NANPING, China — They may have escaped Wuhan — the Chinese city at the epicenter of the coronavirus epidemic — but many people had to go without their pets and almost two weeks on, they fear for their animals which have been left without food and water.
The city has been in a lockdown since Jan. 23 to stop the virus from spreading. The number of coronavirus deaths on mainland China rose to 908 Monday, and the number of confirmed cases to 40,171.
None of Wuhan's transport networks are running and most of its 11 million residents are confined to their homes by the virtual standstill.
Wuhan Mayor Zhou Xianwang said 5 million people had left the city before the restrictions began, leaving many pets trapped inside homes, with nothing to eat or drink.
Now groups of volunteers in the city are working around the clock to help the animals.
Lao Mao, the head of Wuhancat Animal Rescue Center, estimates there are at least 20,000 to 30,000 animals trapped in and around Wuhan with no one around to feed them.
He told NBC News that 100 volunteers from the center had saved more than 2,500 such animals since the lockdown began.
Getting access to people's homes is a challenge in itself in a locked-down city, he said.
Some pet owners have had to hand over passcodes for their digital locks, while others have asked volunteers to pick up spare keys elsewhere in the city. Some have even authorized locksmiths to let the volunteers in.
“A few days ago, I went to an apartment where the owner left a three-day supply of food and water for a cat,” Lao said. “When I went into the apartment and opened the door, the cat was so starved, so thin — already dehydrated, on the verge of dying. It drank the water for more than 10 seconds. But luckily, I saved it.”
Du Fan, the head of the Wuhan Animal Protection Association, said they have been inundated with around 3,500 requests for help since the lockdown began. They have now responded to 1,300 of those calls.
“We work around the clock, from 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.," he said. "When we return home, we have to make phone calls with people who need us to help the next day. We go to bed after midnight.”
Most of the calls they get are to feed cats and dogs, but requests have been made for reptiles, rabbits, birds and mini pigs, he said.
“Most of the owners have some spare food at home, so we just go to their homes and pour a 10-to-15 day portion. If their food is insufficient, we will provide our own food,” he added.
Occasionally, they also livestream the rescues so the pet owners can watch them in real time.
Chen Yi said he left Wuhan before the lockdown to visit his family in Yichun, a city in the neighboring Jiangxi province.
Chen, 25, said he left behind a four-month-old dog and a five-month-old cat in his apartment.
“I left around two pounds of food, enough for a week for my pets before I left Wuhan,” Chen said. “I was very concerned about my pets when I discovered Wuhan was sealed off and had no idea when I could come back.”
He said he initially sought help from animal protection groups in Wuhan, but eventually found a friend who volunteered to go in.
“My pets are just like my friends,” Chen said. “I felt like my friends were trapped and I couldn’t leave them there to starve. I had to try everything to save them."
There are also reports that some animals have been abandoned because of unsubstantiated rumors that pets can transmit the coronavirus.
Social media reports have even suggested pets are being thrown out from buildings amid the growing scare. However, NBC News could not independently verify those reports.
The World Health Organization said there is currently no evidence that companion animals or pets, such as cats and dogs, have been infected or have spread the virus.
Wang Daguo, in charge of the Zhongcheng Animal Protection Center in the city of Yichang, east of Wuhan, said they had taken four or five dogs that seem to have been abandoned since the outbreak began.
He has also seen online postings about stray dogs that wear clothes and seem fairly clean — likely abandoned because of the misinformation around the coronavirus.
He hopes pet owners will heed the advice from WHO.
“Pet lovers should trust science and not rumors," Wang said. "It’s meaningless.”
Dawn Liu reported from Nanping, China, and Yuliya Talmazan reported from London.