In May 2001 an unexpected outbreak of bird flu led to the slaughter of more than one million birds in Hong Kong. Even today, a faint whiff of fear hovers over the city and society remains vigilant. Eric Tai, senior veterinary officer, animal management division, Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) is one of a dedicated group of professionals keeping both humans and animals safe. "To maintain a healthy living environment, we work really hard for the prevention and control of zoonotic diseases," he says.
While veterinarians in the private sector take care of individual animals, Mr Tai's job entails much larger scale responsibilities, which in turn require an extensive range of skills and knowledge. As part of AFCD's animal management team, Mr Tai was involved in the decision making processes related to the recent closure and reopening of the Yuen Po Street Bird Garden in Mong Kok including the launch of a new set of licensing conditions and a series of lab tests for avian flu. Some of his other duties include treating sick or injured animals, management of the department's four animal centres, disease investigation and control; and issues in licensing and legislation. "In my position, I am expected to identify society's needs, and step up measures to meet them," he says.
As in any profession, hard work naturally brings about enviable incentives, but in Mr Tai's case these are not typically monetary. For example, when Pui-pui the crocodile was captured in Yuen Long in June 2004, Mr Tai was appointed her official vet. Other "privileges" he has been granted include opportunities to treat police dogs and the occasional "monkey business".
"The growing population of macaques creates a real problem. We must keep the number of wild monkeys under stringent control," he says. Over the past few years, a series of sterilisation exercises have been implemented to achieve this. Female monkeys have been injected with a immuno-contraceptive vaccine and male monkeys have been given a chemical vasectomy. "Our colleagues also lead them into the woods and feed them so that they won't be a nuisance to hikers, tourists and nearby residents. This is hard work because monkeys are elusive and notoriously difficult to deal with," he adds.
Mr Tai has been with the AFCD for 10 years and he now holds consultancy roles in various departmental activities such as promotion and advertising. "We don't want to see animals suffer from any kinds of diseases, injuries or traumatic experiences. That's why we have launched a series of advertising campaigns to promote the 'responsible owner' concept," he says. Under the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, acts of cruelty to animals can now lead to a fine of HK$200,000 and imprisonment for three years, a maximum penalty nineteen times more severe than the previous, demonstrating AFCD's determination in preventing and punishing maltreatment of animals.
As a result of this determination, the number of stray dogs and cats has decreased in the past 10 years. However, euthanasia is still sometimes necessary for seriously ill or injured animals that are abandoned on the street. "When the chance for survival becomes too slim, we must do what's best for them," Mr Tai stresses. "There has to be a passion for the job and great compassion for animals, but we must also keep a clear head, be professional and strike a balance between our love for animals and the reality."
Under the Rabies Ordinance, all dogs over five months must be vaccinated, licensed and microchipped to prevent fatal diseases such as rabies. Under the licensing conditions for selling dogs in pet shops, all dogs must also be microchipped. To ensure pet shop owners comply with these rules, regular inspections are necessary. "I gain a great deal of satisfaction seeing appropriate and practical changes being implemented for the welfare of animals and the society," Mr Tai says. "We cannot work behind closed doors but must keep abreast of changes in the world and work closely with the industry and other stakeholders to proactively source and resolve any issues."