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A cat in a Wuhan home after being saved by volunteers, who left food and water that can last a month. Photo: Wuhan Pet Life Online

Coronavirus: race to save Wuhan’s starving pets as owners unable to return to homes

  • Thousands of pet owners prevented from returning to their homes following the Wuhan lockdown are appealing to animal rescue groups to help them
  • Volunteers have had to break down front doors and climb in windows, and say the task is getting harder as more housing estates block strangers from entering

Volunteers from more than 10 animal rescue groups are racing against the clock to save thousands of unattended pets in Wuhan after the coronavirus-triggered lockdown has prevented many owners from returning to their homes.

A male vet working in Wuhan who wishes to remain anonymous says his rescue group – Wuhan Pet Life Online – has saved more than 2,000 pets from around the city since January 23, when the lockdown was put into force.

“There are over 10 such groups like ours that were hastily set up following the city lockdown,” he says. “The [rescued] pets were found in homes with no food and water. Their owners left their houses last month not expecting that they would not be able to return home. Pets are beginning to starve to death or die from thirst.”

On January 26, the mayor of Wuhan, Zhou Xianwang, said about 5 million people had left Wuhan before restrictions on entering and leaving the city were put into force.
A cat rescued by volunteers. Photo: Wuhan Pet Life Online

Ewan (who doesn’t want to give his surname), leader of Wuhan Indigenous Cats on Tencent’s QQ platform, said his group was the first in Wuhan to provide such a rescue service after the lockdown.

“Our QQ group has 5,000 cat owners. We launched the service after some pet owners said in the group that they needed help after they couldn’t go home,” he says.

“We have served around 500 households so far, with 400 more to do. Our volunteers have cars. Depending on the owners’ requests, some cats are transported to owners’ friend’s homes or pet clinics for temporary stay.”

The Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association started taking requests for help with trapped pets two days after the January 23 lockdown. Its president Du Fan says 60 volunteers have already rescued pets from more than 500 households.

“There are still 700 more households’ requests to handle,” he says. “According to the degree of urgency, we do triage, handling the urgent cases first. There have been several tragedies in which pets had already died before we got into the house.”

Du said around 300,000 to 600,000 residents in Wuhan keep pets, out of a population of 11 million.

“The people who asked for our help are usually migrants who come to work in Wuhan, or those who live in small cities neighbouring Wuhan,” he explains.

“They don’t have friends and families in Wuhan to help them deal with their pets. It’s 10 days now since the lockdown. Large numbers of pets will start dying due to starvation or thirst and their rotting corpses will lead to serious hygiene problems.”

Some pets exhibit signs of mental trauma from being left without food for so long. Photo: Wuhan Pet Life Online

Wuhan Pet Life Online has been inundated with daily requests for help since it started accepting them 10 days ago.

“Some owners’ doors are password-operated. Some of the doors have to be opened by locksmiths. For emergency cases, we enter the house by breaking down the front door or climbing in through an open window. Luckily, there have been no accidents during rescue attempts,” the vet says.

“Some pets we see have become very frail due to being trapped indoors with no food or water for a long time. Some display signs of mental trauma when we enter the house to rescue them – they are very afraid of people, and the houses have mess everywhere. I think there are tens of thousands of such trapped pets in Wuhan.”

Only very few fearless devoted vets still provide veterinary care in clinics at the risk of having their licences suspended for flouting the government order [for clinics to shut]
Ewan from Wuhan Indigenous Cats

The rescued pets are either placed in volunteers’ houses or kept in their original homes, with volunteers dispatched regularly to provide food and water.

“I have over 100 pets at my house now,” the vet says.

Another volunteer from Wuhan Pet Life Online, Huang Jiaqi, who studies at the Wuhan University of Technology, says she has saved pets from seven households so far.

“One owner left the window open when she left the house. Two of her cats jumped out of the window and were on top of the air-conditioning generator outside. I brought them back inside. Before I leave a house, I always take care to count the number of pets there to make sure they are all safe and sound,” she says.

A rescued cat. Photo: Wuhan Pet Life Online

Ewan from Wuhan Indigenous Cats says a recent government order is making their rescue work more difficult.

“On February 1, a sudden government edict came down ordering all pet shops and clinics to close,” he says.

“We found blood-coloured urine in the litter box of a cat in one owner’s home. We had to send the cat from its home in the Guanggu area to a clinic many kilometres away in Hankou, which remained open. Only very few fearless devoted vets still provide veterinary care in clinics at the risk of having their licences suspended for flouting the government order.”

The vet from Wuhan Pet Life Online is one of those whose clinics have shut. “Since my animal clinic is not open, I do the rescue work full-time,” he says.

Ewan adds that an increasing number of residential districts are blocking strangers from entering housing estates, making their rescue work more difficult to perform.

Exacerbating the overall situation, many Wuhan pets are also being abandoned due to widespread rumours that pets can transmit the coronavirus.

The Beijing Small Animal Veterinary Association says there is no scientific evidence so far showing that pets can transmit the virus.

“In Wuhan, where there’s a large-scale human coronavirus outbreak, there are no cases showing transmission through cats and dogs,” it says.

“On the question about whether pets will transmit the new virus, many authoritative organisations including the World Health Organisation have come out to say there’s no evidence showing such a situation.

“We have also consulted experts from the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention. They said they have done multiple studies on the 2003 Sars virus and used other animal species to replicate [virus transmission]. None of the virus replication tests succeeded, showing cross-transmission between pets and humans of the coronavirus is impossible.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: race is on to save pets starving in Wuhan