It had been a lazy morning at the animal markets, with only a few shoppers perusing the snakes, turtles, rabbits, cats, dogs, badgers, ducks, geese, frogs, pigeons and hedgehogs crammed into cages. For lack of buyers, kept away by fear of SARS, the sellers played cards and mah-jongg and watched Chinese soap operas on television as the animals squirmed, clawed and quacked.
Acting on new orders restricting the sale of wild animals in an effort to curb the spread of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the officers seized most of the pheasants, hauling them away for testing. In effect, the government and SARS took away Deng's livelihood, too, as Chinese officials and civilians begin to see long-held customs through new, more fearful eyes.
"We suspect the virus came from animals," said the masked inspector Chen Lizheng as workers loaded cages on a truck. "So we forbid them selling wild animals."
Deng protested that his pheasants were farm-bred and should not be carted away, but his birds were already aboard the inspector's truck.
In southern China, where people have had a centuries-old carnivorous love affair with wild animals, the question of whether SARS might have come from animals is not simply academic. The disease, which emerged here in November, has disrupted eating habits and provoked scrutiny of unsanitary farming practices.
It has also forced Chinese to wonder whether, as many scientists have long believed, there may be something about southern China and animals that makes it a wellspring for disease.
"The relationship between human beings and animals is closer here than anywhere else" in China, said Xie Jinkui, a doctor in the mountain city of Heyuan who treated early victims, including Deng Tianlong, who contracted SARS in December after coming here to buy animals for her local market.
"People here like to eat wild animals," Xie said, "and therefore there are more people who prepare them, who cook them, who raise them, who sell them, who eat them. So, there are many more chances to catch disease."
Did the virus migrate from poultry with weak immune systems to pigs to humans on unsanitary farms, as some scientists initially theorized? Or did people catch it from handling or eating infected wild animals, as an increasing number of experts now suggest?
"If this was an animal that was common, if it was livestock or poultry - there are millions and millions of birds here in South China - if it was a food that was farmed and commonly eaten, I think you might expect a lot more cases that you could directly relate to animals of that sort," said Meirion Evans, a medical epidemiologist and member of a World Health Organization team that will conclude a visit to Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province, today "And you would likely also expect ... die-offs in those types of animals."
In a broad search for clues to the virus' origins, the WHO team pored over early patient data with scientists from the Guangdong Center for Disease Control and Prevention, and asked health officials for any information about unusual die-offs of animals.
A team member visited the live animal, or "wet" markets, Evans said, "to get an impression of the kinds of animals available for sale." But Evans said the source of SARS may prove to be as elusive as that of the deadly Ebola virus, whose precise origin has never been found.
"The possibilities are endless," Evans said. "It's like looking for a needle in a haystack. It's very difficult. You could spend a lot of time and energy and get nowhere."
That leaves, for now, guesswork based on tantalizing clues: At a secret provincial conference in Guangzhou in early March, officials from across Guangdong province reported an unusual number of cases of sick chefs and market vendors, a Chinese source said on condition of anonymity. An earlier WHO team that visited the province found that the number of chefs or food preparers reported to have SARS appeared to be about 5 percent above the norm. But the epidemiologists have since found that the figure actually was drawn from a broader cross-section of jobs and thus might not be statistically significant.
Wild and weird