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Thursday, Oct 01, 2020

How has Hong Kong’s notorious serial pet killer – the Bowen Road dog poisoner – gone undetected for 30 years?

Hundreds of dogs – including a Norfolk terrier belonging to last governor Chris Patten – have been poisoned in an affluent area of Hong Kong down the years. Despite regular patrols and one suspected sighting of the perpetrator, the killer remains at large

The most startling thing Sarah James remembers about Max’s 2007 poisoning was that he cried black tears.

Dying, coat slathered in his own vomit, the dog shook as a vet hurriedly administered activated charcoal, hoping the decontaminant would bind with the deadly poison in Max’s gut to stop it entering the bloodstream. Some had splashed into the suffering animal’s pleading eyes.

A teenage Island School student living in Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels at the time, James had become aware of her dog’s life-or-death struggle through an urgent call from her parents. “I immediately rushed to the vet, which was on Mosque Street, off Robinson Road,” she says, recalling the shock that somebody could have targeted her beloved pet, “and when I saw him he was in a massive metal tub … He was shaking, he was cold, and I didn’t really know what to do.”



Born in Hong Kong to British parents, 27-year-old James now works in a management role at a five-star hotel in Kowloon. In the comfortable living room of the Sai Kung home she shares with her father today, she tenderly strokes Holly, “the queen” of their dog-crazy household.

Like Max, Holly was adopted from animal-welfare charity Hong Kong Dog Rescue. James’ face brightens when she recalls her father giving her the helpless, mixed-breed pup on her 14th birthday, in 2005. “She was just the smallest, cutest, wrinkliest thing I’d ever seen in my life.”

And then, like Max before her, Holly was also poisoned. “There was just vomit and diarrhoea all over the house … She was panting and sweating and shaking; it was like she was going mad in her head,” James says. “She was standing and then … done … and her body stopped moving. I think at that point I started screaming.”

Both Max and Holly were poisoned within months of each other on Bowen Road, a sleepy, banyan-bordered route – partly open to vehicles, partly no more than a footpath – that snakes from the Mid-Levels, above Central, to the southern edge of Happy Valley, linking some of Hong Kong Island’s most affluent residential neighbour­hoods. It is believed there have been hundreds of malicious poisonings of dogs on and around this route since 1989.

In the most recently reported cases – two separate instances on the morning of Saturday, January 7, 2017 – the victims ingested chicken meat laced with a lethal poison.

In every known case in the past 30 years, inquisitive dogs have chowed down on meaty toxic titbits, leading to drooling, vomiting, convulsions and seizures, and ultimately – without urgent medical attention – organ failure and death.

A vague pattern to these sadistic crimes had become apparent by the mid-1990s. Then one morning in early 1997 – with the eyes of the world on Hong Kong as it anxiously counted down to the July 1 handover of sovereignty – Whisky, a dog belonging to Governor Chris Patten, was poisoned on Bowen Road.

Now the impact extended to the highest levels of the Hong Kong government, and the worlds of breaking news, celebrity and geopolitics collided to create a potent, media-driven phenomenon: the territory had its very own serial killer. There was a cruel, cur-culling monster at work in Mid-Levels, and front pages ran sensational tales of the “Bowen Road dog poisoner”.

The story would be picked up around the world, grabbing the attention of Time magazine and The New York Times, among others. In 2005, The Wall Street Journal, perhaps by now thinking “poisoner” to be a tad pedestrian, went with “the Bowen Road dog slayer” who was responsible for “canine carnage”. Ramping up the horror, the newspaper reported, “Just a few miles north of here, in China’s Guangzhou province [sic], dogs frequently appear on menus.”

Only one man, a local lawyer, claims to have witnessed the killer in action, providing the only solid lead ever to emerge. That encounter occurred in 1995, but was brushed aside by police and not reported until 1997, and only then because Patten’s Norfolk terrier had eaten poisoned chicken.

