AMSTERDAM, NETHERLANDS — Stung by public outrage, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines apologized Thursday for using a shredding machine to kill 440 Chinese squirrels shipped illegally to the Netherlands.

KLM called Monday's slaughter an unethical mistake, but said it had little choice after failing to find a new home for the furry rodents, which arrived from China last week without proper documentation en route to a collector in Athens, Greece.

The squirrels were killed instantly by being dropped into a shredder.

In a statement, the airline said it "made a grave mistake on ethical grounds" when it killed the squirrels, and said it deserved criticism from the public and animal rights groups.

It said it "offers its most sincere apologies to animal lovers and all those offended by the events."

The employee responsible for the slaughter has been ordered to stay home pending an investigation. KLM said it would no longer accept shipments of animals from China and was considering stopping all transports of exotic animals.

However, KLM argued that it followed health regulations covering the importation of live animals. The airline blamed the Dutch Ministry of Nature Management for ordering the squirrels to be destroyed because they arrived without proper documentation.

Officials have said such rules are intended to minimize the risk of accidentally introducing animals and diseases not native to the country.

KLM spokesman Joessef Eddiei said the squirrels were killed instantly by being dropped — while apparently still alive — into a shredder used in the commercial poultry industry and recommended by the government for animal disposal.

"It may sound strange, but it's the most humane way to destroy animals," he told The Associated Press.

"We absolutely don't find this normal," countered Mieke Holtslag of the De Meern Foundation for Squirrel Refuge.

"It's simply absurd," she said. "Just the fact that they killed them makes me nauseous, let alone how they did it."

Despite repeated requests from KLM, the Beijing exporter who shipped the squirrels refused last weekend to take them back, the airline said. It said it couldn't find anyone else to take them.

Holtslag's husband, Jaap, said the couple's shelter — which caters specifically to squirrels — was never asked to help.

The squirrels' brief stay at an animal detention center at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was disrupted when a large number of the animals escaped, scurrying onto the runway and causing some panic among baggage handlers. Nearly all the escapees were believed to have been recaptured.

KLM said it has asked Dutch and European animal rights organizations, including the World Wildlife Fund and the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria, to discuss the incident and avoid another unpleasant situation.

[Thanks to Mike Villers for this contribution.]

AFTERWORD:

On April 29 KLM announced it was banning shipments of rodents, amphibians and reptiles, effective immediately.

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