Hong Kong's government faced outrage Wednesday over its decision to cull hundreds of small animals after hamsters in a store tested positive for Covid-19.
Like China, Hong Kong maintains a staunch "zero-Covid" policy, stamping out the merest trace of the virus with contact tracing, mass testing, strict quarantines and prolonged social-distancing rules.
Their latest measures target hamsters and other small mammals—including chinchillas, rabbits and guinea pigs—which authorities on Tuesday said will be culled as a "precautionary measure".
The drastic move came after hamsters sold at the Little Boss pet shop tested positive for the Delta variant—now rare in Hong Kong.
Officials dressed in full PPE gear carried red garbage bags marked with biohazard warnings out of the shop on Tuesday night.
Authorities "strongly encouraged" anyone who bought a hamster after December 22—right before Christmas—to give up their pet for culling.
Animal lovers across Hong Kong reacted with alarm: a Change.org petition garnered more than 23,000 signatures in less than a day, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) denounced the decision.
"The SPCA is shocked and concerned over the recent announcement about the handling of over 2,000 animals," it said in a statement sent to AFP Wednesday.
"We urge pet owners not to panic or abandon their pets."
One hamster lovers' group said it received more than 20 inquiries about whether owners had to give up their furry friends.
Authorities said Tuesday the Covid-positive creatures were believed to be imported from Netherlands.
"Internationally, there is no evidence yet to show pets can transmit the coronavirus to humans, but... we will take precautionary measures against any vector of transmission," Health secretary Sophia Chan said during a press conference.
About 1,000 animals sold at Little Boss and another 1,000 hamsters in dozens of pet shops across Hong Kong will be culled, authorities said.
The import of small mammals has also been banned.
'No one can take my hamster'
One owner—who bought her pet on Jan. 1—reacted in defiance.
"No one can take my hamster away unless they kill me," she told local media outlet The Standard on Wednesday.
She pushed back on the government's mass cull, recalling a recent birthday party attended by officials that resulted in multiple Covid infections and left Hong Kong's leadership redfaced.
"Will they also kill all infected Covid-19 patients and their close contacts?" the owner demanded.
"If all people who attended the birthday party are culled then I will hand my hamster to the government."
A grim humour settled on Hong Kong-centric social media accounts, with netizens publishing illustrations of hamsters wearing surgical masks or facing off with the Grim Reaper.
The city's largest opposition party also waded into the controversy, saying the "indiscriminate killing" policy will only cause "public resentment".
"If cats, dogs or other animals get infected in the future, will they also be targeted for 'humane dispatch'?" wrote Felix Chow, the animal rights spokesperson for The Democratic Party, on the group's official Facebook page.
But the government's decision has some supporters.
Top microbiologist Yuen Kwok-yung, also a government advisor, praised the measure as "decisive" and "prudent".
Some heeded the government's call to give up their rodents on Wednesday, according to local broadcaster RTHK, with one man saying he agreed with the authorities' rationale of limiting the virus spread.
When questioned about Hong Kong's hamster cull, the World Health Organization said some animal species can be infected with the coronavirus, and animals can reinfect humans.
"That risk remains low but it is something that we are constantly looking at," said the WHO's Maria Van Kerkhove.