Lao Mao and his six-strong animal rescue squad have saved at least 2000 household pets from starvation after their quarantined owners were unable to return to them
Forty-three-year old vet Lao Mao - known to his friends as Old Cat - has emerged as an unlikely hero of the public health emergency in Wuhan, the Chinese city that is the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.
The animal lover has braved rusty pipes and broken windows to gain access to people's homes, all in a good cause. Lao Mao and his six-strong animal rescue squad have saved at least 2000 household pets from starvation after their quarantined owners were unable to return to them, reports The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lao Mao, who runs the online pet community Wuhan Pet Life and whose real name is Shuai Lihua, believes some 20,000 animals were left at home without care when a tight quarantine was suddenly imposed on the city of 11 million on January 23.
Many owners, who had already travelled outside Wuhan for the Lunar New Year, were caught on the back foot with no way to return to care for their animals because of extensive travel curbs.
Lao Mao owns a pet hospital and has been organising animal rescue for 13 years. He stepped in to help after frantic calls and messages on social media.
"In the past few days my line was always busy. Each day I received hundreds of requests and had to visit 20 to 30 households," he said.
Of the thousands of pets Lao Mao and his team have saved, 99 per cent were cats, 0.5 per cent were dogs and the rest were rabbits and hamsters.
"They were all very scared and stressed. Some cats were extremely short of food and water," he said.
In one case, the owner of a cat had planned to return home on January 27 and had left food for their pet until that day. He contacted Lao Mao for help on February 3.
When I went there to fill food and water for the cat, it stuck very close to me. It drank water for more than 10 seconds when usually cats just drink for two to three seconds."
At first, he would take the animals into his own home but after just three days he ran out of space, forcing him to resort to just leaving enough food and water for one month.
Most of the pet rescues were successful but in some cases the team were too late, and kittens starved to death or cats died after a difficult labour.
Lao Mao does not always have to shin up drainpipes. In most instances, pet owners can deliver keys to him or send the password to their homes' locks, but the high volume of rescues puts him at more risk of catching the coronavirus. Nationwide more than 800 people have died.
"Of course I'm scared, but just by thinking that the cats would starve to death if we didn't go, I can't just leave them there," he said. Yang Ying, 50, an officer in Wuhan's urban management team who has four cats of her own, has also contributed to Wuhan Pet Life's efforts by checking in every three days on two other cat households.
Feeding the temporarily adopted felines of two perfect strangers every three days is no mean feat in the city, where private vehicles are still banned as a quarantine measure.
One house is 20 minutes away by foot and the other an hour. Yang does not want to risk using the city's shared bike system in case she becomes infected.
"I never met their owners in person or had any deeper interactions. They trusted me and gave their keys to me, and I need to be responsible and repay their trust," she said.
"When I arrived at first it was a mess. Things were all over the place and bowls for water were turned over. They were hiding when I entered so I could not see them," she said. She usually spends about one hour at each household, adding food and water and cleaning out litters.
Now she has become close to the cats who "come out and play with me".
"Honestly, it is tiring," she said, adding: "Of course I'm afraid. But if I dare to leave my house for work, I can leave my house for this as well. I see them as my own kittens, and treat this as a serious task."
Animals in some parts of China have also been caught up in spurious rumours that pets were exacerbating the virus's spread.
The number of abandoned pets has risen, according to several animal rights groups, while isolated reports of pets being killed have been circulated on the internet.
Many dog owners in Beijing and Shanghai have also rushed to buy face masks for their pets in the mistaken belief that the animals could catch the deadly virus.
During the SARS outbreak at the beginning of the century, false fears the virus could be spread by pets drove hundreds of people in China to abandon or even kill their pets.