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Hong Kong changes law, forcing owners to give up pets ‘believed’ to have COVID-19

Authorities in Hong Kong have changed the law to force people to hand over pets and other animals believed infected with COVID-19 for ‘humane dispatch,’ as police have been tasked with investigating activists who tried to save hamsters from a cull in January, the city’s top health official has said.

“The government recently introduced amendments [including] clear provisions requiring the owner of an article (including an animal) to surrender the article upon a health officer’s direction,” the city’s secretary for food and health Sophia Chan said in a written response to a lawmakers’ question.

The new rules took effect from March 31, 2022, and anyone failing to comply with an order to hand over their pets for “humane dispatch” could face a fine of  up to H.K.$10,000 and six months’ imprisonment, she said.

Chan said existing quarantine law “aims to regulate matters relating to quarantine and the prevention of disease among animals and birds, etc” but doesn’t specifically cover COVID-19.

The rule change comes after Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD) “strongly advised” members of the public to surrender imported hamsters bought from local pet shops for humane dispatch.

The advice prompted widespread resistance, including spontaneous offers to take hamsters off people’s hands and keep them safe from the authorities.

Chan said a total of 145 hamsters were handed over to the authorities by the end of March.

She said the authorities had been removing animals from local pet shops for “humane dispatch,” and had banned imports of any small mammals for commercial purposes.

“In response to some people stopping others from surrendering hamsters and taking over hamsters from members of the public intended for surrender to the [authorities], the AFCD … reported the case[s] to the police for follow up and handling,” Chan said.

“Obstructing, or assisting to obstruct a health officer in the exercise of a power or performance of a function is a criminal offense, and offenders are liable on conviction to a fine of H.K.$5,000 and to imprisonment for two months,” she warned.

‘Going too far’

A pet owner who gave only the nickname Miss J said the rules were going too far.

“I think it’s going too far to have us hand over our animals,” she said. “They already killed all of those hamsters with barely a second thought. It’s totally outrageous.”

“They say that the articles will be destroyed, which means they are treating animals as inanimate objects,” Miss J said.

Miss J, who has a Shiba Inu and a dachshund she regards as “family,” said she had only been walking her dogs outside once or twice a week to minimize the risk of catching COVID-19, but wasn’t sure if that was now possible.

“We have done everything we could, and they have just backed us into a corner,” she said.

A pet owner who gave only the nickname A Ting said she wouldn’t hand over her two rescued stray cats if her life depended on it.

“This is unreasonable … You wouldn’t give up your own children,” she said. “People who have pets treat them as members of the family, and won’t give them up just because they’re sick.”

“Quite frankly, the government has brought in so many restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19, but have they worked?” A Ting said.

“If they come to my home for my two cats, it’ll be over my dead body,” she said.

Meanwhile, on the democratic island of Taiwan, owners of dogs, cats or mink have been told to isolate their pets at home if they test positive for COVID-19.

Pets belonging to people sick with COVID-19 should be cared for by friends or relatives, or handed over to disease control authorities for boarding until the person has recovered.

Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.