The Hong Kong government’s announcement on Tuesday sparked outrage among pet owners and animal rights activists, with several online petitions urging authorities to reconsider.
It comes after an emerging cluster linked to the Little Boss pet store, where a 23-year-old employee was confirmed positive for the Delta variant on Monday. A customer who visited the store and interacted with the employee also later tested positive.
After investigating the pet store, officials said on Tuesday that 11 hamsters had tested positive for Covid, raising concerns about the possibility of animal-to-human transmission.
Environmental samples taken from the store’s warehouse, where other species of small animals are kept, also confirmed traces of the coronavirus, officials said. The pet shop hamsters were imported from the Netherlands in two batches, on December 22 and January 7.
On Tuesday, authorities seized all of the store’s small animals, including hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, to be tested and euthanized – regardless of the test result – citing a health hazard public.
All pet stores selling hamsters in the city have been ordered to hand over the animals for slaughter, with similar orders for anyone who bought a hamster before Christmas, starting December 22.
Photos from Tuesday evening show Covid screeners in hazmat suits at many pet stores, disinfecting the premises and pulling out large red plastic bags.
Any animals removed from the store would be treated “humanely”, authorities said.
Authorities also suspended the importation of all small animals into the city and asked all pet stores selling hamsters to immediately suspend operations until all of their small animals tested negative. Authorities on Tuesday urged residents to “adopt good hygiene practices” with their pets, including avoiding kissing them.
More than 20,000 people have signed the largest online petition urging the government not to slaughter animals. Some social media users said many of the hamsters may have been bought over the holidays as gifts for young children.
“Hamsters are our family, everyone, please think rationally, don’t abandon them because of one incident,” said the Hamster Concern Society, a voluntary organization in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong’s Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) said in a statement that it was “shocked and concerned” by the government’s decision, which “did not take into consideration the welfare animal and the human-animal bond”.
In a Facebook post on Wednesday, the hamster advocacy group said it had been inundated with questions and pleas from anxious pet owners. “The hamster in my house was not purchased from a pet store, but my family is very worried and want me to send it back,” one owner said, according to the group. “But I don’t want to, is there a way to test my hamster?
According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there have been documented cases of Covid-19 in animals that likely caught the virus from humans – however, there is much less evidence to suggest the possibility of it. transmission from animals to humans.
But authorities defended the culling, arguing it was in the interest of public health and safety.
Hong Kong has stuck to a strict zero Covid approach, aiming to eradicate all cases internally while maintaining strict border controls, even as increasingly transmissible variants – first Delta and now Omicron – make that Harder and harder.
Hong Kong is one of the few places still adhering to this strategy, hoping to reopen its border with mainland China, which continues to lock down millions of people in an attempt to eradicate Covid.
A spokesman for the city’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said on Tuesday that all hamsters would be killed regardless of their test result because the incubation period for the virus means that “negative test results do not necessarily mean the hamsters were not infected.”
He added that the government doesn’t have the facilities or the means to test more than a thousand hamsters every day, let alone isolate and quarantine every small animal in town – so killing them was ” a safe and feasible way to control the epidemic.”
Testing and isolating pets, and only killing those deemed a threat, “could not completely control the outbreak and could create loopholes”, he added.
Mainland China has also taken similar measures against pets during the pandemic.
Both cases went viral on Chinese social media, sparking widespread dismay and anger among pet owners and supporters – although some posters argued that human lives were more important to protect than those of animals.
Hong Kong’s AFCD spokesman also pointed to European countries like the Netherlands and Denmark that had carried out similar mass eliminations due to Covid transmission issues.
In November 2020, Denmark said it had found a mutated strain of the coronavirus among its mink population that had spread to humans. In response, the government announced the culling of 17 million mink to stop its spread.
The Danish parliament has commissioned an inquiry into whether ministers knew the legal framework was missing, with the inquiry due to end in April.
CNN’s Wayne Chang, Lizzy Yee and Teele Rebane contributed to this report. Additional Reuters reporting.