But today – three decades since the first recorded pet spiking on Bowen Road – no perpetrator has answered for those crimes and so many excruciating deaths. Police assigned to the case from the dedicated Regional Crime Unit of Hong Kong Island have failed to sniff out a single realistic suspect.

When Christopher Francis Patten arrived in Hong Kong, in July 1992, to become the 28th and last governor of the colony, he and his family were feted by local media. Previous governors had been stodgy British Foreign Office mandarins, imperial and imperious bystanders far removed from the lives of normal Hongkongers.

Patten, who declined for his inauguration to don the eccentric colonial garb and white-plumed cocked hat of tradition, was seen to be different. This governor would go walkabout in working-class neighbourhoods, occasionally jump aboard the MTR to jaw with commuters, or could be found scoffing egg tarts on Lyndhurst Terrace. His easy-going wife, Lavender, chipped in with local charities; his three young daughters were modern, confident. (Teenager Laura’s miniskirts guaranteed attention, the Sunday Morning Post even running a fashion spread on how to “look like Laura”.)

The phenomenon was described in Britain’s Independent newspaper as “The Pattens, the closest the territory is ever likely to get to a British-style soap opera”. And Hong Kong’s warmth stretched to the first family’s feisty terriers, Whisky and Soda.

It was the year before the Pattens’ arrival in Hong Kong that the South China Morning Post first reported poison­ings on Bowen Road. Under the headline “Outbreak of dog-poisoning in Mid-Levels”, on August 11, 1991, the newspaper soberly stated, “Police are investigating a series of dog poisonings in Mid-Levels which is believed to have caused the deaths of nine pets since February.”

The report added that 20 such cases had recently been recorded, that poisoned bait had been discovered on Bowen Road, and that the first instance of poisoning in the locale had been noted two years earlier, in 1989, “when foodstuff picked up from the area was found to contain an agri­cultural chemical”.

“We obviously have a crank out there,” dog owner Helen Barker-Skerrett told the Post. Her two dogs had been poisoned the previous week. “It was a nightmare. One minute we were walking along the road and the next minute we had to rush them to the vet. We managed to save one but the other died in agony.”

Poisonings on and around the road were sporadic over the coming months and years, with press reports trickling out, but never making a splash. Then, from March 4, 1997, there was an abrupt change in the urgency, frequency and tone with which such crimes were reported.

On that day, the Post ran a letter from Lavender Patten. It told of how, weeks earlier, she had been walking their dogs on Bowen Road.

“In the space of a few seconds, Whisky picked something up and swallowed it before I could stop him,” she wrote. “A few minutes later he was behaving strangely and, being aware that other dogs have been poisoned on Bowen Road, I immediately took him to the vet. The quickness of my reaction saved his life.”

An accompanying news article told of how “a mercy dash by the Governor’s wife” had saved Whisky “from becoming a high-profile victim of the Bowen Road dog poisoner”. It was the first time the Post had used the phrase, suggesting a shadowy individual was responsible for the attacks.

Over the next 12 days, the newspaper would run no fewer than nine stories related to canine poisoning. A Post survey of eight veterinary clinics that had treated pets poisoned in the Bowen Road area revealed at least 61 cases since the start of 1996, less than 15 months earlier.

Among the recent dead was Rocky, a Jack Russell terrier that had become a slipper-fetching celebrity after appear­ing in a television advertisement for the Conrad Hotel. A spokesman for the property said staff had been saddened to lose their “adorable” mascot.

Now there was chatter of Peak and upper Mid-Levels pet owners establishing vigilante teams “to snare the Bowen Road dog poisoner”. Rewards were offered (the Conrad posting a less-than-rousing bounty of HK$5,000). Police said they believed the culprit to be mentally disturbed. The Wan Chai District commander, chief superintendent Anthony McLaughlin, spoke of “someone with a screw loose”.

