Photos courtesy of Erin Leigh Erin Leigh and her rescue dog, Zoe.
“We’re scrambling. We’re doing what we can. Day by day, it’s changing; it’s surreal.”
That’s the viewpoint of Erin Leigh, a Grosse Pointe Shores native who has lived in Shanghai, China, the last 10 years.
The onset of COVID-19 in late 2019 was scary, Leigh said, but as the city is undergoing its worst outbreak since the virus began two years ago, the intensity has escalated the past month.
“This is like something I never thought I would witness in Shanghai,” she said. “It’s surreal. This has been my home for 10 years, so I’m very overprotective of it, but it’s kind of disappointing.”
Most of Shanghai’s 25 million residents are confined to their homes. Those who test positive for COVID are taken to a centralized quarantine facility with little time to prepare.
The predicament has forced a change in focus for Leigh and her pet tech company, Spare Leash.
Change of plans
Spare Leash was created in 2016, offering in-home pet services to residents. The business has grown over the years to offer dog walking, house sitting, boarding, veterinarian runs, dog training, pet taxi services and pet insurance, among other options.
“We have a database of pet sitters,” Leigh explained. “Pet sitters are based on experience and location. They all go through an interview with us, so on top of everything, they’re verified. We have to be very hands-on and safety first here because there are no animal laws. Training and screening happen before they come on the platform.”
Pet owners sign up for services and are matched with pet sitters nearby.
All Spare Leash pet sitters need to perform contactless handovers wearing personal protective equipment in order to transfer a pet while its owners go into quarantine camps.
With the shift in severity of COVID-19 came a shift in services offered. Leigh and her team pulled together a system to share information about pets left behind. A handful of Spare Leash administrators work 24 hours a day, recording cases of distressed pets and their locations, making note of the most urgent cases.
When Shanghai residents test positive for COVID, they have 20 minutes to gather their belongings before being transported to a quarantine facility. Quarantines typically last 14 to 20 days — much too long to leave a pet to fend for itself.
“Shanghai dropped this bomb on us,” Leigh said. “We used to have a couple days between our tests where we could prepare and now they’re scooping people up between 1 and 3 in the morning.
“… We now realize they’re taking people to facilities,” she added. “We saw a bunch of people who needed help, so we were able to plug in their addresses and find pet sitters nearby. Before they’re taken to quarantine, our pet sitters or volunteers can step in and help take the pet to safety.”
Using a public Excel spreadsheet, pet owners note their concern for pets that need care. A team of volunteers translates the plea, makes flyers and posts them throughout the network.
“Groups of over 2,000 people get these flyers,” Leigh said. “The database alone is 20,000 to 30,000 people.”
Though their efforts are streamlined, there have been roadblocks along the way, including limited transportation.
“And every compound has guards,” Leigh explained. “The sitter could be outside, in front of the gate, and the driver could be there doing a contactless hand-over and the guard can be like, ‘No, this dog’s not going to come out today.’ We spend hours talking to guards, (telling them) if this dog, cat, bird, bunny, hamster can’t get out, it’s going to die. We’re making it important, because animals, sadly, aren’t important to everybody here.”
While pet owners may see their pets as beloved family members, she continued, Shanghai has no animal protection laws and, as such, no penalty for those who mistreat animals. A recent, widely reported case of a healthcare worker euthanizing a dog on the street created an uproar, but went unpunished.
“It was a very sad day when that happened,” Leigh added. “Our volunteer requests were at 500 a day. They went up by thousands right after that happened. … This cannot happen again, so we need to be faster. More volunteers came. It brought us together if anything.
“… Instead of waiting until the last minute, you test positive and we’re taking the dogs and animals into safety,” she added. “We can’t wait anymore. It’s just too big of a risk.”
Leigh fell in love with Shanghai while studying for her degree in public relations and communications, which she earned from Western Michigan University.
“My mother worked for General Motors and took a job position in Shanghai, China, my senior year of college,” the 2007 Grosse Pointe North High School grad said. “As everybody was going to Royal Oak, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, I applied for a PR firm in Shanghai. I ventured out and we lived here together for three years. She went home and I stayed and it’s been 10 years now.”
Before and after photos of Miles, one of the dogs Leigh rescued. Top, Miles was abandoned in a cage a day before lockdown. Above, Leigh took him in and he has been thriving ever since.
A trip back to Michigan, during which she hired a student to watch her dogs, helped inspire Spare Leash.
“The services that I was offering before (COVID) were a perk,” Leigh said. “You don’t want your dog to be alone. You want to treat your dog like a family member and have 24-7, around-the-clock care. It’s like hiring a babysitter. Now it’s life or death. You cannot leave a cat with an automatic cat feeder and water. The feeder breaks; we’ve seen it happen. We can see the cat in the camera and it’s slowly getting dehydrated, slowing down. If you didn’t have a pet sitter, that cat would have been dead. Dogs, you can’t just leave a bunch of food out. Dogs don’t know how to ration. It’ absolutelys crucial that everybody have a plan.”
Spare Leash still rescues animals, perhaps more so under current conditions. Donations are being raised, but because of the lockdown, a bank account to manage the funds has yet to be established.
However, Leigh said encouraging words are just as necessary.
“People from all over are reaching out,” she said. “Since we’re in lockdown, in isolation, even just… someone saying, ‘We hear what you’re doing. We see you,’ it’s just a big (help).
“You can get tunnel vision,” she continued. “It’s 21 days for me and I haven’t been out of the house. How long can we keep this up? The support has been amazing.”
If Leigh gets her way, she won’t be subjected to lockdown or isolation much longer. Though she has no formal plans, she is ready to reunite with family.
“I’m coming home,” she said. “I definitely have plans to come home and start Spare Leash in the US I want to thank everyone for the support and I will see everyone, hopefully by the end of this year.”
However, she added, health officials have indicated they expect COVID to spike three to five more times by the end of the year, so “this time next year, I could be in the same situation,” she said.
“But I’ve given all I can give,” she added. “I’m going to ride this one out and help as many as possible. Now, we have standards set in place, the volunteers know what to do, but I think I need to pass the torch and get home with some animal laws and do something I can actually have some control over.”
Sean Cotton, Owner & Publisher Jody McVeigh, Editor in chief