Some pet owners in Hong Kong have discarded their hamsters following the government’s call on Tuesday to cull some 2,000 of the rodents over fears of animal-to-human COVID-19 transmission.

Hong Kong authorities said several hamsters in a pet shop and two people—a shopkeeper and a customer—were infected by the Delta variant of the virus. The animals originated in the Netherlands and recently arrived in Hong Kong, which has maintained a strict zero-COVID policy. Fearing hamster-to-human transmission, officials ordered the immediate suspension of sales and imports of the rodents and asked pet owners to surrender any hamsters they bought since Dec. 22.

But the city-wide call for hamster euthanization has stirred backlash among some Hong Kong residents, who call the mass killing “unjust and brutal,” while some pet owners abandoned their pets on the street, prompting animal rights groups to rescue discarded animals.  

A 26-year-old hamster owner, who only gave her name as Suki, told VICE World News she was part of an online network set up by volunteers to pair up people who want to give up their hamsters with those who are willing to take them in. More than 1,000 people have signed up as potential adopters, she said. 

Some volunteers were scouting alleyways and trash collection points until late night on Tuesday to rescue abandoned hamsters, Suki said. Several animals, still in their cages, were found on the streets, she said.

“The problem is very severe,” Suki said. She just adopted two hamsters herself. “I can understand the concerns. But when you bring an animal home, it becomes part of your family. How can you give them up so easily?”

The government has called on the public not to abandon hamsters on the street, but to surrender the pets to an animal management center for “humane dispatch” if they were purchased after Dec. 22. 

Government officials have set up a hamster hotline for enquiries, and workers wearing hazmat suits have removed hamsters at pet shops for culling. 

Several people were spotted visiting the animal center with bags or plastic boxes on Wednesday. A man surnamed Chan told reporters that he was giving up two hamsters kept by his young children. “They know the virus is serious, so they didn’t react strongly,” Chan said. “They were just a bit reluctant to let go.” 

Hong Kong’s call for the mass culling of hamsters is not the first instance of animals being euthanized on public health grounds during the pandemic.

In 2020, Denmark decided to cull about 17 million minks, fearing that infected mammals could cause an animal-to-human transmission. In Vietnam, 16 pets were killed by authorities after one pet and the couple who owned the animals tested positive for the virus. To protect animals from the virus and to prevent a possible transmission to humans, some countries have even been inoculating animals.

In Hong Kong, where a zero-COVID policy has been keeping infection numbers down, leading public health experts said culling was the only option.

“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,” said Thomas Sit, a veterinarian and assistant director of Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department, at a press briefing on Tuesday.

Sit said that though it wasn’t confirmed whether the hamsters infected humans, euthanizing them was necessary to prevent an outbreak because they could infect other hamsters and people.

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