Thousands of pets trapped in the epicentre of China’s deadly coronavirus outbreak are at risk of starving to death, according to animal rescuers and activists.
The warning comes as campaigners claim local governments have called for pet dogs and cats to be culled, due to discredited concerns they can be infected with the illness that began in the Hubei province city of Wuhan.
Wuhan’s mayor, Zhou Xianwang, recently told a news conference five million people had left his city ahead of the Chinese New Year.
Based on this figure, one man on the frontline of the rescue effort to save abandoned animals has estimated up to 50,000 pets have been left in Wuhan homes.
“My conservative estimate is that around 5,000 are still trapped, and they may die of starvation in the coming days,” said Lao Mao, not his real name.
“The volunteers on our team, me included, have saved more than 1,000 pets since 25 January”.
Mr Mao told reporters how he broke into one home – at the request of its owners – to feed two starving cats that had been trapped inside for 10 days.
The owners, who had left Wuhan for a three-day holiday but could not get back into the city due to travel restrictions, reportedly cried with relief over news their pets were safe.
Sky News understands Mr Mao chose not to reveal his real name as his family did not know he was “out and about” in the city.
Outside China, one person has died – in the Philippines – and there were at least 171 confirmed cases in 24 countries and regions.
The Humane Society International told Sky News it suspects the number of pets at risk of starvation in Wuhan is higher than Mr Mao’s estimate.
HSI spokeswoman Wendy Higgins said the organisation was also concerned about reports that local governments are ordering the culling of street and domestic dogs and cats.
Ms Higgins said these reports were coming from animal welfare groups on the ground in areas including Beijing, Tianjin, Shandong, Heilongjiang, Hebei, Wuhan, Shanxi and Shanghai.
“We are in regular contact with a network of about 35 or so animal groups through the Chinese social media channel Weibo, and we usually set the net wide, so it’s not a selective small area that’s relaying these reports,” Ms Higgins said.
“If the local authorities decide that dogs per say are a threat, I would be concerned for the welfare of both street dogs and home dogs.”
She said there had been no reports of actual culling, but that it would not be uncommon for China to take the “knee jerk response” of killing dogs “for very little provocation” for the assumed purpose of public safety.
The World Health Organisation has confirmed there is no evidence that pet dogs or cats can be infected with the virus.
Ms Higgins said animal welfare advocates in China are working to relay this information to the public and to rescue abandoned pets.
Author: Clare Sibthorpe