Shanghai’s lockdown raises two difficult questions for animal lovers: Who will feed the stray cats and dogs on the street, and who will take care of the pets at home if their owner is sent to a hotel or a quarantine camp? Lee-Anne Armstrong is one of many people working to solve both of these problems.
Armstrong is the executive director of Second Chance Animal Aid, a nonprofit organization based in Shanghai. Second Chance runs a “virtual shelter” that places animals with foster homes while seeking adoptive owners.
In an interview with Sixth Tone’s Wu Peiyue, Armstrong shares how her team continues to provide help to stray animals and pet owners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Born out of SARS
I’m from Canada, and a desire for change and new opportunities lured me to Shanghai in the summer of 2004. My intention was to stay two or three years. So much for the best-laid plans!
I joined Second Chance Animal Aid (SCAA) in 2005. It was founded the same year by one of my friends who has decades of NPO experience. The reason was simple. At that time, I discovered that I was a magnet for needy homeless animals pretty much anywhere I went in Shanghai!
One of the best contributions an organization like SCAA can make is sharing our experience, to help residents concerned about at-risk animals make a difference. It’s frustrating that with such rapid development, Shanghai is still without any animal welfare infrastructure. SCAA is part of a collective of animal welfare advocates trying to bring about change.
SCAA dogs and clients' pets safely boarded at SCAA’s vet partner, PAW, Shanghai, April 2022. Courtesy of Lee-Anne Armstrong
The lockdown has really highlighted the challenges of being physically and financially responsible for so many foster animals in so many volunteer homes, spread across most districts of Shanghai.
Ironically, it was the first SARS outbreak that provided some of the impetus for SCAA’s “virtual shelter” type of foster home network. But nobody could have predicted the harsh reality of our current situation.
Pets and rescues in individual homes have been at greater risk of starvation and harm than we imagined. The threat of an animal’s only caregiver being taken away or our homes sprayed with toxic chemicals, while potentially helpful neighbors remain locked in, is a widespread and constantly shifting risk.
SCAA needs to revisit the best way forward after seventeen years of the same formula. The lockdown has also thankfully highlighted how much community resources have grown, from more individual rescuers, vet clinics, boarding services, and animal-focused support groups across multiple social media platforms.
Adapting to lockdown
The original way of assisting cats and dogs doesn’t work anymore during the recent lockdown. When pet owners or foster parents have had issues that they sometimes needed urgent help with, you can feel helpless with all of us stuck inside.
But we adapted to the new challenges as fast as we could.
The severity of lockdown restrictions means that accessing and sharing information have become the most important ways to help pets and rescues. Only if people know what resources and strategies worked for others in similar situations, can we reduce the risk to all pets and owners.
A screenshot of Armstrong’s arrangement for dog walks with a person in her compound allowed to be outside during lockdown. Courtesy of Lee-Anne Armstrong
The indispensable collective helping pets stay fed, get medication, and — where needed — be safely moved when caregivers were taken to quarantine, includes a network of vet clinics, which are operating through online consultations, pet food suppliers, boarding kennels, volunteers, personal contacts, WeChat groups, cleaners, and drivers with an “epidemic pass” to legally be on the road.
For homeless animals like garden cat colonies, we asked some compound security guards and cleaning staff to help with feeding. Our frequent outings for nucleic acid tests are opportunities to walk dogs and feed strays.
The city’s job
Heartwarming videos and photos of hazmat-suited volunteers walking dogs and feeding cats gave many of us hope that Shanghai would weather this lockdown crisis better than other cities did.
However, many of the success stories, where stranded pets are finally provided with food and water after owners were taken to quarantine, are the result of social media embarrassment for property managers and neighborhood committees. Despite the ability to access pet owners’ residences to help as privately requested, many compounds and community leaders initially refused, until public pressure from pleas on Weibo or WeChat disclosing the pet owners’ home addresses, and sometimes the committee contact number, changed their mind. For some pets, it was too late.
Although official notices are clear that people in the strictest lockdown are prohibited from going out to walk pets, this means different things to different authorities. Some tolerances are given.
We see many variations even within the same sub-district. Some compounds stubbornly insist that pets can’t go out. Some compounds organize dog walking by dedicated volunteers in hazmat suits, while others simply turn a blind eye to a quick dog walk well away from anybody else outside.
After I reached the city 12345 helpline, they kindly tried to organize help for our compound residents’ dogs. When the volunteer the city promised (twice!) was never actually assigned by our local unit, I was lucky to find discreet help from staff permitted to be outside in our compound.
Clear, consistent, and reasonable policies to deal with pets would save everyone a lot of stress, time, hassle, and unwanted social media exposure. If things can get done after so much chasing and public pressure, there’s obviously a quicker, less painful way to make it happen.
Editor: David Cohen.
(Header image: Kittens Holden and Phoebe. They were rescued from a locked car when March grid testing lock-ins started, Shanghai, April. Courtesy of Lee-Anne Armstrong)