It was an early spring morning when Jonathan Midgley met the Bowen Road dog poisoner.
“I was going to fly to Singapore later that day on business and I took my dogs for a walk,” he said recently. “I had a white Maltese named Ralph and a reddy-brown village dog, a stray, named Ruth. I went around a bend, called the dogs. They didn’t come. Then I saw them near a man with a cheap supermarket bag in his hand, putting food on the ground.”
Midgley, a criminal defence lawyer, confronted the man and peered inside the plastic bag. There were chicken scraps inside, which the man claimed he was using to feed birds. “I kept him talking but the dogs seemed fine and eventually I let him go,” said Midgley.
After the man vanished from sight, however, Ruth began to tremble and vomit. Midgley put her in the back of his car and rushed her to a vet. She survived, but only after having her stomach pumped, receiving an intravenous drip and spending three days in the clinic.
That was in 1995. Nearly 16 years later, more than 72 dogs have been poisoned around Bowen Road, a quiet, thickly-forested lane running along the slope below Hong Kong’s exclusive Victoria Peak. The man or woman responsible is still on the loose. At least two dogs have been poisoned in December and tainted meat has been found along Bowen Road on several occasions since November.
The actual number of victims might be even higher than police figures suggest. Most animal poisoning cases go unreported, says Tony Ho, a former police commander and now the chief superintendent of the Society for the Protection of Cruelty to Animals. He believes more than 200 dogs have died since 1989, when the first reports of poisonings on Bowen Road emerged. “And that doesn’t even include the hundreds of wild animals that must have been poisoned,” he said.
Questions linger as to why, after so many years, the police seem no closer to catching the poisoner than they did more than a decade ago. While 1989 is generally believed to be the year when the Bowen Road poisoner first started work, the police did not begin an investigation until 1995. They cannot explain what took so long for them to open a case. “Due to the lapse of time, there was no record as to whether any incident of ‘dog poisoning’ was reported to police before 1995,” said a spokesman for the department.
Even after the case had been opened, police did not appear to take it very seriously. When Midgley reported his encounter with the man he believed to be the poisoner, his offer to provide information for a sketch were rebuffed. “Their reaction was sympathetic but it was like, ‘What can we do?’” said Midgley.
The attitude changed in 1997 after then-governor Chris Patten’s terrier, Whisky, was poisoned on Bowen Road. The police called Midgley back to complete an identity kit but he wasn’t satisfied with the resulting sketch. “It was like a cartoon face,” he said.
By most accounts, the police have spared little effort since then. The case is being handled by the Regional Crime Unit with support from stations in Wan Chai and Happy Valley. Uniformed and undercover officers regularly patrol Bowen Road, along with inspectors from the SPCA who keep an eye out for poisoned meat and anyone behaving suspiciously. Bilingual posters warn dog-walkers of the poisoning risk.
But none of it has been enough to catch the poisoner. “There’s just no evidence,” said a police detective familiar with the case. The poisonings happen only sporadically, at various locations along Bowen Road and the nearby Black’s Link, with no discernible pattern. Different types of meat are used as bait, including pork, chicken and even char siu. The only common thread between the poisonings is the use of the same commonly-available insecticide, which turns the poisoned meat a purplish-red colour.
There have been a number of different suspects over the years, “but they have all been ruled out,” said the detective.
After the most recent poisonings, the police suggested that a copycat may be at work. “It’s a possibility,” said the SPCA’s Tony Ho, but the consistent use of a single poison leads him to think that the same person has been responsible all along.
He can only speculate as to the poisoner’s motive. In the early days of the poisonings, some suggested that the perpetrator was someone who had a grudge against wealthy people or expatriates, who make up a large proportion of the residents near Bowen Road. But Ho thinks it is more likely that it is someone who has a grudge against dog-owners because, in the past, they too often neglected to clean up after their dogs or make sure they didn’t bother others.
Lee Ka-wing, a criminologist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, says that, given the little concrete evidence that has emerged from the case, it is nearly impossible to build an accurate profile of the poisoner. “The only conclusions I have is, they, she [or] he work in a comfort zone,” based on the fact that the poison and locations have remained the same for so many years, he said.
It’s possible that the prolonged police investigation has made the poisoner a bit less comfortable. Whereas poisoned meat was once tossed indiscriminately along the roadside, it is now more carefully hidden in the bushes nearby, said Bobby Wong, an SPCA inspector who has patrolled Bowen Road for 16 years. The poisonings also happen less frequently than in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The biggest challenge in breaking the case might be Bowen Road itself. Running for more than three kilometres, the narrow stretch of road where the poisonings take place twists and turns around steep slopes. Thick vegetation makes it difficult to see anyone who might be lying poisoned meat, and it also makes it easy for dogs to slip off into the bushes, even if they are on a leash.
“Most dogs that have been poisoned are on a leash,” said veterinarian Andrew Baker. “I have dogs and if there’s a chicken bone they smell, they will eat it in a flash before you can even notice.”
Baker’s first encounter with dogs poisoned at Bowen Road was in 1992, when we was working holidays at a Wan Chai animal clinic. “One of the first times I was working, we had lots of dogs poisoned,” he said. “My boss at the time had warned us that these sorts of things happened. On that first day we had 11 dogs poisoned and on the second day we had six.”
Of the 72 poisoned dogs reported to the police since 1995, two thirds died. The poison affects the nervous system, which causes dogs to tremble and, if left untreated, could lead to organ failure. They vomit and defecate in an attempt to rid their bodies of the poison. The SPCA gives out free bags of soda crystal to encourage the dogs to vomit as much as possible.
Most dogs recover with no lasting health problems, said Baker. After Chris Patten’s dog was poisoned in 1997, his wife Lavender took him to a vet, where he had an anti-poison jab and was put on a drip. “He was a feisty little fellow,” said Patten in an email response to questions. “He lived to about 13.”
Jonathan Midgley’s dog, Ruth, wasn’t so lucky. “It was like she’d aged,” he said. “She was stiffer, She had a tremble on her mouth, because the nervous system was poisoned. She died four years after [being poisoned].”
The same story is being repeated today. Last October, banker Gina Kim was jogging along Bowen Road with her dog, Beyoncé. “I hate to admit this, but I had my dog off the leash because I was running and my dog kind of lags behind,” she said. Beyoncé dashed off, and when she returned, she was behaving sluggishly. When they reached the Lover’s Rock, a stone where couples pray for good romantic fortune, she suddenly started throwing up.
“There were all kinds of chicken bits, even a chicken head, and all kinds of pinkish particles in her vomit,” said Kim. “Next thing we know she was passing feces and it was all green and watery.”
After a scramble to find a taxi that would take her to a vet — one driver kicked her out when he noticed the dog was sick — Beyoncé was treated and survived. “Now she’s back to her usual self,” said Kim.
They continue to go to Bowen Road every day, despite what happened. “Where else am I going to go?” asked Kim. “I live in Central and this is the only place nearby where there aren’t any cars.”
This story was originally published in the South China Morning Post on January 2, 2011.
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