Two new instances of pets wolfing down potentially fatal treats were reported the weekend after Patten’s account was published. In November, a senior policeman’s pet was spiked. Fortunately, mixed-breed Cola survived. In December, Chelsea, a two-year-old Doberman, perished after eating poisoned chicken.

By the dawn of the new millennium, headline-hungry journalists were indulging in their wildest In Cold Blood fantasies, and no publication was immune from hyperbole.

One 2001 story in the Post kicked off with the sentence, “Within the affluent confines of Mid-Levels exists the vortex of a criminal’s psychosis – serenity has been uprooted, terror imparted and life seized.” The story went on to compare the trails around Bowen Road with the Bermuda Triangle.

Psychiatrists and criminologists were consulted, to get into the poisoner’s head (“mind-hunters”, one over-the-top report called them), and samples of their insights were published: “The anger that we are seeing is overwhelming”, “His job in life is to rid the streets of dogs”, “He might even hear voices”.

Students at the University of Hong Kong’s Centre for Criminology pored over the case, the department and police taking counsel from Helena Striwing, a visiting Swedish animal-rights law specialist and adviser to the Swedish police. Striwing – dubbed, naturally, “the pet detective” by newspapers – was tasked with building a profile of the poisoner using methods employed to track serial killers (of humans, not hounds).

“I think it’s a loner-type person with a severe grudge against people,” she said. “He wants to cause as much sorrow as possible to humans.”

This fit neatly with the narrative of a solitary killer. Soon, pet deaths in Repulse Bay were being blamed on the Bowen Road dog poisoner. By 2002, the canine-killing Keyser Söze had supposedly outgrown Hong Kong Island’s walking trails and was the media’s prime suspect in dog deaths as far away as Sheung Shui, 30km or so from Mid-Levels and close to the border with mainland China.

While it was possible multiple poisoners were at work across the territory, the idea of a single, Jack the Ripper-like dog killer was simply too appealing. Ominously, that same year, mysterious graffiti appeared on a concrete wall on Bowen Road. Spray-painted in red, the Chinese characters read, “The time has not yet come; not that there will be no vengeance; evil deeds bring evil ends.”

Named for Sir George Bowen, ninth governor of Hong Kong (1883-85), Bowen Road stretches 4.1km above Central and Wan Chai, from Magazine Gap Road in the west to the junction of Stubbs and Wong Nai Chung Gap roads in the east. About 2.5km of the eastern stretch is narrow and vehicle-free, and usually referred to as the Bowen Road Fitness Trail.

Further up the northeastern slopes of Mount Cameron is Black’s Link, named after Major-General Wilsone Black, commander of British troops in China and Hong Kong in the late 19th century. Also devoid of cars, Black’s Link runs roughly parallel to Bowen Road, extending 3.3km from Wan Chai Gap Park and the Police Museum, on The Peak, to Wong Nai Chung Gap Road above Happy Valley.

With the winding path that is Wan Chai Gap Road, nearby Dutch Lane and other minor routes, together they comprise more than 10km of mostly flat footpaths sur­rounded by lush foliage. These accessible trails provide pano­ramic views across the city and Victoria Harbour, making them popular with nature lovers, joggers and dog walkers.

Hungry mosquitoes are devotees of Bowen Road, too: on a recent Friday afternoon, the bloodsucking critters attack in squadrons. Thankfully, a pet-exercising domestic helper, taking shade at Bowen Road Park’s ornamental pagoda, is generous with her insect repellent.

A Post videographer and I are here to join Berry Ng Yuen-fun, a chief inspector with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) in Hong Kong. SPCA officers have regularly patrolled these trails since 2007. At times of frequent poisonings, inspectors – sometimes uniformed, sometimes covertly in plain clothes – have made as many as three sweeps a day, each taking 30 minutes to an hour.

From April 2017 to April 2018, Bowen Road was patrolled by the SPCA on 287 occasions, and Black’s Link 210 times; in 2018-19, those routes were inspected 168 and 135 times, respectively.

