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2019-11-11 09:35:27

SHANGHAI — Wei Lijun was distraught after her 19-year-old dog Fufu had a stroke earlier this year. The mongrel was fully paralyzed and often cried out in pain during the night. “We’d have to carry her outside to someplace quiet to avoid disturbing the neighbors,” Wei tells Sixth Tone.

The 56-year-old worried that Fufu would never walk again, but she refused to contemplate having her beloved pet put down. Finally, a vet suggested a solution: Why not try ordering a wheelchair for Fufu?

Wei searched online and found a business offering customized pet mobility aids for just 630 yuan ($90). A few days later, the new wheelchair arrived, and the effect was almost immediate: Within hours, Fufu was zooming around the streets near Wei’s home in Shanghai.

“It’s magical,” says Wei. “She seems so happy and relaxed when she’s ‘walking’ outside.”

Wei is just one of thousands of Chinese pet owners who have called on the services of Gao Xiaodong, a former migrant worker from Huludao, northeastern Liaoning province, who has helped give countless animals a new lease of life.

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A dog walks outside with a wheelchair that Gao Xiaodong made in Beijing, Sept. 16, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

The 44-year-old claims to have been the first person in China to sell animal mobility aids commercially, opening a small workshop in 2006. What started as a niche venture has since grown into a thriving business, thanks to the explosion in pet ownership in China.

Today, just under 100 million Chinese households have a pet, up 44% since 2014, and the country’s pet industry is worth an estimated 200 billion yuan. Owners are increasingly willing to spend large sums to give their animals a more comfortable life: The market for pet travel products — which includes carriers and mobility solutions — increased by 40% in the past year.

(My parents) couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.

Gao now runs a 300-square-meter factory employing eight people, which churns out more than 4,000 wheelchairs each year. The firm is responsible for nearly all the pet mobility aids sold on e-commerce platforms Taobao and JD.com. The vast majority of other vendors are either agents or business partners of the firm, Gao says.

The Huludao native recalls first seeing a dog wheelchair around 15 years ago, while he was working a door-to-door sales job in Beijing. One of his clients had made a makeshift frame for his paralyzed Pekingese. “He could walk using this device made with a board and four bearings,” says Gao.

Two years later, Gao returned to his hometown to try his luck as an entrepreneur. After a couple of failed ventures selling health care and computer products, he came across the websites of some overseas pet wheelchair makers while searching for new business ideas online. The image of the Pekingese popped into Gao’s head, and he was sure he’d found a winning project. “It just hit me,” he says.

Gao and his wife, Fu Lijuan, made their first prototype for a disabled stray that often begged for food near their home. The “simple car” — which they fashioned from some discarded wood, wire, and roller skate wheels — didn’t look great, but the dog didn’t seem to mind, according to Gao. “He was so eager to try it and was running so fast,” he says.

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

Gao Xiaodong (left) and his wife Fu Lijuan look at a client’s dog on their phone in Huludao, Liaoning province, 2019. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

After this early success, Gao was confident enough to quit his job at a local zinc factory to devote all his energy to the pet wheelchairs business. His parents, however, didn’t take the news well.

“They looked at me with a shocked expression,” says Gao. “They couldn’t believe I’d given up a stable job at a state-owned company for disabled animals.”

At the time, keeping a domestic pet was still a luxury for most people in China. Families had little disposable income, and animals incapacitated by disease or old age were normally put down. Gao and Fu’s neighbors frequently questioned whether the couple had lost their minds.

“None of them had heard of this business, and they didn’t believe that people would actually buy wheelchairs for animals,” says Fu.

Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.

During the early years, Gao sometimes wondered if they were right. In 2008, he remembers only selling a handful of wheelchairs each month. Over time, however, his sales figures gradually climbed into the dozens and then the hundreds.

Gao puts the change down to a dramatic shift in social attitudes toward animals. Though China has yet to pass an animal protection law for domestic animals, cities have become much more pet-friendly and a huge number of animal welfare projects have launched across the country.

“Animals often accompany their owners for many years and emotionally become part of the family,” says Gao. “It’s just like when people are terminally ill — the family will do anything to prolong their lives.”

Wang Jinyu bought a customized wheelchair from Gao for her Yorkshire terrier, Gin, in 2015. Her father had accidentally stepped on Gin when he was only 8 months old, and the puppy had gradually lost the use of his legs. The vet said Gin was only likely to live another five years, but Wang was determined to do whatever she could to help him.

She massaged Gin every day and looked for a wheelchair to help the dog stay active. The first one she bought was far too big and heavy for Gin, who weighs only 2.5 kilograms, but Gao’s work was an instant hit. Four years on from the accident, Gin still goes out for walkies at least twice per day.

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

Gin enjoys some walkies on a wheelchair in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone

“With the wheels, he can walk much faster than before,” says Wang. “And he always sticks his tongue out, which shows he’s happy.”

According to Wang, at least a dozen people have asked her where they could buy a similar wheelchair while she’s been out walking Gin over the years. “One of our neighbors ordered a wheelchair for his old golden retriever so that he could enjoy the outdoors,” says Wang. “The dog passed away a few months later, but it’s all worth it.”

As Gao’s fame has spread, the factory in Huludao has found itself receiving an ever-greater variety of orders. The business now produces around 1,000 wheelchairs for export each month, according to Gao. He says 90% of his wheelchairs are for dogs, while 9% are for cats. The remaining 1% are made for a range of animals, including rabbits, tortoises, and pigs. The company has also created wheelchairs for horses at a Chinese zoo, as well as goats on an overseas ranch, he adds.

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

A GIF shows a cat walking with a wheelchair made by Gao Xiaodong. Courtesy of Gao Xiaodong

“We’re so happy to see a growing number of Chinese pet owners willing to help their disabled or elderly dogs enjoy a new life,” says Gao. “Dogs can usually adapt to wheelchairs very quickly.”

Sadly, some dogs pass away before their new mobility aids can be delivered. “Our customers will still pay for the wheelchair,” says Gao. “They often bury it with their beloved dogs, hoping they can run free in another world.”

Gao’s next project is to start making pet houses, tapping into Chinese owners’ desire to pamper their pooches. There still appears to be enormous room for growth in the pet market, with U.S. pet food giant Mars predicting it could more than double in size within the next five years. 

Mainly, though, Gao just wants to make sure the country’s animals are as comfortable as possible, he says. “We were all born equal,” says Gao. “Animals, whether they can walk or not, all deserve to be respected.”

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Gin waits for his owner Wang Jinyu to go on a walk in their neighborhood in Shanghai, Oct. 23, 2019. Fan Yiying/Sixth Tone)