Hong Kong pets emigrate with their owners

January 31, 2022 09:25
Photo: RTHK

Tens of thousands of Hong Kong people are emigrating – and taking their beloved pets, as much part of the family as their children.

There is booming demand for charter jets to carry emigrants, their families and pets as it has become increasingly difficult to carry them on commercial flights. Airlines have cut their frequencies and been forced to cancel them at short notice because of the Covid pandemic. Pets who move from one country to another require veterinary and health checks and detailed documentation, usually within a limited time frame.

In Hong Kong, a group of people can together book a charter plane for HK$200,000 to transport them and their pets – a price similar to that for tickets with commercial airlines -- and much less troublesome.

Last year Pet Holidays, a Hong Kong company, arranged 18 private jets to relocate pets, to the UK, Canada, Taiwan and Singapore. On its website, it says that it has more than 10 years’ experience of travel and migration of pets and their owners, carrying over 1,000 to 40 countries around the world. It plans to charter another 20 jets for pets this year.

Top Stars Air is receiving 20 requests a day for pet travel. Next month a private jet will fly in from Dubai and its crew will not leave the aircraft, to avoid Hong Kong’s strict quarantine requirements. They will then fly six people and seven pets to London.

Hong Kong’s birth rate is one of the lowest in the world. Last year there was 10.912 births per 1,000 people, a fall of 0.52 per cent from 2020. For many families, domestic pets are replacing children.

Research by the Veterinary Surgeons Board said that pet ownership in Hong Kong increased 72 per cent between 2006 and 2016; the number now exceeds 540,000. The city has more than 850 veterinary surgeons, compared to 361 in 2005. Revenue from pet-food sales exceeds HK$1 billion a year.

“You can never take for granted the special bond a person has with their pet,” said Lloyd Kenda, an Australian vet working in Hong Kong since 1995. “Most have a very unique bond with them. You know that they care, especially if one is unwell. In Hong Kong and worldwide, more and more young couples are opting to have pets together before, and even instead, of children. Their pet is well and truly family, and it could be said that a pet gives you a lot less grief than children. Hong Kong is an affluent society. The middle class can afford to keep pets and spend on them.”

I live in Mei Foo Sun Chuen, a middle class area. In the mornings, the sound outside my window from the second-storey podium is not of young babies crying but dogs barking and walking around each other. While they discuss the merits and demerits of their respective owners, so the owners compare notes on “Honey” and “Cherry”. The dogs create a bond and common interest between the owners that would not exist without them.

“My wife nags me all the time and tells me what to do,” said David Lee, talking to his small dog Frankie on his morning walk. “But Frankie never talks back to me. He is always smiling. I could not live without him.”

The owners include not only young couples but also middle-aged and elderly people. Nothing is too good for their pets – coats, boots, organic lamb and beef from New Zealand and Australia and toys for them to play with. If you see a pram, do not assume the occupant is a baby; often it is a dog – or two or three. For many elderly people, the bond is especially strong. Their children have moved away from home and have little time to visit them; or they live in a foreign country.

This intensity was well captured in a cartoon in a recent Hong Kong paper. When inspectors arrive to confiscate the hamsters of a couple, they find the husband has been locked in a cage and the wife tells them: “you can take him, I will keep the hamster.”

With such powerful emotions, it is unthinkable for many families to emigrate without their beloved pet. Last year Don Yip, an aircraft mechanic, spent HK$109,000 to move his three huskies and his cat from Hong Kong to Britain. He has moved there with his girlfriend and 22-year-old daughter. He said the pets were part of his family and that he could not bear to lose them.

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A Hong Kong-based writer, teacher and speaker.