Slight of build and modest in manner, Ng has worked his way up through the SPCA Inspectorate’s ranks since 1999, adhering to the mission statement of “proactively initiating rescues, inspections, educational programmes, investigations and subsequent prosecutions, to protect animals and prevent cruelty and unnecessary suffering”.

Ng actively searches for corrupted bait when on the beat, but says SPCA patrols today are largely about prevention and awareness. “It’s mostly talking with dog owners and walkers,” he says, “advising that large dogs should be on a lead and muzzled, and handing out leaflets. We have no power to stop anyone. If we find poison, we call the police.”

As we continue along the meandering path, Ng pokes at fallen leaves with a tree branch, occasionally veering off to rifle through the shrubbery. He pays special attention to the floodwater channel that runs beside Wan Chai Gap Road. Ng’s team has discovered baited meat here before, as well as rigor-racked canine corpses.

Ng’s SPCA colleague, British veterinarian Fiona Woodhouse, says “the term ‘Bowen Road poisoning’ was already something we were aware of” when she joined the RSPCA in 1993. (Before the 1997 handover, the animal-welfare organisation’s name was prefixed with “Royal”, like the British branch, its patron being Queen Elizabeth.)

“At the start, we would see cases where the bait was laid quite openly, actually on the path, so you could see that there was meat with something funny in it – pinky-purple granules,” says Woodhouse, now the Hong Kong SPCA’s deputy director (welfare). “But in some recent cases the bait has not been on the path but off to the side, in the undergrowth.”

This has proven a problem with animals that are allowed to run free, or on extendable leads. “The dogs, with their good sense of smell, will shoot off and pick up some­thing in the bushes, and the first thing you’ll know about it as an owner is that the dog starts to show some strange signs, normally salivation, trembling, vomiting and diarrhoea.”

The motive for the attacks remains a mystery. Theories range from an irrational phobia of dogs to the crimes having a racial element (many Bowen Road dog walkers are non-Chinese, the exclusive area being popular with affluent expatriate professionals), although the indiscriminate nature of the attacks suggests otherwise. There are also graves on nearby slopes, and anger may stem from walkers not controlling their animals or not cleaning up after them.

Occasionally on our patrol, Ng attaches laminated, bilingual posters to railings with cable ties. They warn walkers of poisonings and to clean up after their pets. Ng says while most people he meets are receptive and grateful for his work, the SPCA has received complaints about the posters, some protesting about the use of plastics.

The area around Lovers’ Rock – a large, phallus-shaped boulder on a bluff above Bowen Road, historically a pilgrimage site for local women with fertility issues – has also been the scene of multiple poisonings, Ng says. Nearby, a small, sooty shrine houses a porcelain statue of Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, who is said to hear the cries of the world. Ng stops, places his palms together and bows his head in her direction.

Though feedback from veterinarians suggests hundreds of dogs have been poisoned in the area, there is no centralised, comprehensive database of cases with either the police or the SPCA, and the SPCA did not maintain accurate records in the 1990s. Although its website states more than 200 dogs and an unknown number of cats and wild animals have been killed in the area, Woodhouse will only say with certainty that the organisa­tion is aware of 42 cases since 2003. She is confi­dent the true figure must be higher because, since the 1990s, pet owners have increasingly taken sick animals not to the SPCA but to private veterinary practices, which have proliferated in Hong Kong, and many poisonings have gone unreported.

One vet working on the front line is Australian Lloyd Kenda, head of Valley Veterinary Centre, in Happy Valley. Kenda’s clinic is one of the closest to the eastern end of Bowen Road Fitness Trail.

In his spotless treatment room, across the steel-topped table on which he has hurriedly treated more than 50 dogs poisoned around Bowen Road since he arrived in Hong Kong, in 1995, Kenda explains that the modus operandi has mostly been consistent through the years. “It’s a fairly typical poison that is set in fairly obvious places,” he says. “The scenario is always much the same.”

