Opinion | Did anyone spare a thought for the safety of animals during Typhoon Saola?

Opinion | Did anyone spare a thought for the safety of animals during Typhoon Saola?

Last week, Hong Kong suffered the effects of Super Typhoon Saola as it swept through the city. In a matter of hours, everything had ground to a halt: shops, restaurants and public transport alike. I, like most of the 7.5 million others, found myself stuck indoors, waiting for the storm to abate.

Amid the ceaseless rain and howling winds, you cannot help but ponder. As I gazed out of the window of my hotel at the Chek Lap Kok airport, I noticed an eerie absence – there were no birds perched on street lights, no dragonflies darting around trees.

My mind turned to the countless other species enduring the typhoon. In Hong Kong alone, there are about 24 species of frogs, 55 terrestrial mammalian species, 130 kinds of dragonflies and more than 570 species of birds. Some of these animals are endangered.

Amid the clamour of concern over human safety, why is it that we hear so little about animal safety? Are concerted efforts made to protect these animals during tropical typhoons and, more broadly, in the face of natural disasters?

The effects of typhoons on animals are profound and multifaceted, and can present severe challenges for various species. For instance, many birds – especially the smaller and migratory ones – struggle to find stable perches or shelter in relentless winds and heavy rains; this leaves them vulnerable to injury or death due to exhaustion. The disorienting effects of the storm can further disrupt their navigational abilities.

Aquatic life, including fish and marine mammals, can be disrupted by sudden changes in the water temperature and salinity caused by storm surges. In terrestrial ecosystems, torrential rainfall can trigger landslides and habitat destruction, threatening mammals and reptiles. Flooding can force small mammals such as rats and mice to seek refuge in urban areas, potentially increasing human-animal conflict.
A black-crowned night heron chick is spotted in a prime bird habitat on Kwong Fuk Road in Tai Po on September 21, 2018, in the wake of Typhoon Mangkhut, one of the most powerful storms to hit the city. Photo: Elizabeth Cheung

Typhoons also disrupt the complex balance of pollination, affecting not only plant reproduction but also the food web that relies on these interactions.

All these examples underscore the intricate web of life in Hong Kong and the critical need to include animal welfare considerations in disaster preparedness and response strategies.

Our cities were originally built to shield us from the perils of a daunting natural world, isolating us from a seemingly treacherous environment. Yet many animals have not only survived but are thriving in highly urbanised and densely populated metropolises such as Hong Kong.

What struck me is that our mega-cities – all around the world – remain resolutely anthropocentric: think about stories of “ bird-window collisions” or small mammals struck by cars. All told, consideration for the animals that we share urban spaces with remains scant, especially when natural catastrophes loom.

Our prosperity, as a multi-species society, hinges upon including animals in our plans. As our cities bolster their infrastructures to withstand an increasing number of natural disaster events, it is paramount that our response evolves to encompass animals and to transition to a multi-species framework.


Hong Kong primary school plants Japan’s ‘Miyawaki forest’ to help cool city

Hong Kong primary school plants Japan’s ‘Miyawaki forest’ to help cool city

The unfortunate reality is that animal safety during natural catastrophes remains a neglected topic. We seldom contemplate it, and our guidelines are sparse, often limited to calling the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) hotline to report animals in danger. When we consider the staggering diversity of species living in Hong Kong, this response seems woefully inadequate.

We tend to focus on animals we have a personal connection with, while animals we share liminal spaces with, such as bats, rats, squirrels and countless bird species, remain on the periphery of our concern. This neglect not only threatens biodiversity, but also exacerbates unnecessary animal suffering.


One million plants and animals on brink of extinction, threatening economies and livelihoods across the world

One million plants and animals on brink of extinction, threatening economies and livelihoods across the world

As with every human-animal conflict resolution, solutions are multifaceted. Here, the creation of a comprehensive preparedness programme appears to be suitable. This could include the creation of bird lofts, strategically placed throughout the city, as safe havens for the avian species during typhoons. Animal passageways and corridors could be integrated into our urban infrastructure, allowing wildlife to seek refuge but also to move freely without endangering themselves on busy roads.

Other conservation initiatives tailored to the unique needs of animals within our urban confines, such as bat-friendly building designs – roosting boxes, crevices, bat-friendly gardens and flight corridors – are also ways of promoting the welfare of liminal animals, as well as a better coexistence between humans and other species.

While budget constraints and competing human-centric priorities may pose challenges, it is important to recognise that the prosperity of our city hinges upon including animals in our plans, as they play essential roles – serving as pollinators, pest controllers and more – in maintaining a functional urban ecosystem.

Their well-being is not just a moral imperative; it is an ecological necessity. Implementing some of these solutions would be an opportunity to create cohesion between species, as well as better stewardship in cities.

In the end, the legacy of our cities depends on how well we discharge our responsibility to all inhabitants, great and small. Typhoon Saola serves as a poignant reminder that we must not wait for crises to push us to take action. Let’s make caring for all animals, regardless of size or circumstance, an everyday commitment. It is not just a duty; it is a testament to our compassion and the health of our shared urban environment.

Zoe Newton is an animal studies graduate of New York University

Opinion | Did anyone spare a thought for the safety of animals during Typhoon Saola?

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