A Hong Kong animal welfare group said it had been inundated with calls asking for information on how to dispose of hamsters following a surprise announcement that the government would euthanize the animals, after the emerging evidence of the first possible animal-to-human transmission of Covid-19 in the city.
Health authorities decided on the slaughter on Tuesday after 11 samples taken from hamsters came back positive and two more human infections linked to the Little Boss pet store in Causeway Bay were reported.
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A sales assistant was confirmed to be infected by Delta on Sunday and a customer who visited on Jan. 8 was listed as a case on Tuesday, while her husband is also thought to have the virus.
The Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation (AFCD) asked animal owners and traders to submit some 2,000 hamsters that had been imported into two lots since December 22. Animals would be tested before euthanasia.
Hong Kong Life on Palm said it received more than 60 inquiries about abandoning hamsters within hours of news of the cull, compared to the usual one to two inquiries a day.
“We did our best to persuade them [not to abandon their pets]; some changed their minds after that,” said Sophia Chan, president of the organization. “However, around 20 pet owners have not changed their minds. This involves around 30-40 hamsters.
She added that these included those purchased after December 22 and volunteers were working around the clock to pick up the animals.
Chan advised pet owners to observe whether their hamsters had developed respiratory symptoms, a runny nose or weight loss, and to seek veterinary advice. People shouldn’t abandon their hamsters on the street but contact volunteers for help, she said.
Professor Nikolaus Osterrieder, dean of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and Life Sciences at City University, called the government’s decision ‘super tough’ and expressed concern that it could lead to a mass abandonment of animals.
However, the city’s zero Covid policy and lack of biosecurity containment facilities have made the alternative of quarantining and treating the animals difficult.
“From a veterinary and animal welfare point of view, it would be better to try to save the lives of these hamsters, [but] I’m afraid that’s not feasible,” Osterrider said.
Osterrieder urged pet owners in Hong Kong 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 were overreacting and throwing away their animals, citing the abandonment of cats and dogs in the town after a Pomeranian was infected with Covid-19 in February 2020.
Meanwhile, the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals issued a statement saying it was “shocked and concerned” by the announcement, adding that the decision “did not take into consideration the welfare animal and the human-animal bond”.
“The SPCA hopes that the AFCD will take no drastic action before reviewing its approach,” she said, adding that the group would liaise with the AFCD and discuss alternative methods.
A change.org petition titled “Stop the government from wrongfully euthanizing little boss’s little pets,” which received more than 11,000 signatures on Wednesday, expressed outrage at the move.
“Every pet owner knows that their pet’s life is just as important as their own, but the Hong Kong government fails to see that they, the very upholders of the law, are on a dangerous path to murdering many lives that are barely different to ours,” the petition read.
The 34 licensed pet stores that sell hamsters across the city will have to close temporarily, while around 150 customers will have to quarantine. Several other stores selling cats and rabbits have announced that they will suspend their services to ensure the safety of their animals.
Two Little Boss subsidiary stores, I Love Rabbit and Miss Rabbit, will also close their branches for two days for deep cleaning.
Pet owners were encouraged to order supplies from their online website.
Miffy Mak, who owns two hamsters, said she was still buying supplies and goods from stores that had been ordered to stop operations.
“Fortunately, I went to the pet store last weekend to buy food for the hamsters; otherwise it would be a big worry for me,” the woman in her twenties said.
“I was appalled when the government suddenly announced that they were going to euthanize the animals,” she added. “Hamsters are still living things. If this outbreak was linked to pet cats or dogs, the government wouldn’t make such a rash decision. »
Another person, who gave his surname as Chan, said it was heartbreaking that the government suddenly decided to dig up 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 analyze the full image and confirm who infected whom.”