In the early days, news reports suggested variety in the poisons employed. Back then, tests by government and independently commissioned chemists identified insecti­cide endosulfan in some cases, herbicide paraquat or rodenticide warfarin in others, as well as cocktails of noxious chemicals. Other tests were inconclusive.

Soon, preference settled on powerful pesticides, notably organophosphates and an odourless neurotoxic insecticide called carbofuran, long banned in Europe and Canada, and later in Japan and the United States. Employed in agricul­ture and then easily available in Hong Kong under multiple brand names, carbofuran is often rendered as pink or purple granules – a single ingested granule will kill a bird; less than a gram would be a lethal dose for a 30kg Labrador (“Those dogs are vacuum cleaners,” Kenda says).

Carbofuran can also be fatal to humans, especially children. Kenyan livestock herders have been known to use carbofuran to kill lions and other large predators.

Kenda uses the word “stew” to describe how the toxin has often been served up in Hong Kong, with most cases occurring in the late 90s and early 2000s. “The typical poison is usually a small piece of chopped up chicken or duck meat mixed with a pinky-purple paste,” he says. “When they vomit that up, because it’s that pinky-purple colour, it’s pretty obvious what you’re dealing with.”

While Woodhouse says the SPCA has never detected patterns in exactly when or where bait is laid, Kenda says his patients have tended to arrive in the mornings, “So the poison is likely put out late at night or early morning.” One black spot has been the Orchid Valley sitting-out area, near the junction of Bowen and Wan Chai Gap roads. “Also there are those doggy latrines.”
Carbofuran works in a similar way to VX nerve agents. Kenda describes its effects as “dramatic”, “horrific” and “fast”.

“It affects the nerve and muscle connection, so usually what happens, by the time we get a dog that is obviously poisoned, they’re having convulsions, they may be vomiting, they may have diarrhoea, they can’t stand and they’re rigid, shaking. They’re a mess because they’re covered in vomit. They’re covered in urine, usually covered in stool, salivating everywhere.”

Treatment might include stabilisation, decontamination and cooling to prevent hyperthermia, depending on poison­ing severity.
Poison antidotes or partial antidotes (some toxins have no easy fix) might also be given, as well as activated charcoal, administered as a slurry or a tablet.

“The treatment regime is basically to give anticonvul­sants to calm them down,” says Kenda. “Sometimes they need to be cooled – because if they are seizuring and shaking, then sometimes body temperature goes up. We give an emetic to make the dog vomit.”

In February 1995, a report in the Post told of how Catriona Simpson had been walking her two one-year-old mongrels, Homer and Bart, on Black’s Link when Homer wolfed down meat found next to a children’s play area. “Within 20 minutes he was frothing at the mouth and shaking […] I took him to the RSPCA but he was dead when I got through the vet’s door.”

In the report, RSPCA vet Katriona Bradley said she had treated three other dogs – a cocker spaniel and two labradors – that week alone. Another vet quoted in the story said he had treated “seven or eight” animals in the same period.

Many more pets would be mourned in the coming years, including Labradors Kili (poisoned in 2001), Caspar (2005) and Fan Fan (2008); Weimaraner Bella (a Hong Kong championship show dog, poisoned in 2004); Jack Russell Bojai (2006); cross-breed Pepper (2010); and labradoodles Coco and Tiki (both 2007).

Among the survivors were golden retrievers Trillion (1996) and Sam (2007); Labradors Riva (1999), Harry and Sally (2004), Molly (2005) and Murphy (2007); cocker spaniel Lady (2000); Dalmatian Bibi (2000); German shepherd Otto (2001); and Siberian husky Alfie (2002).

The closest anyone has come to the likely culprit was when lawyer Jonathan Midgley woke with the sunrise one spring morning in 1995 to exercise his two dogs.

Hailing from Yorkshire, in the north of England, Midgley arrived in Hong Kong in 1978. Urbane, charming and looking younger than his 67 years, he is now a senior partner and solicitor advocate at law firm Haldanes, specialising in criminal defence.

