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February 23, 2020

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Taking care of pets stranded by outbreak

ZONGZI is a shy Chinese Li Hua cat living in Putuo District, Shanghai. Her owner, Joyce Liu, returned to Wuhan, in Hubei Province, to visit her family before the Lunar New Year holiday and originally planned to stay away for just six days.

Unfortunately, the novel coronavirus epidemic escalated quickly and prevented her return. Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak, has halted all outbound public transportation, including trains and flights, since January 23 to curb the virus.

Zongzi’s owner scheduled drop-in home visits with Dai Dai (@撸猫小能手_丸喵酱 on Weibo), who since 2009 has been babysitting cats while their owners are away. Since travel restrictions from Wuhan were first imposed, Dai Dai has been coming by to take care of Zongzi every two days. According to Liu, prior to the outbreak, Zongzi had never been at home without her for more than six days.

“Zongzi is a very shy cat and used to hide under the bed when I first met her. Now she can’t wait to climb on me,” said Dai. “Zongzi just stares in the direction of the door every day and her owner can only talk to her via a monitoring camera. It’s really a torment.”

Dai has encountered about two dozen similar cases this winter due to the outbreak. She says that other pet owners outside Hubei have also been prevented from coming home due to transport restrictions.

Taking care of cute cats may seem easy and fun, but it’s also a job that requires time and hard work. The Lunar New Year holiday is a busy time for Dai, but this winter has been particularly intense. With the help of a driver and a partner, she recently set a new record of 89 home visits in a 24-hour period.

“I’m traveling around the city every Lunar New Year holiday for an average of 20 hours per day. If I’m too tired, I go back home, take a shower and sleep; or just take a nap in the car,” she said.

During every visit, Dai will give her furry charges fresh food and water, clean their litter boxes and even provide some play time. She also takes dozens of photos and videos of each cat to share with their distant owners. Dai’s fees have remained the same since 2012: 120-130 yuan (US$17-18) for downtown locations, 150 yuan for further locations.

“When I start with a new cat owner, I will visit in person to sign an agreement and familiarize myself with where the cat’s supplies are stored. I will also greet the cat, of course,” she said.

Cats are very independent and can survive a few days alone at home when they are left with sufficient amounts of food and water, as well as several clean litter boxes.

“I started to help friends take care of their pets in 2009. I did cat boarding back in 2012 and there were many problems, from a cat’s standpoint. Not all cats can be sent to pet shops or hospitals for boarding. Shy cats can especially be very stressed in a new environment and that can lead to severe illness. I will explain to clients who want to bring their cats to me for boarding to convince them that having someone visit regularly is a better option,” Dai said.

For some desperate pet owners who were unexpectedly stuck far from home due to the virus outbreak, Dai had to gain entry to their homes with the help of a locksmith.

“Some cat owners originally thought that asking a professional to visit and take care of their cat would cost too much money, so they reached out to their friends. But with the outbreak, their friends are no longer willing to help and they came to ask me in the end,” said Dai.

Home alone in Wuhan

Meanwhile in Wuhan, many cats were also left alone when owners in the city traveled away for the Lunar New Year holiday.

Every day, the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association receives numerous calls from desperate pet owners; they left only enough food and water to last a few days but can’t come back to the city due to travel restrictions. In some cases, pets have been left alone for more than two weeks.

On January 26, the association posted a WeChat article asking people in need to contact them. They originally expected about 50 families to come forward, but within 10 minutes more than 200 messages poured in. The volunteers immediately started to plan their pet rescue efforts.

About 95 percent of the pets helped by volunteers were cats, although they also looked after dogs, hamsters, parrots and rabbits. One volunteer recalled a rescued cat that was so thirsty that it stood inside a basin of water to drink, despite the fact that cats normally dislike being wet.

The association has now received thousands of requests from owners, and more people have joined them to help stranded animals. Up until February 12, they’ve made some 1,400 pro bono home visits in Wuhan over the past 17 days, and provided fresh water and food for nearly 5,000 small animals, including dogs, cats, rabbits, birds, hamsters and chinchillas.

But as Wuhan started to close down all residential communities since last week, volunteers of the association could no longer visit other communities and they are now asking owners in need to form help groups within the communities and facilitate the requests to help stranded animals.


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