HONG KONG — When they came for the hamsters, it proved to be the last straw for long-suffering residents of Hong Kong.
The city has endured, and largely complied with, extreme and often baffling pandemic rules. Schools and gyms are closed, and restaurants must shut at 6 p.m. Air travel with most major hubs has been severed. Playgrounds are sealed off with tape.
But when the government announced a cull of 2,000 pet hamsters, a line was crossed. The rodents could carry the coronavirus, officials said, and transmit it to humans.
Now, an underground railroad is emerging to save abandoned hamsters, with foster carers taking them in and concealing them. Pet owners are in uproar at the government’s plan, which experts say is rooted in knee-jerk panic rather than science. The hamsters are casualties of Hong Kong’s “zero COVID” policy, which many here see as a futile political quest.
Resistance fighters have assembled in Telegram groups to share updates, drawing on methods used in anti-government protests in 2019. Nearly 3,000 have volunteered to house the affected hamsters. On social media, concerned residents shared photos of abandoned hamsters in the hope of enlisting rescuers. Many garnered responses in seconds.
The furor erupted after the government said Tuesday that hamsters purchased from pet shops after Dec. 22 were potentially infected with the virus, after several imported from the Netherlands tested positive. Authorities “strongly recommended” that pet owners surrender hamsters to their fate. The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department has begun to cull small animals from Little Boss pet store, where the infected hamsters were found after a 23-year-old worker tested positive.
The hamsters “can infect other animals, other hamsters and human beings,” Thomas Sit, assistant director of the department and a veterinarian, said at a news conference Tuesday. “We have to protect public health, and we have no choice.”
For many pet owners, the response was a resounding “no.” Alice, 36, said she would never turn in Siu Ding, whom she purchased from Little Boss for her 6-year-old daughter after the cutoff date. She spoke on the condition that only her first name be used, for fear that the authorities could trace the pet.
“Their sins are too deep,” she said, referring to the government as she held back tears. “I don’t want my hamster killed.”
Experts have questioned the merits of the policy. Guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says there is “no evidence” that animals play a significant role in spreading the virus. The City University of Hong Kong’s Center for Animal Health and Welfare said the risk of contracting the virus from pets is “negligible.”
The hamsters could be “innocent bystanders,” said veterinarian Lawren Durocher-Babek. The government is moving too quickly with the cull, she said, leaving owners struggling to make decisions about one’s level of risk with no data available.
“There are way too many unknowns to definitively blame hamsters,” she said.
The government has no legal means to force owners to give up their pets, and authorities say there will be no criminal consequences for noncompliance. But some are pushing for stronger action. On Wednesday, lawmaker Michael Tien said a mandate to round up hamsters is necessary as long as there is a risk that they could spread the virus.
“To ‘strongly recommend’ people to turn in their hamsters is neither fish nor fowl,” he said. “There could be drastic consequences.”
Hamster vigilantes are mobilizing in creative ways. One, skilled in Photoshop, has offered to amend hamster purchase receipts to indicate the pets were bought before Dec. 22.
For some hamsters, it is too late. Convinced by the government or prompted by panic, some families have begun surrendering their furry friends. A boy was seen bawling in a video recorded by local TV channel i-Cable News, saying amid sobs that he didn’t want his hamster to go, while taking pictures of their last moments together before his father turned in the doomed animal. At the department’s entrance, a local media outlet interviewed a man who had relinquished his hamster, fearing that the government could trace him to the pet shop via credit card records. Another told reporters that “the government only wants what’s best for citizens.”
If they come for Siu Ding, Alice said, she will stash the pudding dwarf hamster at a friend’s place.
“If, say, horses and dogs are the ones infected, would you decide to kill them all?” she said.
A woman with the last name Yuen, 36, said her mother asked her to dump her hamster, Bao Bao, onto the streets.
“I told my mother: I won’t throw you out if anything happens to you, as you are my family. Same goes for my hamster, it is my family,” she said, withholding her full name out of security concerns.
Animal rights groups say the authorities failed to take into account animal-to-human bonds or consider alternative policies, such as testing the hamsters. Poor messaging has led to panic, said Sophia Chan from Life on Palm, a hamster concern group.
Chan has been inundated with messages from hamster owners, many of whom face family pressure to abandon their pets. Her apartment has become a safe house for several dozen hamsters she is fostering — not all of them purchased after Dec. 22.
The group has already received close to 100 abandoned hamsters, Chan said. One woman called in tears after her family threw away her hamster without asking. She rummaged through the trash, but her pet was nowhere to be seen.
Despite the outrage, authorities have continued with the hamster slaughter. On Wednesday, officials in full-body protective gear were seen holding medical bags retrieved from pet shops, and loading them into vehicles.
That same day, 1,213 small animals, including hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs and chinchillas, were euthanized, according to the agriculture department.