Speaking to the Post in a light-filled corner room at Haldanes’ offices, overlooking Central, Midgley recalls how he had loaded Ruth, a chow-mix he had adopted as a starving stray some years earlier in Pok Fu Lam, and Maltese terrier Ralph into his car and driven the short distance from his home on Old Peak Road to Coombe Road, parking close to the Police Museum. He was awake especially early because he would be flying that day to Singapore on a legal case.

“I marched ahead of them and turned the first bend as you drop down from Coombe Road into the country park,” says Midgley. This would have placed him on Aberdeen Reservoir Road, at the entrance to Aberdeen Country Park. Aware of recent poisonings, he had avoided walking his dogs on Bowen Road. At that moment, he would have been a kilometre (and a strenuous, 15-minute walk) from the closest point on the Bowen Road Fitness Trail, at Orchid Valley. He was, however, mere minutes from Black’s Link.

“Quite quickly, there’s a left-hand bend, and I went around the bend and recognised that [the dogs] weren’t with me any more, neither of them, so I quickly went back and found a man in blue-cotton clothes, the uniform of the Wan Chai working man back then.”

Midgley recalls the man as being Chinese, about 1.7 metres tall and 35 to 40 years old, with a particularly round face. “I don’t think he had a particularly fine crop of hair, I don’t think he was bald either, but sort of thin. He was the sort of fellow you might miss in the street nine times out of 10,” he recalls. The man exhibited a “strange demeanour that’s rather hard to describe beyond saying that it was odd. It had you wondering”.

Midgley says the man was feeding Ruth with “what could have been a trowel” from a pink plastic bag. “I was imme­diately suspicious and I challenged him, and asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ I remember him saying, ‘I love the animals and I love the birds, and I come here in the morning and I feed them.’”

Though the lawyer attempted to keep the man chatting (they spoke in English, Midgley describing the man’s fluency as “adequate; I understood him and he understood me”), after some minutes the suspect said he had to leave. “He must have known his poisons well because, maybe a minute or so after he departed, Ruth started to vomit and tremble.”

Ruth had been poisoned with adulterated chicken. It was then, Midgley says, that his friend and Peak resident Gillian Stevens (who the following year would marry Peter Sutch, chairman of the Swire Group and Cathay Pacific) entered the country park for her early-morning exercise. With the help of Stevens and Sutch, Midgley recalls, a vet was found who “raced down to his practice” in Wan Chai, where “he worked on her effectively for two days, with stomach pumps and the whole works. She sort of hovered in between life and death, and pulled through”.

When Midgley reported his 1995 encounter with the moon-faced man to police, the response, he says, was “lukewarm”. Two years later, with the poisoning of Patten’s pooch and the media attention, there was new-found urgency. “They became a lot more interested,” he says. “And I mean it was huge.”

The day after Whisky’s poisoning was reported, Midgley’s tale made print – two years after the event – under the headline, “Lawyer: I met Bowen Road dog poisoner”. Soon, at the police’s request and for multiple days in succession, Midgley would rise before 5am to join officers on their early-morning treks around the crime scene. “I met the police up at Bowen Road and we went up and down, and up the hill, up towards Magazine Gap Road, a few times,” he says, “looking to see if we could find the poisoner […] but to no avail.”

Multiple requests made by the Post last month via official telephone and email channels, asking to discuss the case with a senior police officer with knowledge of the poison­ings, received only one short and anonymous response, which failed satisfactorily to answer questions concerning the number and locations of poisonings, similarities in method, police actions taken to prevent poisonings and apprehend any poisoner(s), and practical difficulties faced in the investigation.

The response said, “Police do have a grasp of the dog-poisoning cases in the vicinity of Bowen Road with relevant crime prevention campaigns mounted regularly to raise the public awareness for timely reporting, that include distri­buting leaflets and displaying crime prevention posters.”

