Shanghai Residents on a Mission to Save Vulnerable Pets

By Lars James Hamer, April 8, 2022

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In the distance, a dog’s cries can be heard as a pandemic prevention and control worker, dressed in a hazmat suit, walks towards a Corgi lying helplessly on the floor. The worker picks up a shovel, raises it above his head and repeatedly hits the defenseless animal. The cries suddenly die out as the woman filming from her balcony screams, “You are so cruel.”

Sadly, this case of animal cruelty, which took place in Shanghai’s Pudong District on Wednesday, April 6, has become an all-too-common consequence of China’s zero-COVID policy. The scenes were posted across WeChat and Weibo but have since been deleted from both platforms.

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Image via Weibo@请问怎么戒

The Corgi’s owner had tested positive for COVID-19 and although she was asymptomatic, she was transported to an isolation facility. Despite her best efforts, she was unable to arrange for someone to look after her beloved pet. With no other option, she tried to take her dog with her, only for workers to wrestle the Corgi away and take matters into their own hands. 

Spare Leash is a pet sitting company that connects pet sitters to pet owners, all of the services are in home and cage-free. In response to the current lockdown and residents suddenly being carted off to quarantine without enough time to arrange care for their pets, they have changed tack and are working with a team of pet sitters and volunteers to find temporary homes for left-behind pets.

“After the incident with the Corgi last night, the number of people asking for help went from 200 to 589, and it’s growing by the minute,” explains founder and CEO of Spare Leash, Erin Leigh.

Spare Leash is composed of paid pet sitters and volunteers who help with translating, making flyers, calling pet owners and pet sitters and driving pets from one house to another.

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A Spare Leash flyer that is posted on WeChat in an attempt to find a home for a desperate dog. Image via Erin Leigh

“We have our database of pet owners who have been reaching out for help,” Leigh elaborates. “Recently, a couple of awesome Chinese volunteers created a public excel sheet that everyone in Shanghai can add to if their pet is in trouble.” 

This excel sheet has enabled hundreds of residents in Shanghai to reach out for help. Anyone looking for a pet sitter can fill out their personal information and state the type of service that they need. On April 8, 22 volunteers helped 226 animals alone, therefore saving the lives of many family pets.

Time is of the essence to solve these cases and stop cats and dogs from starving, dying of dehydration or being beaten to death. Leigh tells That’s the lengths that people have to go to avoid this. 

“Before going into quarantine, some people are taking their dog, tying it to a tree in their compound, telling us where it is and then getting on the bus. Then, our volunteers will find a neighbor who can run outside and take the dog in.”

Leigh explains that this is the worst-case scenario and is only used as a last resort by desperate pet owners. Some owners who have to leave their pet behind will leave food and water for the animals and put a key under the mat in the hope that someone will be able to help. 

“We’re trying to find people to take these pets. Sometimes when we find someone and get back to the owner, they tell us their pet already died,” Leigh says, fighting back the tears.   

“It’s insane, you get up to go to the bathroom and you’re like, ‘am I wasting time?’” The emotion becomes too much for Leigh and she cries while recalling a case where a cat died.

“She suddenly got sick and died of dehydration. I think she went seven to 10 days without water. A lot of people have a feeding machine as a backup but sometimes they break. It's crazy.”

To find people to take the pets, volunteers use Spare Leash’s personal database and the excel sheet to locate anyone nearby. However, even if they can find someone to help, the battle doesn’t end there. Volunteers then have to communicate with security and the pandemic prevention and control teams to ensure that they are allowed to collect the animal.

“The Chinese team is talking to every single guard and saying we have a solution, we have a contactless handover and you are not going to want to be responsible for a dead pet. So, we would advise you to let us collect them.” 

Leigh tells us that this negotiation can sometimes take hours and if local authorities persist in refusing to help, they go to social media. “When we tell them we are taking it to social media, cases quickly get overturned or solutions are found. We're also calling management like crazy and saying nobody wants to take the blame for a dead dog.”

