One Hong Kong animal welfare group said it had been flooded with calls requesting information about getting rid of hamsters following a surprise announcement that the government would euthanise the animals, after evidence emerged of the first possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid-19 in the city.
Health authorities decided on the cull on Tuesday after 11 samples taken from hamsters came back positive and two more human infections tied to the Little Boss pet shop in Causeway Bay were reported.
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A sales assistant was confirmed as infected with Delta on Sunday and a customer who visited on January 8 was listed as a case on Tuesday, while her husband is believed to also be carrying the virus.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) asked pet owners and shops to hand over some 2,000 hamsters that had been imported in two batches since December 22. The animals would be tested before euthanisation.
Hong Kong Life on Palm said it received more than 60 inquiries about abandoning hamsters within hours of the announcement of the cull, compared to the usual one to two inquiries a day.
“We tried our best to persuade them [not to abandon their pets]; some changed their minds after that,” said Sophia Chan, president of the organisation. “However, about 20 pet owners did not change their minds. It involves about 30 to 40 hamsters.”
She added that those included ones bought after December 22 and that volunteers were working around the clock to pick up the animals.
Chan advised pet owners to observe whether their hamsters had developed any respiratory symptoms, a runny nose or weight loss, and seek out a veterinarian’s opinion. People should not abandon their hamsters on the street but contact volunteers for help, she said.
Professor Nikolaus Osterrieder, dean of the college of veterinary medicine and life sciences at City University, has called the government’s decision “super harsh” and expressed fears that it could lead to mass abandonment of animals.
However, the city’s zero-Covid policy and lack of biosafety confinement facilities meant the alternative, which is to quarantine and treat the animals, was difficult.
“From a veterinary and animal welfare perspective, it would be preferable to try to save the lives of those hamsters, [but] I am afraid it may not be doable,” Osterrider said.
Osterrieder urged Hong Kong pet owners not to panic, saying the likelihood of other pets in the city becoming infected “is very close to zero because we have a zero-Covid policy”.
He admitted he feared they would overreact and dump their animals, citing the abandonment of cats and dogs in the city after a Pomeranian was infected with Covid-19 in February 2020.
Meanwhile, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals released a statement saying it was “shocked and concerned” about the announcement, adding the move “did not take animal welfare and human-animal bond into consideration”.
“The SPCA hopes AFCD won’t take any drastic action before reviewing its approach,” it said, adding the group would liaise with the AFCD and discuss alternative methods.
A change.org petition titled “Stop the Government from Wrongfully Euthanising Little Boss’ Small Pets,” which has received more than 11,000 signatures as of Wednesday, expressed outrage over the move.
“Every pet owner knows that their pet’s lives are just as important as their own, yet the Hong Kong government fails to see that they, the very upholders of law, are on the dangerous path to the murders of many lives that are barely any different to ours,” the petition said.
All 34 licensed pet stores that sell hamsters across the city will have to temporarily shut down, while about 150 customers will have to quarantine. Several other shops selling cats and rabbits announced they would suspend services to ensure their animals were safe.
Two subsidiary stores of Little Boss, I Love Rabbit and Miss Rabbit, will also close their branches for two days for deep cleaning.
Pet owners were advised to order supplies from their online website.
Miffy Mak, who owns two hamsters, said she always bought supplies and goods from the stores that were ordered to halt operations.
“Luckily, I went to the pet store last weekend to purchase food for the hamsters; otherwise it would be a big worry for me,” said the woman in her late 20s.
“I was appalled when the government suddenly announced they were going to euthanise the animals,” she added. “Hamsters are still living beings. If this outbreak was linked to pet cats or dogs, the government would not make such a rash decision.”
Another person, who gave his surname as Chan, said it was heartbreaking that the government suddenly decided to cull the animals.
“It’s heartbreaking because at the end of the day lives will be lost. But I think it’s hard to decide what is the right or wrong course of action,” he said. “They should have allowed more time to analyse the full picture and confirm who infected whom.”