It claimed, “The first case of dog poisoning at Bowen Road was handled by Police in January 1995. Since then, Police have received a total of 50 similar cases.” (Surprising, considering that Post records show police were on the case at least as early as 1991, and police had told the newspaper of 72 incidents from 1995 to October 2007 alone.) The email response ends, “Police do not keep the other data requested.”

Andrew Pang Tze-on, whose pet Pepper died after being poisoned on Bowen Road in 2010, is just one dog lover shocked by the failure to track down any poisoner in 30 years. He is disappointed CCTV cameras have not been deployed on Bowen Road to catch the culprit in the act or scare them off.

“It’s a joke,” Pang says, pointing out that there are signs warning the public of cameras at refuse-collection points on exclusive Mount Butler Road, not far from his home in Tai Hang. “They spend all this money to stop people disposing of unwanted furniture; the police are watching,” he says. “And yet they won’t do anything for animals, not even as a deterrent.”

The poisonings have, however, been raised in the Legislative Council on more than one occasion. According to government statistics cited in Legco in 2007, from the start of 2002 until March 2007 there had been 20 cases reported to police of dogs actually poisoned in the Bowen Road-Black’s Link area, with eight fatalities. There were a further 17 incidents of toxic bait being found there during those five years and three months.

Although the experiences of veterinarians in Mid-Levels, Happy Valley and Wan Chai indicate the true number of poisonings must be much higher, those relatively low numbers make it easier to understand why pet poisonings may not have been a law-enforcement priority. After all, according to official police data, there were 253 homicides in Hong Kong from 2002 to 2007. In 2002 alone, 75,877 known crimes were committed. Of those, 14,140 were violent, including 69 homicides and 95 rapes.

With the current anti-government protests in Hong Kong, one is sympathetic to the plight of the force’s over­loaded public relations department, but although Pang accepts that police have other, pressing concerns, he argues the sheer number of poisonings should have warranted a more thorough and energetic response. “When you have a very confined location where crimes have consistently happened, you know where [future crimes are] going to happen,” he argues. “It’s only the ‘when’ that you don’t know.”

Midgley is less critical of the lack of police progress. “I think they did their best. I recognise that this sort of thing is extremely hard work,” he says. “And not so much about hard work as luck.”

Ng of the SPCA agrees, saying that winding Bowen Road’s many blind spots make catching his nemesis in the act extremely unlikely.

It is also worth noting that when it comes to distri­buting poisoned bait with the aim of killing animals indiscri­mi­nately in Hong Kong, the law is, arguably, unfit for purpose. For the 17 years following the first recorded Bowen Road poisoning case in 1989, the maximum penalty for cruelty to animals was a fine of just HK$5,000 and six months in prison. That was amended in 2006 to HK$200,000 and three years’ imprisonment. But for any punishment to be meted out, cruelty needs to be proven.

Amanda Whitfort, associate professor at HKU’s Faculty of Law, specialises in animal-related legislation. She argues that Hong Kong’s Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Ordinance, or Cap. 169, is behind the times. Cap. 169 was introduced to the territory in 1935, and now Whitfort and the SPCA are pushing to bring it into line with 21st century sensibilities.

Current animal-cruelty legislation is effective if some­body is caught red-handed poisoning a dog, but it falls down, she says, by being reactive rather than proactive. “You need to have an animal poisoned before you can prosecute under Cap. 169 because there’s no specific offence – as there is in the UK, for example – that says you have committed a crime if you are in possession of a poison for the purpose of animal cruelty.”

A public consultation on amending Cap. 169 was held from May to July this year. Should change be the suggested outcome of the consultation, Whitfort says new legislation will be about 18 months away. “What we need,” she insists, “is a law that says you commit an offence if you have in your possession – without any reasonable excuse, in a public place – a substance, like tainted meat, that potentially will cause harm to animals.”

