Toys pigs, with a price tag of up to HK$700 (US$89) each, were enlisted to a drill this week to help train Hong Kong agricultural officials in how to kill sick animals in the event of African swine fever spreading across the border to Hong Kong farms.
Whether it is a bargain or not is a matter of opinion, but taxpayers have been told the toy pigs will cost them a total of about HK$20,000.
The surreal scenes of officials, in full protective gear, playing with the pink fluffy toy pigs – sending them to the cull one by one – quickly attracted the attention of the public after the pictures were posted on the official Facebook page of health minister Sophia Chan Siu-chee.
The post, uploaded on Tuesday night, quickly became Chan’s most popular post in at least the past month, attracting over 43 comments and 156 “shares” in two days, compared with her usual Facebook posts that draw only a few comments.
One comment read: “The pigs are so cute.” Another read: “Can I adopt one?” Some were not too amused though, questioning if it was a waste of taxpayers’ money to buy toy pigs.
The Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department confirmed in a statement on Thursday that it had conducted a “drill” two days earlier “to strengthen the preparedness of [the department] in case of an outbreak of [African swine fever]” on local farms.
The department did not elaborate on the mood of staff or the atmosphere during the training exercise, or who had first raised the idea of buying toy pigs for the drill, only saying that “more than 30 staff members, all of whom were from [the department], were involved in this drill”.
“A total of 28 big prop pigs (around HK$700 each) and two small prop pigs (around HK$80 each) were used during the drill. Prop pigs have not been disposed of but are currently stored away for reuse,” the statement read.
How useful using toy pigs in a pig culling drill is, is anybody’s guess. The department statement also noted: “In reality, the method to be adopted for pig culling is subject to various factors, including the environment of the farm concerned, the number of pigs within the farm, the health conditions and size of the pigs, etcetera, and international guidelines on the culling of animals.
“Under objective conditions, [the department] will primarily make use of carbon dioxide for pig culling.”
Chan said in her post that she was there to oversee the drill, including inspecting the method employed to kill pigs. She was also briefed by the officers on their plans for a possible outbreak of African swine fever in Hong Kong farms.
African swine fever is a highly contagious viral disease that infects pigs. It does not affect other animal species or humans.
China reported its first outbreak in August in the north-eastern province of Liaoning. A total of 81 cases of the disease had been reported in 21 provincial regions as of December 3. Officials claimed the outbreaks were generally under control in China.
In her Facebook post, Chan said the government would take “decisive action” to minimise the impact on local farms if African swine fever were to spread to Hong Kong.
Additional reporting by Elizabeth Cheung