Members of an animal adoption Telegram group helped save more than 30 hamsters which were abandoned on Hong Kong’s streets within a day of the government announcing that some 2,000 hamsters and other small animals would be culled over an untraceable Covid-19 Delta outbreak linked to a pet shop.

Ocean Cheung, who created the “Hong Kong the Cute Hamster Group” on Telegram and is one of five administrators of a 13,000-member hamster owners’ group on Facebook, told HKFP that she felt the government’s move was “unfair” and “too blanketed,” as the city’s health authorities did not know how the virus was transmitted at the pet store.

A hamster. File photo: Wikicommons.

Three cases have been so far linked to the Little Boss pet shop in Causeway Bay, including a 23-year-old employee, who was confirmed to be carrying the Delta variant, and a 67-year-old customer and her husband.

The Controller of the Centre for Health Protection (CHP) Edwin Tsui said during Tuesday’s Covid-19 briefing that there were two possible sources for the infections: the established human-to-human route, or an animal-to-human transmission, which would be much rarer.

Leung Siu-fai, the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), who also attended Tuesday’s press meeting, said hamster samples collected from the store had tested preliminary positive. Environmental samples from a Tai Po storage unit, where the pet shop kept other animals, including chinchillas, guinea pigs and rabbits, had also come back positive, according to Leung.

Leung Siu-fai, the director of the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department. Photo: RTHK screenshot.

The AFCD director then announced it would kill around 2,000 hamsters and other small animals amid fears of Covid-19 infections among two shipments of the rodents from the Netherlands imported on December 22 and January 7.

Members of the public who purchased hamsters on or after December 22 were advised to hand over their pets for testing and euthanasia. The surrender of these animals is not yet mandatory.

Leung said the authorities had to draw a line according to imported batches to reduce the impact on animals.

‘Amazed’ by people’s kindness

However, Cheung of the Telegram and Facebook hamster groups, said that not everyone was aware of the boundary. “Some parents or elderly family members may not care about whether the hamsters were bought after December 22,” she said, adding that there were cases of owners giving away their hamsters after having looked after them for six months or a year.

The 29-year-old said the number of members in the Telegram group had ballooned from around 40 to more than 800 people since the government announcement.

Hong Kong the Cute Hamster Group. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Cheung also set up an online form at 8 p.m. on Tuesday for those interested in adopting abandoned hamsters. About 2,600 have already registered their interest, and Cheung said she was “amazed” by the amount of people who had offered to help.

“Hamsters cannot survive if they are left for a long time outside or in the cold weather,” she said.

Since officials announced their decision to euthanise about 2,000 small animals, members of Cheung’s Telegram group have rescued more than 30 hamsters that were left in the streets and helped more than 10 owners who wished to give away their pets. Other local community groups have also saved some 20 hamsters abandoned in Tsing Yi and Tai Po, she said.

A spokesman from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals said they were “shocked” and “concerned” by the government’s plan, “which did not take animal welfare and the human-animal bond into consideration.”

The animal rights organisation urged owners not to panic or abandon their pets, while reminding them to maintain strict personal hygiene to protect themselves and their animals.

No evidence yet

When asked if volunteers or group members were afraid of contracting Covid-19 from the hamsters collected, Cheung said there was no scientific evidence yet to suggest that could happen and it was uncertain whether the hamsters were infected by humans or the other way round.

She said that some group members would take Covid-19 tests after handling the animals and administrators recommended that adopted hamsters receives health checks.

Hamster vendors closed on January 19. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP.

Vanessa Barrs of the Department of Veterinary Clinical Sciences at the City University of Hong Kong told HKFP that there is a “very big difference” between the health of large groups of animals and those of pet animals.

Barrs said that although a case of minks infecting humans had been found in the Netherlands, the animals were kept in a large group at a farm and there has been no evidence of pets infecting humans since the pandemic began.

Pets kept at home should not be of concern, she added.

Barrs said the government “did the right thing to mitigate risk for the best interest in public health,” but there is “no need to do anything” for hamster owners who bought their pets before the shipments concerned.

Animals seen in the Little Boss pet shop in Mong Kok on January 19, 2022. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP

During Tuesday’s press conference, Thomas Sit, an assistant director at the AFCD, said the Causeway Bay pet store case could be “the first time in the world” that hamsters had contracted Covid-19 outside of a laboratory setting.

Sit said there was scientific proof that hamsters could be infected by the coronavirus and transmit it to other hamsters.

Hamster stores closed

When HKFP visited Tung Choi Street in Mong Kok, which is known for its array of pet shops, all of the stores selling hamsters were closed. Other pet vendors were open for business.

The closed shops either rejected or did not respond to HKFP’s requests for interviews.

Little Boss social media pages said on Tuesday that all 14 branches would remain closed for two days for internal cleaning and disinfection, according to instructions from the CHP.

Ann Lau, a housewife who went to Tung Choi Street to purchase hamster food, told HKFP that she was not worried as her children have cared for their hamsters for two years already.

Meanwhile, local media reported that some citizens had gone to the AFCD’s New Territories South Animal Management Centre on Wednesday to handover their hamsters as advised by authorities.

Little Boss pet shop in Mong Kok. Photo: Peter Lee/HKFP

HK01 reported that owners would be required to sign an agreement giving up possession of the hamsters and relinquishing their right to ask about the condition of the animals afterwards.

During the Legislative Council meeting on Wednesday, lawmaker Michael Tien asked why authorities had not made it a legal requirement for owners to bring forward their recently acquired hamsters.

In response, Secretary for Food and Health Sophia Chan said they believed “everyone is responsible for the overall situation of the pandemic, and there are already citizens contacting the AFCD to give away their hamsters.”

According to the Covid-19 guidelines published by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, pets that are infected with the virus and “do have symptoms usually have mild illness that you can take care of at home.”

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Peter Lee

Peter Lee is a reporter for HKFP. He was previously a freelance journalist at Initium, covering political and court news. He holds a Global Communication bachelor degree from CUHK.