At the moment, she says, if Ng were to spy a man tossing poisoned chicken around Bowen Road and there were no dogs present, there would be no guarantee of a successful prosecution for animal cruelty under the current law. “If a dog came along later and ate the poisoned chicken, you would need to establish that the man was without a doubt the one who left the actual piece of chicken that harmed that animal,” Whitfort says.

There would be the possibility of prosecution for littering.

When he was enrolled to support police in their searches on and around Bowen, lawyer Midgley, who has professional knowledge of the workings of the criminal mind, suggested looking for where the poison originated. “If you can’t find the shooter,” he says, “find the source of the gun.”

The sale of pesticides in Hong Kong is controlled by the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, with a licence required. In December 1997, a department official told the Post that 414 outlets then had such a permit, with 196 of those being on Hong Kong Island. Carbofuran was also easily obtainable across the border in mainland China, effectively making that approach a dead end.

Interestingly, the department’s Plant and Pesticides Regulatory Division “deregistered” carbofuran, making it no longer freely available in Hong Kong, in December 2017, the year of the most recent reported dog poisoning in the Bowen Road area. That same month, China stated it would phase out carbofuran’s use by 2022, and its sale on the mainland has already been restricted.

Even the promise of substantial reward has failed to smoke out any poisoner. By 2008, monies put up by organisations and individuals via the SPCA totalled HK$160,000. By 2014, the reward had grown to HK$200,000, payable to any member of the public “giving information to the SPCA […] leading to the arrest and conviction of the culprit(s)”.

The expiry date for that financial incentive – still displayed on the SPCA website – was December 31, 2017.

James’ pets Max and Holly survived their ordeals on Bowen Road, though the horror of the poisonings was a factor in her family’s decision to relocate from Mid-Levels to Sai Kung in 2013. Max has since passed away, while Holly is now 14 years old and lame. She also suffers from epilepsy, a vet advising the family that while the condition could be a hereditary trait, it might also be a side effect of a toxin ingested more than a decade earlier.

Although it is now more than two years since the last recorded poisoning on Bowen Road, the SPCA advises dog owners not to drop their guard, keeping animals on leads and large dogs muzzled. While there have been previous hiatuses in poisonings lasting more than a year, SPCA inspectors continue regular patrols of Bowen Road and Black’s Link.

While nobody doubts Midgley’s account – and the moon-faced man surely did poison the lawyer’s dog in 1995 – it is perhaps hard to believe the poisoner is a single audacious serial killer acting alone and avoiding detection for 30 years.

“It’s been going on for so long that it’s hard to believe it’s one person,” says Kenda, though the vet does stress that the poison and locations used have frequently been consistent down the years. “Whoever it is – and whether there are copycats these days, I don’t know – the scenario is always so similar.”

“[We] can only speculate,” says the SPCA’s Woodhouse. “It’s been going on for a long time. We see mali­cious poison­ing incidents occurring across Hong Kong. There is focus on Bowen Road because it is where a lot of people take their dogs for a walk, but you do see cases occurring in villages and in other areas using the same type of insecticide.”

Indeed, scrutiny of the Post’s reporting, stretching back to the 1990s, reveals multiple spates of dog poisonings in various locations, including Shek O, SoHo, Lamma, Cheung Chau, Fanling and Clear Water Bay, suggesting Hong Kong’s poisoning problem may be more grave and alarming than is generally believed. In November 2017 alone, 11 dogs died of suspected poisoning over a single weekend in Lantau’s San Tau village.

Midgley, however, says he kicks himself for not acting on his suspicions about the man in the blue-cotton labourer’s overalls. “What do you do?” he says. “You’ve got a citizen who ostensibly is saying, ‘Aren’t I wonderful? Here I am, admiring the countryside, feeding the birds and the dogs.’ You are suspicious but what are you going to do? How do you hold him? If I’d acted differently or more aggressively, I might have stopped what I suspect was the main culprit, and perhaps the only culprit.”

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