Jan. 19 (UPI) -- Despite opposition and outrage from animal lovers and activists, experts in Hong Kong are defending their decision to euthanize hundreds of hamsters and other small animals after several tested positive for COVID-19 at a local pet shop.
Authorities said Tuesday that they would euthanize about 2,000 hamsters and other small animals after nearly a dozen hamsters imported from the Netherlands were found to be carrying traces of the coronavirus -- and multiple people linked to the pet shop also tested positive.
Although many health experts say it's unlikely that animals can pass COVID-19 on to humans, Hong Kong officials say they made the move because it's in the interest of public health.
Hong Kong respiratory disease expert David Hui said on Wednesday that, despite a lack of evidence, the chances of the virus spreading from hamsters to humans is "very high."
"The shopkeepers have to take care of the hamsters and clean their cages. There are many ways in which they could get infected," he said, according to the Hong Kong Free Press.
"There's no way to test each [hamster] individually. From a public health perspective, you have to euthanize the whole batch."
Animal lovers and activists reacted to the euthanization order with anger, and gathered thousands of signatures on a petition in a bid to stop the government from killing the animals.
Hong Kong's Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals told The Straits Times that it's shocked over the government's decision and is working to find an alternative solution to euthanasia.
"This is not mercy killing. This is murder," pet owner and actor Shafin Azim said, according to the Times. "Find a better way -- close the shop for a while, wear full protective gear before feeding, test them again.
"Are we culling the humans who are actually spreading this?"