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Thousands in Hong Kong volunteer to adopt hamsters amid COVID-19 fears

HONG KONG, JANUARY 19 (Reuters) - Thousands of people in Hong Kong volunteered on Wednesday to adopt unwanted hamsters after a government mass eviction order over COVID-19 fears raised alarm that panicked owners would leave their Pet.

Authorities on Tuesday ordered 2,000 hamsters from dozens of pet stores and storage facilities to be euthanized after tracing a coronavirus outbreak to a worker at Petshop Little Boss, where 11 hamsters were subsequently tested positive for COVID-19.

Researchers around the world and Hong Kong's health and veterinary authorities have said there was no evidence that animals play an important role in human coronavirus infection.

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But after pursuing a zero-tolerance policy towards COVID-19, Health Minister Sophia Chan said on Tuesday that she could not rule out any transfer options and therefore the government could not take any chances.

Shortly afterwards, health workers in hazmat suits were seen walking out of pet stores around the city with red plastic bags into their vans. About 150 of the pet store's customers were sent in quarantine.

The public television station RTHK said some hamster owners were seen handing over their animals at a government facility in the new territories, while groups were quickly formed on social media to identify new owners of unwanted pet rodents.

Ocean, 29, a hamster owner and administrator of 'Hong Kong the Cute Hamster Group' on Telegram's social media app, said the group was contacted by nearly 3,000 people willing to temporarily take care of unwanted animals.

Three young owners were pressured by their families to part with their hamsters, even though they had all owned them for more than half a year, said Ocean, who declined to disclose his last name for fear of angry reactions from those who support elimination .

"Many pet owners are not aware of the exact risks and abandon their hamsters," she said.

Bowie, 27, one of those who volunteered for the group, now owns two new hamsters.

"This is ridiculous," said Bowie, who already owned three other hamsters. "The life of the animals is also the life. Today it can be hamsters or rabbits, tomorrow it can be cats or dogs."

Officers in protective suits walk outside a closed pet store in Mong Kok District after a hamster killing was ordered to stem the outbreak of coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Hong Kong, China, January 19, 2022. REUTERS / Lam Yik

The local Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), which runs veterinary clinics, told Reuters that "many" concerned pet owners have contacted them for advice.

"We urge pet owners not to panic or abandon their pets," the SPCA said in a statement.

The SPCA listed ways to maintain strict personal hygiene for human and animal safety, including never kissing, coughing or sniffing near pets and washing hands after handling them.

The average lifespan of a hamster is about two years, according to animal welfare groups.

'FLOWED'

In addition to ordering the killing, authorities asked dozens of pet dealers to close while imports and sales of small mammals were suspended. Buyers of hamsters after December 22, 2021 were asked to hand them over to the authorities for euthanasia and not leave them on the street.

The authorities set up a hotline for inquiries. It was unclear how many hamsters had been handed in.

Most Hong Kong newspapers featured pictures of people in hazmat suits in front of pet stores and illustrations of hamsters on their front page on Wednesday, where pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao daily displayed a small rodent inside a pointed virus particle.

Vanessa Barrs, a professor of pet health at City University of Hong Kong, said the move to kill the hamsters for sale might be justified for public health reasons, but fears of infection at home were exaggerated.

"Millions of people around the world have pets, and there have been no proven cases of pets transmitting infections to other people," Barrs said.

"The theoretical risk is there, but it just does not happen."

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Additional reporting by Aleksander Solum; Author Marius Zaharia; Editing Simon Cameron-Moore

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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