Although pet ownership is a relatively new phenomenon in China, there are an estimated 150 million pets across the country today, according to local media, with dogs most popular. China’s pet industry is projected to be worth $30 billion in 2020, with pet ownership popularized by celebrities like movie icon Fan Bingbing, who regularly posts pictures of dogs and cats to her over 60 million social media followers.
But mistrust in local officials, combined with a torrent of fake news surrounding the COVID-19 outbreak, have made animals an easy scapegoat. The virus is believed to have made the jump from an as yet unidentified animal—chief suspects are bats or pangolins—in a market in the central city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province. But there’s zero evidence that domestic animals aid its spread. The confusion has led to both cruel abandonment of animals and acts of heroism to save suffering pets from neglect and government culls.
The pet crisis is unsurprisingly worst in Hubei, where extremely harsh containment measures have been put in place. Because of strict travel restrictions, thousands of pet owners who planned to be away for a few days over Lunar New Year have been unable to return for weeks.