Shores native refocuses on helping people and pets in China
“We are struggling. We do what we can. Day after day, it changes; it’s surreal.
That’s the view of Erin Leigh, a native of Grosse Pointe Shores who has lived in Shanghai, China for the past 10 years.
The outbreak of COVID-19 in late 2019 was frightening, Leigh said, but as the city endures its worst outbreak since the virus began two years ago, the intensity escalated in the past month.
“It’s like something I never thought I’d see in Shanghai,” she said. “It’s surreal. It’s been my home for 10 years, so I’m very overprotective, but it’s a little disappointing.
Most of Shanghai’s 25 million people are confined to their homes. Those who test positive for COVID are taken to a centralized quarantine facility with little time to prepare.
The situation forced Leigh and her pet tech company, Spare Leash, to change direction.
Change of plan
Spare Leash was established in 2016, providing residents with in-home pet services. The business has grown over the years to offer, among other options, dog walking, house sitting, boarding, veterinary runs, dog training, pet taxi services and a pet insurance.
“We have a database of pet sitters,” Leigh explained. “The pet sitters are based on experience and location. They all interview with us, so on top of everything else they are vetted. We have to be very hands-on and safety first here because there is no There are no animal laws.Training and screening takes place before they arrive on the platform.
Pet owners sign up for services and are matched with nearby pet sitters.
Along with the change in severity of COVID-19 has come a change in the services offered. Leigh and her team set up a system to share information about pets left behind. A handful of Spare Leash administrators work around the clock, recording cases of animals in distress and their location, noting 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 – far too long to leave a pet to fend for itself.
“Shanghai dropped this bombshell on us,” Leigh said. “We used to have a few days between our tests where we could prepare and now they pick people up between 1 and 3 in the morning.
“…We now realize that they are taking people to institutions,” she added. “We saw a group of people who needed help, so we were able to plug in their addresses and find pet sitters nearby. Before they are quarantined, our animal sitters or volunteers can step in and help get the animal to safety.
Using a public Excel spreadsheet, pet owners record their concern for pets in need of care. A team of volunteers translates the advocacy, produces flyers and distributes them throughout the network.
“Groups of over 2,000 people get these flyers,” Leigh said. “The database alone is between 20,000 and 30,000 people.”
Although their efforts are streamlined, there have been obstacles along the way, including limited transportation.
“And every compound has guards,” Leigh explained. “The keeper could be outside, in front of the door, and the driver could be there doing a contactless transfer and the keeper can say, ‘No, that dog is not going out today. We spend hours talking to the guards, (telling them) if that dog, cat, bird, rabbit, hamster can’t get out, it’s going to die. We make it important, because animals, unfortunately, are not important to everyone here.
While pet owners may treat their pets as beloved members of the family, she continued, Shanghai has no animal welfare laws and as such , no penalties for those who mistreat animals. A recent and widely reported case of a healthcare worker euthanizing a dog on the street created an outcry, but went unpunished.
“It was a very sad day when this happened,” Leigh added. “Our requests for volunteers amounted to 500 a day. They increased by the thousands right after this happened. … It can’t happen again, so we have to be faster. Other volunteers came. It brought us together if anything.
“…Instead of waiting until the last minute, your test is positive and we get the dogs and animals to safety,” she added. “We can’t wait any longer. It’s just too big a risk.
Leigh fell in love with Shanghai while studying for her degree in public relations and communications, which she earned at Western Michigan University.
“My mom worked for General Motors and took a job in Shanghai, China, my senior year of college,” said the 2007 graduate of Grosse Pointe North High School. “As everyone was going to Royal Oak, Birmingham, Chicago, New York, I applied for a PR agency in Shanghai. I ventured out and we lived here together for three years. She came home and I stayed and it’s been 10 years now.
A trip back to Michigan, where she hired a college student to babysit her dogs, helped inspire Spare Leash.
“The services I was offering before (COVID) were a plus,” Leigh said. “You don’t want your dog to be alone. You want to treat your dog like family and get 24/7 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 charger breaks; we saw it happen. We can see the cat in the camera and it is slowly dehydrating, slowing down. If you didn’t have a pet sitter, this cat would be dead. Dogs, you can’t just leave a pile of food outside. Dogs don’t know how to ration themselves. It is absolutely crucial that everyone has a plan.
Spare Leash always saves animals, maybe even more so in today’s conditions. Donations are collected, but due to the confinement, a bank account to manage the funds has not yet been created.
However, Leigh said encouraging words were just as needed.
“People from all over are reaching out to us,” she said. “Since we’ve been confined, isolated, even just… someone saying, ‘We hear what you’re doing. We see you,’ that’s just a big (help).
“You can get tunnel vision,” she continued. “It’s been 21 days for me and I haven’t been out of the house. How long can we go on like this? The support has been amazing.
If Leigh has her way, she will no longer be confined or isolated. Although she has no official plans, she is ready to reunite with her family.
“I’m going home,” she said. “I definitely intend to go home and launch 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 increase three to five times more by the end of the year, so “this time the next year I could be in the same situation,” she said.
“But I gave everything I could give,” she added. “I’m going to ride this one and help out as much as I can. Now we have standards in place, volunteers know what to do, but I think I need to pass the torch and go home with animal laws and do something that I can actually have some control over.
Sean Cotton, Owner and Publisher
Jody McVeigh, Editor-in-Chief