After discovering several cases of Covid-19 in a pet shop, the authorities ordered the slaughter of some 2,000 small animals, mainly hamsters but also chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs, as a “precautionary measure”.
In the middle of the week, employees in protective clothing came out of the shop with red garbage bags marked with a biohazard warning. They were then sent to a quarantine camp.
After removing all the animals carrying the virus, the authorities also “strongly encouraged” anyone who bought a small mammal after 22 December, just before Christmas, to bring the animal in for euthanasia.
Professor Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading Hong Kong microbiologist and government adviser on Covid issues, said the mass cull was necessary to “avoid a catastrophe”. “We have reason to believe that a warehouse, in which more than a thousand hamsters were kept, is the source of (the contamination).
“At the international level, there is no evidence yet that pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, but (…) we are taking precautionary measures” against any risk of transmission, Health Secretary Sophia Chan said at a press conference. For the WHO, this risk of transmission “remains low, but we are constantly reviewing it”.
Many people cried foul after the small rodents were culled. A Change.org petition gathered more than 23,000 signatures in less than a day and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) denounced the government’s decision.
“The SPCA is shocked and concerned by the recent announcement regarding the treatment of over 2,000 animals,” it said in a statement sent to AFP on Wednesday. “We urge pet owners not to panic and abandon their animals,” she added.
Several Hongkongers have been visiting the government-run hamster collection centre to discourage owners from handing them over to the authorities. In a statement, “the Department of Agriculture asks them to stop such actions immediately” and said police had been informed of the obstructions. A police van was parked outside the collection point, Hong Kong TV reported Friday. By Thursday evening, the centre had received 68 hamsters.
One man, a father who asked to be identified only by his surname, Hau, told AFP that his 10-year-old son was inconsolable at the thought of losing “Pudding”, a recently purchased hamster. “I have no choice, the government has given a very bad image,” he testified, while showing videos of his son crying in front of Pudding’s pink cage. He admitted, however, that he was worried about his elderly parents, with whom he lives.
Another person, a woman, shouted, “No one will take my hamster away from me unless they kill me,” having bought her pet on January 1, recalling that several dozen senior Hong Kong officials were sent to a quarantine camp in early January for attending a birthday party where two attendees tested positive for Covid-19.
To date, no penalties have been imposed on pet owners who want to keep their hamsters. However, health authorities said Hong Kong has the legal means to force people to hand over the animals.