Hong Kong’s mass hamster cull prompts an NFT protest as animals are ‘resurrected’ online

January 21, 2022, 7:32 PM UTC

Hong Kong’s start of a mass hamster cull to curb the spread of COVID-19 is prompting pet owners and animal welfare groups to protest.

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s government announced that it would kill nearly 2,000 hamsters and other small animals in pet shops—including rabbits and chinchillas—in what officials said is an effort to eliminate the risk of animal-to-human transmission of the coronavirus. Dozens of hamsters at the Little Boss pet shop in Hong Kong that had been imported from the Netherlands tested positive for the Delta strain this week as have several people connected to the shop.

Hong Kong officials acknowledge that there’s no conclusive evidence of hamsters infecting humans, but the “likelihood of animal spread to human [has] increased a lot,” Hong Kong health official Chuang Shuk-kwan said at a press briefing yesterday.

Authorities “strongly encouraged” pet owners who bought hamsters after Dec. 22—when the first batch of hamsters from the Netherlands arrived in Hong Kong—to turn in their furry friends for “humane disposal.”

Online petitions and hamster rescue groups have sprung up in response. One Change.org petition calling on the government to “stop the government from wrongfully euthanizing… small pets” collected over 36,000 signatures in three days. Animal rescue groups have congregated outside pet collection facilities and sent reminders on social media to tell owners that pet surrender is voluntarily and not legally obligated.

The groups have also recruited volunteers to temporarily house or adopt hamsters that have been given up by their owners.

Meanwhile, a group of four university students and recent graduates in Hong Kong, has plans to “digitally resurrect” 2,000 hamsters online. “We will not stand for euthanizing of our little hamsters! Our hamsters will live with us on the blockchain,” the project founders said on Instagram.

The project, called ‘Carrie’s Hamsters’—named after Hong Kong’s embattled chief executive Carrie Lam—will mint 2,000 hamsters as NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, on Jan. 24. Supporters of the project will receive a digital art hamster in various forms and colors “with attributes that directly relate back to… Hong Kong,” said an Instagram post.

The hamster art will be minted using Solana, a decentralized blockchain that hosts thousands of NFT, DeFi (decentralized finance) and Web3 projects.

One teaser released on Thursday depicts a digital hamster roaming Penny’s Bay—Hong Kong’s designated quarantine facility for inbound travelers, incoming aircrew and those exposed to COVID-19. Hong Kong has one of the most stringent COVID-19 policies in the world, with most inbound travelers and aircrew subject to 14 or 21 days of strict hotel quarantine. Around 100 people who visited Little Boss have been sent to isolate at the sterile quarantine camp, which is only 800 meters from Hong Kong’s Disneyland amusement park. Other NFT hamsters are seen wearing COVID-19 face shields and a yellow hard hat—the latter a symbol of Hong Kong’s 2019 democracy protests.

The final version of the digital hamsters will look slightly different from the currently released prototypes which are in a ‘raw’ format, the group says.

Fortune exchanged WhatsApp messages with one of the founders behind the NFT hamster project, who insisted on anonymity, saying the group “prefers more privacy in the crypto world.” The founder, who goes by her initials ‘CW,’ said that “[we are] simply [animal] lovers. Some of us [have] hamsters at home, hence [we feel] quite emotional when seeing the news.”

Hong Kong’s Penny’s Bay quarantine camp.
Paul Yeung—Bloomberg/Getty Images

Proceeds from the NFT sales will go towards an animal rights charity, operation costs and “community maintenance,” CW said. The founders will shortlist four charities and hold a vote on Instagram to select the final charity to receive the funds.

As of Friday, 68 people have dropped off their pet hamsters for euthanization, according to Hong Kong’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD). The AFCD on Friday also warned residents not to interfere with pet owners surrendering their hamsters. “If the people concerned continue with such action, or fail to return the hamsters taken away, the AFCD will stringently follow up and hand it over to the police for handling,” the agency said.

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