A 43-year-old native of Wuhan, a central Chinese city ravaged by a coronavirusoutbreak, said he climbed up rusty pipes to the third-floor balcony of anapartment to gain entry into the home of a middle-aged couple.

Lao Mao was no ordinary housebreaker – his mission was to feed two starvingcats trapped in the home for 10 days.

He found the animals under a sofa, barely alive. Lao Mao rang up their owners,who broke down and cried on the video call at the sight of their pets.

Their owners had gone on what was originally a three-day trip to the north buthad been unable to return, barred by travel curbs following the virusoutbreak, which has claimed the lives of more than 360 people in China.

They learned of Lao Mao, or “Old Cat” as his friends call him, from socialmedia and messaged him, pleading for help for their cats.

Wuhan, where the virus is believed to have first surfaced late last year, hasbeen in a lockdown since Jan. 23, just as tens of millions of people acrossChina started to leave for their Lunar New Year holidays.

Wuhan’s mayor told a recent news conference that 5 million people had left thecity ahead of the festive season.

Up to 50,000 pets had been left alone at home in Wuhan, Lao Mao estimated,based on the number of people who left the city in Hubei province.

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

“My phone never stops ringing these days. I barely sleep.”

Without intervention, the pets will starve to death. Many owners, either inquarantine or stranded in other provinces and countries, have sought help fromanimal lovers like Lao Mao on social media.

“My conservative estimate is that around 5,000 are still trapped, and they maydie of starvation in the coming days,” Lao Mao said.

Animals in some parts of China were also caught up in spurious rumours thatpets were exacerbating the virus’s spread.

The number of abandoned pets rose in the past week, according to severalanimal rights groups, while isolated reports of pets being killed circulatedon the internet.

Suichang, a small county in Zhejiang, the province second to Hubei with themost infections, on Friday ordered residents to keep their dogs at home. Dogscaught in public will be exterminated, county authorities said.

Many in Beijing and Shanghai also rushed to buy face masks for their dogs intheir mistaken belief that pets could catch the virus.

“I’m worried about my dog being hated by the neighbourhood,” said BeijingerWang Fengyun, who has a poodle.

“I haven’t found any pet masks, so I’ve made one myself with a paper cup.”

Source: Reuters Lusha Zhang and Ryan Woo

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