“For some pets in the city, it comes down to life or death,” Erin Leigh, owner of pet sitting company Spare Leash, said about the current lockdown situation in Shanghai in China.
China’s “zero-Covid” policy means anyone who gets the coronavirus is immediately sent to central facilities, sometimes for weeks. They are not allowed to take their pets, who are left behind at the mercy of local authorities.
In recent years, pet ownership in China has gone up, particularly in cosmopolitan hubs like Shanghai. Since March, Shanghai has been under COVID-19 lockdown restrictions, leaving most of its 25 million residents confined to their homes.
On April 6, a health worker in Shanghai killed a corgi with a shovel. His owners tested positive for COVID-19 and were taken away in a bus, and since they had no one who could take care of their dog, they let the corgi free, hoping he would be able to survive on his own.
The corgi followed the bus his owners were put in. A health worker saw the dog, followed him and hit him three times with a shovel. The video of the health worker killing the dog went viral, with many criticizing the government for unnecessary animal cruelty.
Spare Leash connects pet sitters to pet owners. After the incident with the corgi, the number of people asking for help went up immediately, Leigh said. The clip created “pure panic”. Owners are “desperate to get their animals saved” and are scared to leave them alone at home, she added.
In the last few weeks, Leigh expanded her group from a pet-sitting firm to a network of thousands of unpaid volunteers, who want to help animals of owners who are taken away after a positive coronatest.
Leigh and others mobilized online to share information about the pets left behind when authorities took people into centralized quarantine.
They record cases of distressed animals, classifying them by location and who need food, shelter or other care most urgently. The network then uses social media, sharing “help needed” posters in Chinese and English until a saviour is found. So far, the team has helped hundreds of cats and dogs, and a few birds, fish and snakes.
Shanghai resident Sarah Wang worried about who would look after her cat, when she tested positive for COVID-19. The group has found Wang’s cat a temporary home with a sitter across town. Wang told news agency AFP her cat “wouldn’t have survived my apartment being disinfected. Her conditions would have been pretty bleak without anyone coming to feed her.”
The urgency to stamp out every virus case in China has pushed animal well-being down the list of authorities’ priorities. Authorities in China have killed dogs on multiple occasions during the pandemic, which caused conflict between local governments and many residents.
In January, Hong Kong killed around 2,000 hamsters after one tested positive for COVID-19.
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