Hongkongers launch hamster rescue mission after Covid cull declared

Authorities and pet lovers in Hong Kong are locked in a game of cat and mouse, with citizens mounting a clandestine rescue operation for hamsters condemned to be euthanised over fears they could transmit Covid-19.

On Tuesday, government and health officials announced traces of the virus had been found on 11 hamsters , all in a pet shop where a 23-year-old staff member had fallen ill. They decided more than 2,000 of the imported animals, including any pets bought since 22 December, must be killed, and “strongly recommended” owners surrender their pets.

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For many, it was the final straw after two years of ad hoc and often illogical pandemic measures. Residents sprung into action, offering to hide or adopt the doomed pets. Tens of thousands signed petitions, while others offered to fake backdated receipts to before 22 December, the Washington Post reported. Groups gathered outside collection facilities urging people not to hand over their animals.One Causeway Bay woman, who gave the name Jessica, said she volunteered on a social media group to house a hamster, but was still waiting to be assigned one. “There are a lot​ of other volunteers,” she said. “I left a message saying which area I’m in, and that I could take one hamster because the flat I live in is small and I have a dog.

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“I can keep it forever, or if someone wants it back I can give it back,” she said, adding she wasn’t worried about the infection risk. “Even if I’d bought a hamster [myself], I would rather have Covid-19 than hand it in … Hong Kong makes such a big deal of it.”

Local media was awash with footage and images of crying children saying goodbye to their hamsters, and interviews with people working to save them. Many spoke anonymously, their voices and faces disguised out of fear of retribution amid Hong Kong’s worsening security crackdown.

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A spokesperson for Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, called the backlash irrational, and said the animals had been “humanely dispatched … to minimise as soon as possible the potential risks of virus transmission”.The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) said attempts to save the hamsters obstructed the department’s work and posed a public health risk.“The AFCD demands them to stop such action immediately and return the hamsters taken away,” it said. “If the people concerned continue with such action, or fail to return the hamsters taken away, the AFCD will stringently follow up and hand it over to the police for handling.”

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Jessica said she was not worried about the government threats. “I don’t care about that, the police. Fuck them. They arrest people anyway for doing nothing,” she said.​

“Some of my friends are in jail now. Not because of a hamster. I would rather save a life. A hamster life is still a life and that’s what a lot of volunteers are thinking.”

Animal welfare organisations have blasted the government’s decision, and urged people not to hand anything over, saying the government did not have the legal power to make the order. By Thursday, just 68 had been handed over by the public, according to government figures.

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Authorities have conceded there is no evidence that domestic animals can pass the disease to humans, but said they were acting out of caution.

“We have reason to believe the source was the warehouse containing more than 1,000 hamsters in close proximity,” said Yuen Kwok-yung, a leading microbiologist and government adviser, on Wednesday. “The virus could multiply via cross-infection and spread to pet shops and other retail outlets.”Additional reporting by Xiaoqian Zhu