Small group rescues animals during lockdown in Shanghai


The lockdown in Shanghai raises two tough questions for animal lovers: who feeds the stray cats and dogs on the streets, and who takes care of the pets at home when their owner is sent to a hotel or quarantine camp? Lee-Anne Armstrong is one of many people working to solve both of these problems.

Armstrong is the executive director of Second Chance Animal Aid, a non-profit organization based in Shanghai. Second Chance operates a “virtual animal shelter” that places animals with foster families while also finding adoptive owners.

In an interview with Sixth Tone’s Wu Peiyue, Armstrong shares how her team continues to help stray animals and pet owners. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Born from SARS

I’m from Canada and the desire for change and new opportunities drew me to Shanghai in the summer of 2004. My intention was to stay two or three years. So much for the best plans!

I joined Second Chance Animal Aid (SCAA) in 2005. It was founded in the same year by a friend of mine who has decades of NPO experience. The reason was simple. It was then that I discovered that I was a magnet for needy, homeless animals almost everywhere in Shanghai!

One of the best contributions an organization like SCAA can make is sharing our experience to help local residents who are concerned about endangered animals. It is frustrating that with such rapid development, Shanghai still has no animal welfare infrastructure. SCAA is part of a collective of animal rights activists trying to bring about change.

SCAA dogs and customer pets safely on board at SCAA’s vet partner PAW, Shanghai, April 2022. Courtesy Lee-Anne Armstrong

The lockdown has highlighted the challenges of being physically and financially responsible for so many foster animals in so many volunteer homes spread across most of Shanghai’s districts.

Ironically, it was the first SARS outbreak that provided part of the impetus for SCAA’s “virtual shelter” network of nursing homes. But no one could have foreseen the harsh reality of our current situation.

Pets and rescue workers in individual homes were at greater risk of starvation and harm than we imagined. The danger of an animal’s only caregiver being taken away or our homes being sprayed with toxic chemicals while potentially helpful neighbors remain locked away is a widespread and ever-changing risk.

After seventeen years with the same formula, SCAA needs to reconsider the best way forward. Luckily, the lockdown has also highlighted how much community resources have grown, from more individual rescuers, veterinary clinics, boarding schools and animal-focused support groups across multiple social media platforms.

Adapting to the lockdown

The original way of helping cats and dogs has stopped working during the recent lockdown. When pet owners or foster parents have had issues that they sometimes desperately needed help with, you can feel helpless when we’re all stuck inside.

But we adapted to the new challenges as quickly as possible.

The severity of lockdown restrictions means accessing and sharing information has become the top ways to help pets and rescue workers. Only when people know what resources and strategies have worked for others in similar situations can we reduce the risk for all pets and owners.

A screenshot of Armstrong's dog walking order on their premises with one person allowed to be outside during the lockdown.  Courtesy of Lee-Anne Armstrong

A screenshot of Armstrong’s dog walking order on their premises with one person allowed to be outside during lockdown. Courtesy of Lee-Anne Armstrong

The indispensable collective that helps pets be fed, receive medication and – where necessary – be safely transported when caregivers have been placed in quarantine comprises a network of veterinary clinics that work through online consultations, pet food suppliers, boarding kennels, volunteers and Contacts, WeChat groups, cleaning staff and drivers with “disease passports” are employed in order to be legally on the road.

For homeless animals like garden cat colonies, we have asked some security guards and cleaners to help feed them. Our frequent nucleic acid testing outings are opportunities to walk dogs and feed strays.

task of the city

Heartwarming videos and photos of volunteers in hazmat suits walking dogs and feeding cats gave many of us hope that Shanghai was weathering this lockdown crisis better than other cities.

However, many of the success stories of stranded pets finally being given food and water after owners have been quarantined are the result of social media’s embarrassment to property managers and neighborhood committees. Despite being able to access pet owners’ homes on private requests, many connections and community leaders initially refused until public pressure from requests to Weibo or WeChat to disclose pet owners’ home addresses and sometimes the committee’s contact number changed their minds. For some pets it was too late.

Although official communications are clear that people in the strictest lockdown are banned from walking pets, that means different things to different authorities. Some tolerances are given.

We see many variations even within the same sub-district. Some connections are adamant that pets cannot go out. Some compounds organize dog walks by dedicated volunteers in hazmat suits, while others simply turn a blind eye to a quick dog walk away from everyone else outside.

After I reached the city’s 12345 hotline, they kindly attempted to organize help for our residents’ dogs. When the volunteer promised by the city (twice!) was never actually used by our local unit, I was fortunate to find discreet help from staff who were allowed to be outside on our campus.

Clear, consistent, and sensible pet-handling policies would save everyone a lot of stress, time, hassle, and unwanted social media presence. If things can be done after so much persecution and public pressure, there is obviously a quicker, less painful way to get it done.

Publisher: David Cohen.

(Cover photo: Kittens Holden and Phoebe. They were rescued from a locked car as grid test lock-ins began in March, Shanghai, April. Courtesy Lee-Anne Armstrong)


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