Animal rights groups in Hong Kong have expressed concern over the use of tear gas by police at protests, warning that pets and stray animals are getting caught in the crossfire of escalating violence in the city. In one disturbing incident, a young cat was said to be in so much discomfort from the chemical irritant that it clawed at its own eyes.
Calling for restraint from both sides, the Hong Kong Veterinary Association said in a statement that tear smoke could be a significant health hazard to the city’s animals, resulting in symptoms such as vomiting, coughing and eye problems.
“We are concerned by recent reports of pets being affected by tear smoke,” the statement read. “We urge all sides to exercise restraint and minimize harm to innocent residents as well as animals.”
Hong Kong has seen months of street protests and political unrest sparked by opposition to the now-shelved extradition bill, which would have allowed transfers of criminal suspects to mainland China for trial. On August 5, a veterinary clinic in Sham Shui Po was forced to evacuate its cats to an intensive care room after riot police fired tear gas to disperse protesters gathered in the area.
With no advance notice, clinic staff had to rush to close all windows and used wet towels to plug the gaps between the windows and the wall to prevent any tear smoke getting in. In another case in Sheung Wan, an 18-month-old Sphynx cat suffered skin and eye problems after tear gas was fired in the neighborhood. Clearly in distress from the effects of the riot control agent, it scratched its eyes with its claws, breaking small blood vessels.
The pet was taken to a vet and treated with steroids and eye wash, administered every two hours, to avoid any long-term health effects. Some 681,600 pets, not including fish, were kept in Hong Kong in 2017, according to a study by the Veterinary Surgeons Board of Hong Kong. Among those were more than half a million dogs and cats.
A group of veterinary nurses also issued a statement condemning police actions. “Police’s indiscriminate and reckless use of tear gas has not only harmed local residents, it has also affected animal hospitals near front lines [of protests],” the anonymous workers said. “This collective strongly condemns the police force’s deployment of police dogs while tear gas is being fired.”
The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said pet owners should immediately close all windows and turn off fans in the event of tear smoke being released nearby. Affected animals should be washed with clean water or saline solution containing 0.9 per cent salt, while any clothing and leads must be wiped clean to avoid any contamination. If serious symptoms persist, they should be taken to a vet for a check-up as soon as possible.
The veterinary association also warned against police dogs being used during clearance operations involving the firing of tear gas, adding they should be protected by goggles and gas masks when deployed on the streets. Another animal rights group, Animalsaver HK, was due to hold a rally on Saturday at 7.30pm in Edinburgh Place to voice its concern over tear gas use, and urged police to consider the welfare of animals in upcoming operations.
Addressing public concerns over tear gas, police said only minimum force had been used, with the aim of dispersing crowds and restoring order.