Thousands of Pets Trapped in Wuhan Lockdown Face Death from Starvation Following Coronavirus Outbreak

Thousands of pets in Wuhan are estimated to be trapped inside homes and in danger of dying from starvation in the absence of their owners, who have not been allowed to return to the city following the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, animal advocates claim.

The capital of Hubei province, where the virus was first discovered, has been on lockdown since January 23 in the wake of the epidemic, with many residents having left Wuhan to other parts of the country for Lunar New Year celebrations.

The deadly virus has claimed the lives of at least 304 people in China so far, with around 14,411 cases reported in the country and 146 case confirmed in 23 countries outside China, according to the latest report on Sunday by the World Health Organization (WHO), which officially declared the virus a global public health emergency on Thursday.

Up to 50,000 pets have reportedly been left alone at home in Wuhan based on the number of residents who have left the city, which is home to an estimated 11 million people, according to a local volunteer known as Lao Mao who has been roaming the city to help free any pets trapped in homes, Reuters reports.

Several pet owners, who have been either quarantined or stranded in another part of the country following the outbreak, were said to be contacting Lao Mao and others on social media to help save their pets reportedly using the hashtag/term "save the pets left behind in Wuhan" on the Chinese social media platform Weibo, CNA (Channel News Asia) reports.

"My conservative estimate is that around 5,000 [pets] are still trapped, and they may die of starvation in the coming days," he told Reuters.

"The volunteers on our team, me included, have saved more than 1,000 pets since Jan. 25," said Lao Mao, declining to disclose his real name because he did not want his family to know he was out and about in the city.

"If we don't offer help, the dogs and cats would have decomposed at home before their owners got home," said Du Fan, president of the Wuhan Small Animal Protection Association, the China Daily reports.

"It's our responsibility to help the animals," he added.

The association has also reportedly helped hundreds of animals that have been left abandoned since January 23 after being contacted by the owners to locate their pets. The organization is said to have been contacted by more than 700 families asking for help and there are reportedly at least 600,000 to 800,000 cats and dogs in Wuhan, according to the China Daily.

With various homes being locked, the volunteers are finding it difficult to access these private apartments without permission and authorization, according to a post on the official Facebook page of the association.

"We have helped more than 600 [pets] since last week. Most of them were left and locked in the apartment before the lockdown. It is very difficult to do that because we are not allowed to get into privat[e] apartments without permission. At the time it is hard to prove that we are authorized. So we tried at least to feed them in well secured communities. And tried as much as we can to get into private apartment[s] to take pets out," the association said in a post on Sunday.

Chinese residents across the country have reportedly been told to get rid of their pets or risk having them culled, according to Humane Society International (HSI), with Chinese authorities warning that pets exposed to the virus need to be quarantined.

Speaking to Newsweek, a spokesperson for HSI said: "In Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Wuhan, Shanxi, Shanghai there are reports of local government orders for street dog culling out of fear that the animals might transmit the coronavirus.

"According to the World Health Organization, there is no evidence that pet dogs or cats can be infected with the virus, and medical experts in China have spoken out against blaming dogs and cats for spreading the illness. Humane Society International urges pet owners around the world not to abandon their pets as a response to this outbreak.

"In the meantime, animal advocates in China are rescuing abandoned pets and informing the public that dogs and cats do not pose a risk. Humane Society International has been supporting Chinese groups in coordinating public education efforts since the Wuhan coronavirus broke out," the spokesperson added.

HSI are also said to be providing assistance to local groups in China that have rescued abandoned dogs through its local partner Vshine, a Chinese animal protection group.

"Fortunately, in comparison to the SARS outbreak of 2003, there now seems to be greater public sentiment against pet abandonment and the culling of street dogs, and so we hope that this will result in more compassionate actions towards these animals," the spokesperson for HSI said.

Newsweek has contacted the Wuhan Small Animal Protection and the SPCA (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) International Global Animal Rescue for further comment and updates on the latest situation.

Wuhan China dog January 22 2020
A woman wears a mask while carrying a dog in the street on January 22, 2020 in Wuhan, Hubei province, China. Getty Images