Why Hong Kong is culling hamsters and other pets

Desperate owners flying pets out of country as thousands of animals euthuanised over Covid-19 transmission fears

Members of Hong Kong’s Health Department wearing PPE in a pet shop
Members of Hong Kong’s Health Department collect environmental samples at a pet shop
(Image credit: Li Zhihua/China News Service via Getty Images)

More than 2,500 hamsters and other pets have been “humanely dispatched” after being surrendered to the Hong Kong authorities in a bid to control a Covid-19 outbreak, the city state’s government has announced.

Officials last week “ordered the killing of hamsters from dozens of pet shops after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at a shop” in the Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong island, Reuters reported. Anyone who bought a hamster on or after 22 December has been asked to surrender their new pet, and rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs are also being culled.

‘No evidence’ of pet-to-human transition

As of Saturday, a total of 2,512 animals, including 2,229 hamsters, had been tested for Covid-19 and then euthanised. One hamster surrendered by a pet owner had tested positive so far, the authorities said.

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The import of all small animals into Hong Kong has also been suspended, and around 150 customers of Causeway Bay’s Little Boss pet shop have been told to quarantine.

The city state is going to desperate measures in a bid to stop the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant under its tough “zero-Covid” strategy. On Sunday, Hong Kong confirmed 140 new Covid cases – the highest daily figure since July 2020.

But while the government is determined to destroy any pet that might be infected, “some scientists and veterinary authorities have said there is no evidence that animals play a major role in human contagion with the coronavirus”, said Reuters.

Vanessa Barrs, a professor of companion animal health at City University of Hong Kong, told CNN that “with several hundred million human cases of Covid, we haven’t seen any pet-to-human transmission”.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has said that “the risk of pets spreading Covid-19 to people is low”.

Private jets for pets

The Hong Kong government’s policy has triggered a public outcry and a “game of cat and mouse” between officials and pet owners, said The Guardian.

Tens of thousands of animal lovers have signed petitions against the cull, and groups have “gathered outside collection facilities urging people not to hand over their animals”, the paper continued. Some are “offering to hide or adopt the doomed pets”, as part of “clandestine” rescue operations.

The Financial Times reported that some fed-up Hong Kongers “leaving the increasingly isolated city are chartering private jets for their pets – the only way many can take their animals with them as pandemic restrictions squeeze freight space on commercial flights”.

According to the paper, “people are grouping together to use private jets”, at a cost of about HK$200,000 (£190,000) for each owner with their pet.

Previous pet culls worldwide

A Vietnamese couple made headlines across the globe last October when 12 of their pets dogs were killed by authorities after the husband and wife tested positive for Covid.

“I didn't want to believe that really happened… I couldn't do anything to protect my kids,” Pham Minh Hung told the BBC, referring to his dogs. He and his wife, Nguyen Thi Chi Em, documented their story on TikTok, describing how they found out from their hospital beds that their pets had been put down.

Online users described the cull as “cruel” and “heart-breaking”. But a local official insisted that “disease control must be prioritised in the first place and the decision to kill the animals immediately was a necessary preventive measure”.

Local health authorities in China have also been criticised for allegedly “breaking into people’s homes and killing their pets while the owners are in quarantine”, NPR reported in November.

In one case, a dog owner in the northeast in the city of Shangrao “witnessed through her home security camera as people clothed in hazmat suits entered her home and beat her pet corgi to death with iron rods while she was away in a quarantine facility”, said the Washington D.C.-based news site.

The owner, who tested negative for Covid, posted the footage on Chinese social media platform Weibo. After the footage went viral, the local authorities apologised for “the harmless disposal of a pet dog without having fully communicated with the pet owner”.

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