By boiling and drowning, electrocution and incineration, civet cats were put to death Tuesday in southern China in a mass eradication designed to stem a suspected - but unproven - link to SARS. Said one newspaper: "Watch the civets turn to vapor."
The high-profile move represented a clear message from a government stung by accusations of a sluggish response to the initial SARS outbreak last year.
The cull, in which authorities hope to slaughter 10,000 of the weasel-like mammals and their related brethren by Saturday, kicked into gear on the same day China's first SARS case of the season - a man whose illness was cited as justification for the civet kill - was pronounced "fully recovered."
Hundreds of animals were seized from wildlife markets and killed despite pleas for caution from the World Health Organization. Officials were also checking highway traffic for smuggled animals, which many in coastal southern China consider a delicacy.
Provincial authorities set a deadline of Saturday to finish the slaughter in Guangdong, where medical investigators believe crucial clues to the origins of severe acute respiratory syndrome may lie.
Newspaper photos showed health workers in white protective suits, goggles, surgical masks and elbow-length rubber gloves drowning animals. On local TV, crews in jumpsuits hosed down empty cages at Guangzhou's wild animal market.
Civets seized in Guangzhou were electrocuted and their carcasses burned, said an employee of the city Hygiene Supervision Bureau. "We first put them in disinfectant to sterilize them, then electrocute them, then burn them," said the man, who wouldn't give his name.
The Yangcheng Evening News gave readers a step-by-step illustrated account of how the civets, once killed, would be boiled for six hours until they "turn to vapor."
In other areas, authorities were drowning civets and other animals by lowering them in cages into vats of water, the Guangzhou Daily said.
Genetic tests have suggested a link between civets and the SARS virus diagnosed in a 32-year-old TV producer in Guangdong - China's first case of the disease this season.
"Guangdong is entering an extraordinary period, and extraordinary measures are called for," said Feng Liuxiang, deputy director of Guangdong's provincial Health Bureau, quoted on the Web site of the Guangzhou Daily newspaper.
But WHO investigators say no definitive connection has been established and expressed concern that a mass slaughter might spread the germ or eradicate crucial evidence of SARS' origins.
As Asia girded for a possible second season of SARS and its airports tightened scrutiny on travelers from Guangdong, mounting evidence suggested a Filipino couple suspected of having the virus were clear of it.
And China emphasized that it was still safe. ""We need to be vigilant, but we don't want to panic," Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said.
The infection of a 32-year-old Guangdong TV producer was confirmed as SARS on Monday after weeks of testing in China and Hong Kong. On Tuesday, the government said the man had "fully recovered" and would leave the hospital Thursday.
The official Xinhua news agency ran excerpts of an interview with the man whom it identified only by his surname, Luo. He said he went to the hospital last month with a headache and a fever and never expected the events that followed.
"I am confident about China's ability to eradicate SARS," Luo was quoted as saying.
Xinhua said Luo expressed thanks to the physicians who treated him and was "back to his normal cheerfulness" on Tuesday, the agency said.
Health experts are still trying to figure out how Luo was exposed.
The first case of SARS was recorded in Guangdong in November 2002. The disease killed 774 people, most of them in Asia, before subsiding in June.
There were no signs of public anxiety in Guangzhou. No one on the street was wearing a mask - a marked contrast to the city of shrouded faces that was visible at the height of its SARS outbreak last year.
"If SARS returns, no one will come to Guangzhou," said resident Chen Zhiyong. "The city and provincial government will all work hard because they know the disease will severely hurt the economy."