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Pham Minh Hung and his wife had amassed a sizable menagerie—17 dogs and one cat, to be exact—pets that they considered their own children.

But within the space of a few short hours on Sunday morning, all except two of their pets were killed by Vietnamese authorities, after the couple and one of the dogs tested positive for COVID-19.

“There’s nothing that can describe these feelings. I’m always thinking about the kids,” Hung told VICE World News, referring to their pets. “Even when eating and sleeping, I think about them all the time.” 

It was only on Friday that he and his wife first captivated Vietnamese TikTok users in a welcome feel-good story for the beleaguered country. Videos circulated of the couple sitting astride their ageing scooters, saddled high with all that they owned as they left their home near Ho Chi Minh City, heading 300km north to his wife’s home province. 

It was a common sight in recent days as migrant workers have fled the country’s COVID-19-hit southern provinces. But what set the 49-year-old bricklayer and his wife apart were the 17 dogs and one cat perched atop the bikes’ bulging luggage—pets the couple refused to leave behind.

But within hours of the family arriving home, they had all tested positive and were placed in a quarantine center. By Sunday morning, 15 of their dogs and the cat would be dead—killed in brutal fashion at the hands of Vietnamese authorities in the name of pandemic prevention. 

“Two men put my dogs in bags, submerged them in water and then threw them in fire to burn,” Nguyen Duy Khanh, Hung’s wife, said on Sunday in a recording of a phone call provided to VICE World News, citing witnesses. Two dogs would avoid the slaughter, with the couple donating them to people along the journey. 

What started as a tale of human kindness has, over the course of a weekend, evolved into a national reckoning over the treatment of animals in Vietnam. In a country that still plays host to an active dog meat trade, the killings sparked outrage among Vietnamese citizens calling for a greater respect for animal rights across the country, as well as justice for the couple. 

In a rare instance of public activism, a campaign has emerged around the hashtag #standfor16 as Vietnamese social media users attempt to draw international attention to the killings, while a fast-growing petition calling for humane treatment of animals in Vietnam has also garnered more than 110,000 signatures in two days.

“I’ve seen many brutal things happen in Vietnam since I was a kid, but this one is definitely the most terrible,” Thao Nguyen, a member of the 48,000-strong Niềm tin Sài Gòn Facebook group that has rallied around the cause, told VICE World News.

“Many people who have pets are fighting because they don’t want the government to burn their pets in the future if they get COVID-19.” 

The quarantine center where the killings took place could not be reached for comment. But Tran Tan Cong, a local official in Ca Mau province where the pair are quarantining, was quoted in local press as saying authorities received permission from the couple to kill the animals. 

Hung vehemently denied this during the phone conversation, while a video seen by VICE World News showed people laughing as they beat to death a dog that resembled one of the couple’s pets, while in another, several dog corpses can be seen burning on a fire. 

In the recording, Khanh says the dogs were tied up and severely beaten by authorities at the quarantine center prior to being killed. 

“They used a cane to hit the male dog’s head and legs. The dog hadn’t died yet, but his legs were broken, he scratched the door and cried a lot,” Khanh said. “I asked him to run away and hide from them. But he just wanted to die next to us.”

Cong initially justified the killings, claiming one of the animals had “tested positive for an unknown virus” and “efforts to prevent COVID-19 are placed first and foremost.” Once a COVID-19 success story, Vietnam has experienced a severe outbreak that has seen total cases balloon from 3,000 at the start of May to more than 840,000 by Tuesday.

But James Wood, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Cambridge, saw little merit to this public health rationale. 

“There is growing evidence that dogs and cats in the same household of COVID patients may be quite commonly infected, but there is no evidence of transmission from those infected animals playing any significant role in pandemic spread,” he wrote in an email to VICE World News. “It is hard to see how killing dogs and cats can play any useful role in the control of the pandemic in humans.” 

Spurious public health justifications for the killings aside, Thao, the animal rights advocate, said it’s the callous treatment of the animals and the lack of accountability that has inflamed many. 

“The whole Vietnam is so mad because the Ca Mau government didn’t even dare to admit their mistake,” she said. 

Under mounting public pressure, a local medical official associated with the incident resigned on Monday. Animal welfare organization Four Paws also penned a letter to the Vietnamese government on Tuesday calling for greater protections. 

For Geneva Marcelino, founder of pet adoption service Pawfect Match SGN, the outrage speaks to a wider shift she has observed in Vietnamese culture in recent years. 

“We’re seeing a new culture rising over an old one, where Vietnamese people saw dogs as a source of food or pests,” she told VICE World News. “The younger people have grown up with pets, and have learned to value them as family members.” 

But shifting cultural attitudes aren’t enough to soothe the loss experienced by Hung and Khanh. They hope the death of their animals won’t be in vain, and wish to see change occur at the highest levels in Vietnam. 

“I expect the government to introduce more animal rights,” Hung said. “I am going to get more dogs, and I hope there is going to be something to protect them. They killed my kids and I could do nothing about it.”

Follow Alastair McCready on Twitter.

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