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Hong Kong to resume hamster imports a year after mass cull over Covid

Officials in the Chinese territory had been criticized over their response to an outbreak of the delta variant that was traced to a pet shop.
A hamster named Marshmallow plays inside a cage before being dropped off at a quarantine facility in Hong Kong last January.Bertha Wang / AFP - Getty Images

HONG KONG — Hong Kong is lifting a ban on the importing of hamsters for sale, a year after it ordered more than 2,000 hamsters and other small mammals to be culled in an effort to prevent pets from spreading Covid-19 to people.

“According to the newest risk assessment and current situation, this department believes that the import ban for hamsters could be lifted,” the Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department said in an emailed statement on Thursday. 

The department said it was preparing for commercial hamster imports to resume by the middle of this month, with all imported hamsters required to undergo quarantine and released to the market only after they test negative for the coronavirus. A ban on commercial imports of other small mammals like chinchillas and guinea pigs was lifted in May.

The Hong Kong government ordered the culling last January after a small virus outbreak was traced to a pet shop called Little Boss that had imported hamsters from the Netherlands. Eleven of the shop’s hamsters tested positive for the delta variant, which had not been seen in the city in months. 

Hong Kong residents who had recently purchased hamsters were advised to surrender their pets, shops selling hamsters were temporarily shut down and an import ban was enacted. Pet owners and animal welfare groups criticized the government’s decision at the time as disproportionate and cruel, and tens of thousands of people signed an online petition against it. 

While there is “no doubt” that hamsters transmitted the virus to a worker in the pet shop, in hindsight the culling of hamsters outside the infected shipment was “unnecessary,” Vanessa Barrs, a professor of veterinary medicine at City University of Hong Kong, told NBC News. It is unlikely that hamsters living in people’s homes had Covid, and the culling caused stress to pet owners and tension in the community, she added.

But at the time of the Hong Kong government’s decision last year, the Chinese territory was following a strict “zero-Covid” approach in line with mainland China, leading officials to act aggressively. In recent weeks both Hong Kong and mainland China have relaxed anti-Covid restrictions that minimized cases and deaths but also caused widespread public frustration. 

The Hong Kong Animal Law and Protection Organization, an advocacy group, said the hamster import ban was “one of the most nonsensical decisions the Hong Kong government made in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The real harm that arose from the incident at the pet shop, the group said, was “the fear-mongering the government instilled in pet owners and the subsequent poor treatment of animals as a response to this fear.”

Calls to the office of the Little Boss pet shop on Friday went unanswered.

Louis Yeung, the owner of Chinchilla & Pets Shop in Hong Kong, said that although he received compensation from the government, the import ban had badly hurt his business and he supported lifting it.

“The world is removing Covid restrictions on human beings. Why should we still keep unreasonable restrictions on small animals?” he said.

Animal-to-human transmission of Covid-19 is rare and usually occurs when animals are held in large groups like in warehouses or on farms. The pet hamsters in Hong Kong are one of the few reported instances worldwide of infected animals spreading the virus to people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Other known cases of animal-to-human transmission involve a mink farm in Denmark, white-tailed deer in Canada and a cat in Thailand.