Du Fan had made plans to travel north and spend the Spring Festival holiday with friends amid wintery scenes of ice and snow.
Instead, during a viral epidemic that began in his hometown Wuhan, Du is roaming a deserted city to break into strangers’ homes and rescue their pets.
As the city — the capital of central China’s Hubei province and the epicenter of an outbreak that has killed over 700 people and infected more than 34,000 as of Feb. 8 — closed itself off from the outside world on Jan. 23 to halt the spreading virus, millions of Wuhan residents were out of town with no way home.
Across China, measures enacted to stop the spread of 2019-nCoV, as the coronavirus is known, have affected businesses, people — and animals. Pets have been blamed for spreading the virus, willingly abandoned amid the crisis, or unintentionally left to fend for themselves.
Three days after the lockdown that put Wuhan’s roads, railways, and airport out of service, Du issued a notice on social media saying his nongovernmental organization Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association would help stranded pets for free. So far, the association has received more than 2,000 requests, mostly from people who expected to only be away for a few days and are now afraid their pets are running out of food and water.
Du’s team of 28 volunteers are in a race against time, maneuvering through a city of 14 million without the use of cars or public transportation. They have so far managed to save more than 400 pets, mostly cats. Still, they’re receiving more new requests than they can handle. “We will keep doing this until the city is unlocked,” Du tells Sixth Tone.
Left: A locksmith opens the door of an absent pet owner’s apartment; Right: A volunteer feeds pets left alone as a result of the lockdown in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan
Before entering a house, Du will ask its stranded owners to record a video holding their ID card and stating that they allow the volunteers to get in. After entering with the help of a locksmith or a hidden key, they are greeted by hungry but elated animals. In one video Du posted on social media, a pig locked in a closed balcony hadn’t eaten for a week. “The balcony is a mess, and he has even chewed on the water basin,” Du said.
In another video, a cat was giving birth when Du arrived. Two of the kittens died, but the volunteers cleaned up and left enough food and water to last a fortnight, preventing a worse situation. “In the face of disaster, helping small animals is also what we humans should do,” Du says.
Elsewhere in China, animals and their caretakers have also been put in a bind by the outbreak and the measures enacted to stop it. In cities throughout the country, businesses have been advised to stay shut following the weeklong Lunar New Year break, which would have ended on Jan. 30 but has been extended to Feb. 9 in many places.
A pet pig drinks water provided by volunteers come to help abandoned pets in Wuhan, Hubei province, 2020. Courtesy of Du Fan
Chen Junren owns a pet store in downtown Shanghai, and this week opened up anyway. With a decade of experience, he knows it should be a busy time of year. “Usually around this time, the store should be filled with owners taking their dogs over to buy food and give them baths, but now it’s so empty,” Chen tells Sixth Tone. He has turned to selling online, but is quickly running out of goods, especially imported brands. Chen thinks China’s pet market, which has rapidly grown and last year exceeded 200 billion yuan ($28.8 billion) for over 100 million cats and dogs, will be affected for at least a year.
Chen is also facing a staffing shortage. “None of my employees have returned yet,” he says. Some of them celebrated Lunar New Year with their families in Hubei and cannot leave the province until the lockdown lifts. In any case, it might be a while before Chen gets help. Anyone arriving in Shanghai from elsewhere in China is asked to go into two weeks of self-quarantine.
But Chen is not alone. A 7-month-old shiba inu was sent to stay in his store by its owner, who is stuck in Wuhan. “I will take care of the puppy for him no matter what,” Chen says. “Pets are more important now than ever because, without their company, life would be so much harder at this moment.”
A dog looks out from a pet store in Shanghai, Feb. 6, 2020. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone
Vet clinics have also largely been ordered to stay closed. Zhang Fan, a veterinarian in Wuhan, thinks such measures might be counterproductive and harmful to public health. “Some pet owners may take their pets to other cities for medical treatment, which will increase the possibility of unnecessary population flow,” he says.
Many clinics have launched online consultations, though there are limits to what doctors can do from a distance. “But we will do our best to alleviate the difficulties and save the lives of as many pets as possible,” says Qin Kong, co-founder of Shanghai-based pet services company Petform. “Every life deserves respect.” They launched their online consultations on Jan. 30 and have already helped hundreds of customers.
For most pet owners, the biggest worry is whether they should still take their animals outside. Li Lanjuan, an epidemiologist and member of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Engineering, said in an interview with state broadcaster China Central Television last month that people should “more strictly control their pets,” and that “if your pet runs around outside and comes in contact with an infected person, it will need to be monitored. This virus is transmitted between mammals, so we should take precautions for mammals.”
Despite statements from both the World Health Organization and an expert at China’s National Health Commission refuting Li’s claim, suspicion toward pets has spread. In Weifang, eastern China’s Shandong province, and Taiyuan, a city in northern Shanxi province, districts have banned public dog-walking. In Wuxi, Jiangsu province, a neighborhood committee staff allegedly buried a cat alive after its owner was infected with the coronavirus, out of fear the feline could spread the disease.
Fang Ling, the founder of a pet hotel in the mountains outside of southwestern Sichuan’s provincial capital Chengdu, tells Sixth Tone that Li’s comments created a wave of panic. “Every day, officials come to supervise and check whether we wear face masks, and how many times we disinfect and clean the place,” she says, adding she’s afraid she’ll be ordered to close any day. She’s taking care of some 35 dogs and has received new orders from people who’ve found it too difficult to keep walking their dogs in the city.
A woman holds her pet dog on the Bund in Shanghai, Feb. 5, 2020. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone
While most Chinese have stayed inside the past few weeks to limit the spread of the virus, Wang Yingchao, founder of WoWoDogWalk, a Shanghai-based dog-walking service, takes over 15,000 steps daily. “Staying indoors for a long time is painful for us, let alone some dog breeds who need more exercise,” says Wang.
With her team, she walks dozens of dogs every day, fewer than usual. But there’s also a silver lining. “It’s actually less hassle to walk the dogs now, as you can hardly see people on the street,” says Wang.
Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: A staff member at a pet store plays with several dogs in Shanghai, Feb. 6, 2020. Shi Yangkun/Sixth Tone)