By now you would’ve heard about the case of 2,000 hamsters at a pet shop being culled en masse by authorities in Hong Kong following a Covid outbreak among the rodents.
The announcement was made on Tuesday after an employee at the Little Boss pet store tested positive for the Delta variant of Covid-19. Authorities then conducted a mass testing of all the small mammals at the store, and found that 11 hamsters tested positive for the virus. However, only hamsters at the Causeway Bay branch seemed to be affected, and not other small mammals like rabbits and chinchillas.
Still, authorities have decided to cull 2,000 small mammals – not just from Little Boss, but also pets from 34 other stores and animal storage centres that imported from the same source – in case it spread from animal to human as a “preventative measure.”
It was reported that all 34 pet shops selling hamsters – apparently, they were imported from the Netherlands – in Hong Kong were ordered to shut down immediately pending further testing and cleaning. On Wednesday, 1,213 small animals – including hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas – were euthanised.
Not just pets, but humans suffered
Those who recently bought hamsters since 22 December have been strongly urged to hand over their pet for euthanasia. Imagine having to pry a beloved new pet as a Christmas present from the hands of children! A heartbreaking video on i-Cable News showed a tearful boy bidding farewell to his hamster.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, those who bought hamsters specifically form Little Boss were sent to a government quarantine camp – more than 100 pet shop visitors were affected.
There was a telephone hamster hotline specifically to deal with the logistics. Pet owners have also been cautioned by authorities to “avoid kissing the animals” and authorities have since banned the import and sale of hamsters and other small mammals.
More than 14,000 people have signed a petition against the culling. Medical experts on Wednesday backed the government’s decision. Yuen Kwok-yung, a microbiologist with The University of Hong Kong who supported the government’s decision, said he even received threatening emails asking him “to go die.”
On Wednesday, authorities – decked in full PPE gear – were seen gathered at the Little Boss pet store carrying the hamsters away in small boxes and bags to euthanise them.
Hong Kong has maintained a “zero Covid” strategy, and is focused on eliminating the disease, going as far as culling thousands of animals after only a handful tested positive for the virus.
Hamsters spurred resistance
As authorities “strongly recommended” that pet owners surrender hamsters to their fate, an underground movement has sprung up to aid those in a tight spot with their newly-acquired pets. Following an uproar by the pet owners, hamster-saving heroes gathered in Telegram groups to share updates. It’s reported that nearly 3,000 have volunteered as foster carers to take in and conceal the affected hamsters.
Others have offered other skills – there was reportedly one volunteer to offered to amend hamster receipts to say they were purchased before December 22.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said any effort to try to save hamsters or if people fail to return the hamsters, the police will be called in.
Human to animal transmission?
In the early days of the pandemic, questions were raised regarding the transmissibility of Covid-19 between humans and animals. This came to light after pet dogs and cats tested positive (usually after their owners did), and as the pandemic wore on, it was discovered even big cats weren’t immune.
In South Africa, lions and pumas at a zoo in Pretoria tested positive for Covid-19 in 2020 and 2021. Last year in Singapore, lions at the Night Safari and Singapore Zoo tested positive. In both countries, the animals contracted the virus from zoo authorities, which raises concerns of human-to-animal transmission.
While there is no clear evidence that pets can easily pass the infection to humans, not many people are taking chances. Millions of farmed mink in Denmark were culled in 2020 amid fears around the virus mutations and its transmissibility.
A lot of questions were raised in the culling of the Hong Kong hamsters. There are no clear answers. Animal rights groups have come out to criticise the action, saying authorities failed to take into account animal-to-human bonds or consider testing the hamsters.