When these measures are taken, cases are escalated above community security and pandemic prevention teams. A WeChat group is created with Spare Leash workers and senior management officials and a solution is negotiated. 

Even when they are permitted to collect the cat or dog, if no one in close proximity can take it, Spare Leash needs to organize that animal to be taken out of the community and to a pet sitter’s home. 

“I got an urgent request asking if I could look after a dog because a guy was about to go into quarantine,” Spare Leash pet sitter Benita West tells That’s

“At 2pm on Monday they sent me a message asking if I could help and they sent a picture of Mildred [the dog] and said the transport was ready.”

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Mildred in West's home. Image via Benita West

West, a pet lover who has been working with Spare Leash for three years, has been locked down for two weeks. Luckily for both Mildred and West, her apartment complex lifted restrictions on Monday and residents were allowed to stroll around the compound. This allowed for a contactless handover from Mildred’s owner to West. 

Current restrictions in Shanghai mean that only authorized vehicles are allowed on the road, so organizing transport can be tricky. “Thankfully, our partner Paw Paw, a pet taxi company, is authorized, so they've been driving around,” Leigh explains. "They even helped us with a rescue mission on the first day. Somebody just dumped their huge golden retriever on the side of the road. We also have this one girl who works for Eleme scooting around from morning to evening, taking pets from one place to another.”

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A picture from the Eleme worker's WeChat moments, showing some of the dog she has saved. Image via WeChat 

That’s reached out to the Eleme courier for an interview, but because she is working 18-hour shifts, she declined. 

To minimize the risk of spreading COVID-19, Spare Leash needs to ensure a contactless handover. If an owner can leave their apartment, they can put the animal in a safe location where handover to the courier can be supervised by local security. If the owner cannot leave their apartment, they will put the pet outside the door and authorized personnel will take it to the front gate. This process is then repeated when the cat or dog arrives at the destination. 

“I picked the dog up at the gate, we don't actually have a bao’an [security guard] or anything but the volunteers looked really confused,” says West, describing the moment Mildred arrived at her complex.

“They were looking at me like ‘what is going on?’ and another guy was looking at me weird. I thought that because a lot of people have been saying that COVID-19 can spread from surfaces, they were being a bit judgmental, but then I saw he had his dog with him and I think he understood. I quickly took the dog into my house and sanitized all the food tins, the bags and the crate.”

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Mildred shortly after being delivered to West's complex. Image via Benita West

Mildred is booked in to stay with West for two weeks and if possible, she’s also willing to take in more dogs to help those in need. “If the dogs are comfortable with being with another dog, I am willing to take more, but in times like this, there's not much choice.”

Regarding the incident with the Corgi on April 6, West says: “I'm shocked that this is happening in Shanghai. When I arrived here, I couldn’t believe how many people have dogs. I’m sickened to see that this Corgi was killed and God knows how many others have been killed here as well.”

Animal abuse during the recent COVID-19 outbreak is not unique to Shanghai. 

On Wednesday, March 30, the Anci District of Langfang city in northern China, ordered the culling of indoor animals of people who had tested positive for COVID-19. The order was rescinded by 5pm the same day. It is unknown whether any animals were harmed during this time. 

On the same day that the news of the Corgi being beaten death went viral on Chinese social media, Shenzhen announced it had established a Pet Care Center, providing free kenneling services for owners who need to quarantine.

To ensure that your pet is not at risk of being left alone while you quarantine, Leigh says: “Plan early and don't wait until the last minute. Send your dog to a pet sitter and act fast, especially if your area is getting lots of positive cases.”

Spare Leash operates in Shanghai, Beijing, Ningbo, Chengdu and Suzhou, if you would like to use their services, scan the QR Code below. If you are interested in volunteering, add Erinleigh3 on WeChat. 


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[Cover image via Pxhere]

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