might seem simple but they require a lot of forward planning because of the risk involved while interacting with what remains a wild animal. The occupation of simply caring for the boars’ hooves now involves training the wild animal to perform certain helpful tricks so that the keepers can have access to their feet. This is done through positive reinforcement training involving food. The wild boars have learned, much like domesticated horses, to raise their foot, bow and to walk forward and backwards. These are exercises that the boars would not need to perform in the wild but are essential to their ongoing health in captivity. Because these boars are wild animals certain complications arise that would not normally be an issue in their native environment. The two male boars – brothers – unexpectedly had to be separated after many years of living peacefully together due to the aggressive and dominant tendencies that arose after separating them for a brief period for processing. Once reintroduced the conflicts occurred where before there were none. Due to their new behaviours the boars are now separated for the sake of the keepers’ safety and their own. This is a problem that the boars would not have faced in the wild because they would have had enough space to ‘work it out’. The enclosure Kadoorie provides, while luxurious by many standards, is not big enough to support such antics, so a simple fence has been put in place to keep the boys apart. That combined with hormone therapy makes for a more harmonious existence.  The story of the boars is the tip of the iceberg of the complexities involved with maintaining the physical and mental health of wild animals in captivity.

Zack and Jacqueline