2000 small mammals from across Hong Kong will be euthanised in an anti-COVID-19 operation. Online petition against decision has nearly 15,000 signatories in just hours. NGOs and Animal Welfare associations working desperately to halt the action and prevent further damage.
At 5pm the government announced the culling of 2000 small animals. 7pm Change.org user Soren Lee started a petition titled ” Stop the Government from Wrongfully Euthanising Little Boss’ Small animals. By midnight it had over 12000 signatures and is near 15,000 signatories at time of writing. The SPCA announced “shock” at the government decision and other charities are actively telling owners to hand their pets over to them instead of authorities in order to save their lives. Some animals are already being abandoned in garbage disposals out of COVID-19 fears.
All because 11 infected hamsters at one pet shop in Causeway Bay.
Into the jaws of COVID, rode the 2000
On the 18 Jan COVID-19 press conference, the government announced that 2000 small pets from across Hong Kong will be culled on public health grounds after 11 hamsters tested positive for COVID-19. All 11 were from Little Boss Pet Shop, Causeway Bay where a 23 year staff member tested positive for the Delta strain on Sunday (16 Jan). A 67 year old customer who went to exchange a cage on 8 Jan tested positive later on. Her family has been sent to Penny’s Bay, though so far only her husband has tested preliminarily positive.
Speaking at a press conference, Dr. Leung Siu Fai, director of the Agriculture, Fisheries & Conservation Department (AFCD) said his department tested 125 samples from the pet store after being alerted to the Delta case on 17 Jan. Although the store also sells chinchillas and rabbits, all 11 positive samples were from hamsters.
The Centre for Health Protection (CHP) and the AFCD then tested the store’s warehouse in Tai Po. The warehouse also serves Little Boss’ sister brands iLoveRabbit and Mrs. Rabbit. All stores have since closed for deep cleaning. No positive cases were found in Tai Po, but environmental contamination on animal cages were positive.
Leung believes that the virus came in one of two hamsters shipments from the Netherlands on 22 Dec and 7 Jan.
Prudent, preventative, firm decision
As a result of the positive cases, all animals within the Causeway Bay shop and the Tai Po warehouse will be culled. All customers who bought hamsters from Little Boss Causeway Bay after 7 Jan will be required to undergo compulsory quarantine.
In addition, the government has ordered the immediate closure of all 34 stores in Hong Kong licensed to sell hamsters. The AFCD will reclaim all hamsters that arrived in above shipments for euthanasia, while other animals will undergo compulsory testing. Stores will only be allowed to re-open after all animals test negative and premises have undergone deep cleaning.
In total, Leung estimated around 2000 animals will be euthanised – 1000 from Little Boss’ operations and 1000 from the rest of Hong Kong.
Dr. Thomas Sit, assistant director of the AFCD explained that the culling is necessary to “protect public health and animal health”.
“We already have evidence and the literature to prove hamsters have the receptors of these COVID-19 viruses similar to humans. So hamsters are usually used as a model to study this virus” said Sit.
“If the virus infects the hamsters, it has been proven in the laboratory, they can infect each other. That is why we have to make a quick and prompt decision to stop the outbreak”.
“They are excreting the virus and with the virus they can infect other animals and they can infect other hamsters and also human beings.
We do not want to cull all the animals, but we have to protect public health and animal health and we have no choice, we have to make a firm decision.”
By the evening, police and AFCD vehicles were seen outside Little Boss in Causeway Bay taking away allegedly infected rodents.
Animal Welfare Charities Shocked
Aside from targeting pet stores, the government also urged hamster owners who purchased their pets after 22 Dec to hand their hamsters over to authorities for testing. Regardless of test result, the pet will be euthanised and owners will be considered close contacts and sent to quarantine.
On their Facebook page, the SPCA made a statement urging the government to halt plans until further review.
“The SPCA is shocked and concerned over the recent government announcement on the handling of over 2,000 small animals, which did not take animal welfare and the human-animal bond into consideration” it said.
The SPCA sincerely hopes the AFCD will not take any further drastic action before reviewing its approach. The SPCA will urgently liaise with the AFCD to discuss alternative approaches. We urge pet owners not to panic or abandon their pets”
Meanwhile, spokesperson Sophia Chan for the hamster concern group ‘Life On Palm‘ said they received over 100 from owners seeking advice on whether to abandon their pets. calls since the sudden announcement in the afternoon.
Chan said one owner was crying on the phone as her family, following government advice, said she must hand the hamster over to authorities or they will do it themselves. Another owner called to inquire about medical examinations, but when she returned home, she found that her family had thrown the hamster away in the garbage room.
The charity is offering adoption services, taking in hamsters from owners who feel uncomfortable with their pets after the AFCD announcement. They noted that it is incredibly unlikely for hamsters at home to suddenly develop COVID-19 unless they received the virus from a human.
“Hamsters are our family members. Please act rationally and do not abandon them because of a single incident” they said on Facebook “If you do decide to abandon them, do not abandon them on the streets. Call our volunteers”.
“Hamsters cannot survive in the human world”
However, they stressed that their volunteers will not handle symptomatic hamsters out of personal safety and that owners should seek veterinary advice if they find their pets having flu-like symptoms. In any case, they should be treated compassionately out of safety for both the animal and the community.
“If a hamster who is positive is abandoned, it will definitely lead to a community outbreak. This is the worst case scenario”.
COVID Culling Abroad
Dr. Yuen Kwok-Yung called the decision to cull the small animals “decisive and wise” arguing that keeping the 2000 alive would pose a major health risk as they are particularly sensitive to viruses. They also have a long incubation period before showing symptoms but “release a great amount of virus in the first 10 days after being infected”.
He also showed worry over Hong Kong possibly being the first case of hamster-to-human transmission.
“It is a big issue. If Hong Kong churns out a strain of Covid-19 related to hamsters and it turns out to be more transmissible, it will be bad,”
Responding to criticisms, Yuen made reference to cases where European countries culled thousands of wild animals after finding they could be infected with COVID-19.
On 4 Nov 2020, Denmark culled all of its 17 million minks after hundreds of human infections were found to be related to mink farms. The Scandinavian country mobilized the police, the military and national emergency services for the operation which saw millions of lost revenue in mink fur sales and put farms out of business. China and Hong Kong were some of the biggest markets for the now decimated luxury fur industry.
Days later on 10 Nov, the government admitted that they did not have the legal power to call a mass cull, but only for culling near or at confirmed infections. They urged farmers to cooperate regardless and swiftly put forward legislation in tandem with the operation.
But just over a week later on 18 Nov, Danish agricultural minister Mogens Jensen, who devised the culling, announced that he would step down, no longer having support from parliament or the public. Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen also met calls to step down but retained her position.
The mink were buried in shallow mass graves in a military training site. By the end of the month, ‘zombie mink’ started rising out of the ground as a result of corpses releasing gas during decomposition.