Lao Mao – known to his friends as “Old Cat” – has emerged as an unlikely hero of the public health emergency in Wuhan, the Chinese city that has is now the epicentre of the raging coronavirus outbreak.
The 43-year-old has scaled up rusty pipes and broken windows to gain access to people’s homes, but all in a good cause. Lao Mao and his six-strong animal rescue squad have saved at least 2,000 household pets from starvation after their quarantined owners were unable to reach them.
Lao Mao, a vet whose real name is Shuai Lihua and who runs the online pet community Wuhan Pet Life, believes some 20,000 animals were left at home without care when a tight quarantine was suddenly imposed on Wuhan, a city of 11 million, on January 23.
Many owners, who had already travelled outside the city for the Lunar New Year, were caught on the backfoot, with no way to return to their furry friends because of extensive travel curbs.
Lao Mao, who owns a pet hospital and has been running rescues for the past 13 years, stepped in to help after frantic calls or messages on social media.
“In the past few days my line was always busy. Each day I received hundreds of requests and had to visit twenty to thirty households,” he told The Telegraph.
Of the thousands of pets Lao Mao and his team have saved, 99% have been cats and only about 0.5% of them dogs, and the rest rabbits and hamsters.
“They were all very scared and stressed. Some cats were extremely short of food and water,” he said.
In one case, the owner of a cat had planned to return home on January 27 and had only left food for their cat until that day. He contacted Lao Mao for help on February 3.
“When I went there to fill food and water for the cat, it stuck very close to me. It drank water for more than ten seconds when usually cats just drink for two to three seconds.”
At first, he would take the animals into his own home but after just three days he ran out of space, forcing him to resort to just leaving enough food and water for one month.
Most of the pet rescues were successful, in some cases the rescue team have been too late and kittens starved to death or cats died of difficult labour.
Lao Mao does not always have to shin up drainpipes. In most instances, pet owners can deliver keys to him or send the password to their homes, but the high volume of rescues puts him at more risk of catching the coronavirus in the disease-ridden city. Nationwide more than 700 people have died.
“Of course I’m scared, but just by thinking that the cats would starve to death if we didn’t go, I can’t just leave them there,” he said.
Yang Ying, 50, an officer in the city’s urban management team, who has four cats of her own, has also contributed to Wuhan Pet Life’s efforts by checking in every three days on two other cat households.
Feeding the temporarily adopted felines of two perfect strangers every three days is no mean feat in the city, where private vehicles are still banned as a quarantine measure.
One house is twenty minutes away by foot and the other an hour. Ms Yang does not want to risk using the city’s shared bike system in case she becomes infected.
“I never met their owners in person or had any deeper interactions. They trusted me and gave their keys to me, and I need to be responsible and repay their trust,” she said.
“When I arrived at first it was a mess. Things were all over the place and bowls for water were turned over. They were hiding when I entered so I could not see them,” she said.
She usually spends about one hour at each household, adding food and water and cleaning out litters. Now she’s close to the cats who “come out and play with me.”
“Honestly, it is tiring,” she said, adding: “Of course I’m afraid. But if I dare to leave my house for work, I can leave my house for this as well. I see them as my own kittens, and treat this as a serious task.”
Animals in some parts of China have also been caught up in spurious rumours that pets were exacerbating the virus’s spread.
The number of abandoned pets has risen, according to several animal rights groups, while there have been isolated reports of pets being killed circulated on the internet.
Many in Beijing and Shanghai have also rushed to buy face masks for their dogs in their mistaken belief that pets could catch the virus.
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