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March 2, 2012

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High-risk strays on elevated roads

SHANGHAI'S ever-expanding network of elevated roads is turning into a virtual graveyard for stray dogs and cats that are struck by oncoming traffic. When maintenance crews arrive in the dead of night, they often find scenes of carnage.

Drivers sometimes push or throw their pets out of cars on elevated roads or in tunnels, so abandoned animals cannot find their way home.

To keep warm, cats often "stow away" inside cars' wheel wells near the engine compartment when cars are parked. But they are jump out or are thrown onto the roadways when the cars move at high speed.

Strays, especially cats, take shelter in planted dividers where they breed, producing more feral cats. Both stray dogs and cats rush to get scraps of food discarded by motorists.

Strays darting into traffic also can cause accidents, endangering the safety of drivers.

"Sometimes in the dark hours, their crushed bodies lying on the elevated roads really made the scene look like a miserable open graveyard of small animals," said Ju Jinxing, a veteran road cleaner told Shanghai Daily. He said he and his crew pick up an average of four or five cats, crushed dead and sometimes alive, every night. There are small dogs as well, and removing animal bodies has become a depressing and stressful routine task.

When they find a live animal, the crew always picks it up and puts it in their work vehicle, later setting it free on the ground, Ju said.

Animal protection activists and animal lovers are appealing to local authorities to do something - such as permitting animal rescue teams to save animals, though it takes time and does slow down traffic.

They are building support on social networking sites, such as twitter-like weibo, raising public awareness and posting photos of trapped, suffering and dead animals.

Shanghai has around 200 km of elevated roadways; more are planned.

But the issues of stray animals in general, strays on elevated roads and cruelty to animals are not easily solved. China has no national animal welfare laws, though such a measure has been debated for years.

As the elevated road network grows, so does the number of strays.

Many drivers post photos of strays trapped in traffic, calling on people and authorities to save animals' lives.

A Shanghai Daily reporter found that though such photos are widely and quickly spread and many people call for help, little if any action is taken.

It's a nightly horror show for maintenance crews who work in the small hours when some traffic lanes are closed and they can reach the animals. Workers say the number of strays has been increasing over the years.

Maintenance crews are not allowed on roadways during regular traffic hours, so even if they are alerted to a stray in danger, there is nothing they can do.


Vivian Tan, a lead volunteer with Shanghai-based Jaiya's Animal Rescue, said the problem is heartbreaking. Volunteers always try to help but in most cases, their hands are tied, she said.

"Because of traffic safety, police don't support our rescue efforts. Cars are not allowed to stop for long on elevated roads but animal rescue usually takes a long time," she said.

Once she and her friends had to give up trying to rescue a stray cat on an overhead after traffic police threatened them with a hefty ticket for unsafe parking threatening motorists' safety.

"One day when I was driving I suddenly saw a little dog frozen in the middle of the divider area, not daring to move to either side where it could only be hit by speeding cars," Tan recalled. But she couldn't stop and was swept along in the traffic flow.

Divider areas are sometimes strips of greenery and strays tend to find shelter in the zone.

There are more stray cats than dogs on elevated roads, probably because cats are natural climbers and when they are frightened they tend to climb and leap higher to avoid danger. That puts in them in the planted divider area where they can hide.

Tossed food

Food leftovers thrown from car windows by drivers also lure more strays onto elevated roads, according to animal welfare volunteers.

Volunteers especially condemned pet owners who abandon their dogs on elevated roads instead of ground streets because it's more difficult for the dogs to find their way home.

Some volunteers told Shanghai Daily they not only witnessed owners dumping dogs on elevated roads but also people driving into tunnels where they threw out their pets.

China has no laws banning and punishing cruelty to animals, so activists are trying to influence the public through education. They are calling on drivers to stop littering and throwing food onto the roads.

"Little strays are attracted by food. You might just throw food out of a car window for your convenience, but that could lead to a cat being crushed to death," a middle-aged woman surnamed Zhang said.

Other animal lovers are trying to persuade law enforcement, traffic police and local government authorities to support rescue efforts by allowing rescuers to park on median and dividing strips. They argue that if nothing is done to address the soaring number of strays on elevated roads, drivers will be more likely to encounter the animals, swerve to avoid them or slam on the brakes, causing accidents.

In January, passing motorists alerted traffic police about a collie wandering on Nanpu Bridge in oncoming traffic. Police rescued the big dog, which posed a serious traffic hazard.

But in most cases involving small stray dogs, it can be difficult to get help, according to experienced rescue volunteers.

They say police frequently tell them to call the fire department but the fire department tells them to call the police. By the time maintenance crews arrive late at night, it's far too late.


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