Hong Kongers started organising in the early hours of 19 January. Thousands rushed to social media to volunteer their help. Others posted details on encrypted messaging apps of where to meet and how many they could take in. Some said it reminded them of the anti-government protests in 2019 when strangers offered emergency accommodation to anyone in need. Only this time, they were sheltering hamsters.
The Hong Kong authorities had traced a recent Covid outbreak to a worker at the Little Boss pet shop, and after 11 of its hamsters tested positive for the virus, they decided all the animals – including rabbits, chinchillas and guinea pigs – would have to be culled.
But it didn’t end there. The infected hamsters were determined to have arrived from the Netherlands in shipments on 22 December and 7 January before being distributed to dozens of different stores, so officials announced that all hamsters at all pet shops and storage facilities across the city would have to be destroyed. They urged anyone who had bought one since 22 December to surrender their hamster to government facilities for “humane dispatch”.
Hong Kong has already endured some of the world’s toughest pandemic restrictions as it mirrors Beijing’s zero-tolerance approach. Foreign visitors and returning residents are required to quarantine for 21 days in designated hotels; travel from the UK, United States, Australia and France has been banned.
There are reports of people chartering private jets to fly their families and pets out. Forty-four per cent of members polled in a recent survey by the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong (AmCham HK) said they were considering leaving because of travel restrictions and social controls. Now, as the city enters its third year of increasing isolation, with no end in sight, residents are being asked to give up their hamsters too.
Workers in hazmat suits have been seen entering pet shops across the territory and leaving with ominous red plastic bags. Videos of children sobbing inconsolably over the loss of their pet have been shared widely on social media as public health officials attempt to defend the decision, insisting that they had no other choice. They have pointed to the killing of 17 million mink, found to have been infected with a mutated variant of the virus, in Denmark in 2020 as a precedent. According to Hong Kong’s agriculture, fisheries, and conservation department, 68 hamsters had been handed over by their owners within the first 24 hours.
But there is resistance. A group of Hong Kong lawyers posted legal advice insisting that owners did not have to surrender their hamsters. “They are your property by law,” the group explained on Twitter: “Unless you give permission (PLEASE DO NOT), they cannot take your animals.” Volunteers have been filmed running through the streets with hamsters in cages as they race to re-home the animals and conceal their whereabouts. Thousands of people have reportedly offered to take them in. Such activism is particularly striking given the extent to which Beijing has crushed Hong Kong’s civil society in recent years, imposing a new national security law in 2020 and bringing the territory under much stricter central control.
As for the actual risk the hamsters pose, there is little evidence so far to support the Hong Kong authorities’ claims that they might spread the disease. It is true that hamsters can catch the coronavirus from humans, and are regularly used as subjects in laboratory research, but the US-based Centers for Disease Control (CDC) says the risk of animals spreading the virus to humans is low.
Wherever you stand on the morality and science of the great Hong Kong hamster massacre, it reveals something about the extremes the city’s pandemic restrictions have now reached. And despite Beijing’s best efforts, the spirit of grass-roots resistance in Hong Kong is not completely dead.