As the novel coronavirus continues to dominate headlines, a group of forgotten victims is emerging — the family pets left behind.
Lao Mao, a 43-year-old man from the virus’s epicentre of Wuhan, scaled up rusty pipes to the third-floor balcony of an apartment to get inside the home of a middle-aged couple.
The couple had left their cats at home for a three-day vacation. When they were unable to return due to road closures, their cats suffered.
Mao found them hiding underneath a couch, nearly dead from starvation. He called their owners, who broke down in tears at the sight of their beloved pets.
The anonymous couple heard about Mao, who’s also known as “Old Cat,” from social media. They messaged him for help rescuing their pets.
“The volunteers on our team, me included, have saved more than 1,000 pets since Jan. 25,” Mao said.
The animal rescuer didn’t disclose his real name to Reuters for fear of his family discovering he was out and about in the city.
According to Mao, up to 50,000 pets have been left at home in Wuhan as their families escaped the province of Hubei. So far, more than 360 people in China have died from the novel coronavirus outbreak.
The city of Wuhan has been under quarantined lockdown since Jan. 23, right around the time many left for the Lunar New Year holidays, many of whom left animals behind and have reached out to Mao for help saving them.
“My phone never stops ringing these days. I barely sleep,” he said. “My conservative estimate is that around 5,000 are still trapped, and they may die of starvation in the coming days.”
Reuters says animals have been on the receiving end of stigma during this disease outbreak, as some think house pets are causing a quicker spread of the virus.
But animal lovers in the country have taken to Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social media platform, to help save these animals using a hashtag that translates to “save the pets left behind in Wuhan,” Channel News Asia reports.
The post has received millions of views now, the publication reports, and people have been desperately looking for others still in Wuhan to help care for their pets.
On Monday, one user managed to find someone to feed his cat Maomao.
“In the video chat, after the man opened the door Maomao meowed so miserably, no one has been home for more than a dozen days,” the user told the Chinese publication.
A group created by the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association shared a call-out for “kindhearted people” willing to care for neglected pets.
A small county in Zhejiang called Suichang, which has the second most reported infections, ordered its residents to keep dogs at home or they would be killed.
“I’m worried about my dog being hated by the neighbourhood,” Beijing resident Wang Fengyun, who has a poodle, told Reuters.
Some pet owners are even buying face masks for their pets or fashioning their own out of household products.
“I haven’t found any pet masks, so I’ve made one myself with a paper cup.”
— With files from Reuters
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