Her apartment in northwest Beijing looks like a small zoo with all its inhabitants: 43 cats, five dogs, three rabbits, three pigeons, a duck, an owl, and a monkey. But many of the animals are sick, injured or crippled.

Lu Di, the 79-year-old apartment owner, patiently cleans up the fur, feathers, and excrement that is splattered over the room. She gets up at 5 every morning to feed the animals, clean them, and take the sick ones to the veterinarian.

“It normally takes a whole day to finish my routine,” says Lu, head of the China Small Animal Protection Association (CSAPA) and a renowned advocate for animal welfare. The thin, hunched grey-haired lady was once a secretary to the late Chairman Mao Zedong on account of her expert knowledge of classical Chinese literature.

Born and raised in an intellectual family, Lu was 44 when in 1975, the 82-year-old Mao Zedong’s eyesight began to fail due to cataracts. Mao loved to read, especially classical Chinese literature and history. But the cataracts obstructed his vision and prevented his enjoyment of reading. Mao had a confidential secretary to read aloud Party documents, but that secretary found classical Chinese literature difficult to handle. Mao needed someone with a solid background in classical literature able to interact with him for this job.

A number of candidates were selected from Peking University’s Chinese literature department. From that group, Mao picked Lu, a teacher in the department.

Mao had read a selection of classical Chinese writings entitled “Anthology of Past Dynasties”, in which some of the articles were annotated by Lu. Impressed by Lu’s talent, Mao remembered her name. Lu’s four-month experience reading aloud to Mao and discussing classical Chinese writings with him won her nationwide fame.

She describes herself in the past as an elegant woman, who “often sat in a clean office, drinking tea and reading books.” Although she wants to write about Mao and classic Chinese literature, caring for the animals leaves her little time and energy.

“She could have lived a comfortable life like other old people,” says Zhong Liqin, a CSAPA staff member. “However, she has chosen a difficult one. “ Lu says she developed her emotional bond with small animals when she was a little girl — “I had ducks, cats, and dogs as pets at home.” As a middle-aged woman during the Cultural Revolution, she started saving injured animals.

“The political chaos left many families broken, and children’s pets homeless or abused,” she recalls. “I felt like I had to save them. All lives are equal, and we all live only once.” “I’ve seen too much cruelty to ignore the barbarian and uncivilized side of China. It became my mission to save abused animals and to awaken people’s conscience so they treat animals properly.” In 1992, Lu launched CSAPA, an NGO dedicated to animal welfare and animal rescue. Now China’s largest animal welfare group, CSAPA has an animal shelter in Beijing’s northern Changping District with more than 1,000 animals, mostly dogs and cats, in residence.

But as the number of animals Lu has rescued has grown, so has the anger of her neighbours. The smell of her apartment discourages visitors and annoys neighbours. Many of her workers feared infection and quit.

“It is admirable to care for small lives. But you can’t do that at the cost of other people’s welfare,” says a security guard in the neighbourhood.

CPASA’s Zhong says some neighbours took revenge by smashing Lu’s windows. They also threatened to kill the animals. Lu held talks with her neighbours several times but the problem remained unsolved. While the neighbours want the animals gone, Lu says they have nowhere else to go.

Lu says she has no choice because the animals are either sick or injured and need special attention. “The neighbours don’t understand and the security guards inspect my belongings to prevent me from smuggling animals into the building. I have been accused, humiliated and attacked, but I’m not worried. I’m very strong,” she says.

What does worry her is the cost of running the CSAPA. The 1,000-plus animals consume about 300 kg of pet food every day, costing up to 70,000 yuan a month.

With medical costs and staff pay included, the organisation needs at least 150,000 yuan a month. Lu struggles to get enough money, as member contributions and donations always fall short. She has already sold her furniture and car, and mortgaged her apartment.

Lu lives alone. Her husband died in 2004. Her daughter and son moved to the U.S. in the 1980s. Her son, a programmer at an IT company in America, sends money to Lu every month. He has been doing this since 1990.

“My son sends me $50,000 a year in recent years, and I spend it all on the animals. I don’t dare to tell him that I need much more. I’m his mother and my heart aches for my poor son. But I can’t stop what I have been doing,” she says.

Every time an animal looks into my eyes as if it is begging for help, I have to help. I will keep saving them as long as I’m still breathing.” To Lu, the abandoned animals are as innocent as children. She remembers their names and stories — “Each of them has a sad story.” Lu points to a female dog named Yong Chang. She was pregnant when Lu found her. The dog had only three legs, one of which was skinned up. “That was clear evidence of cruelty. China needs a law to punish those who abuse animals, otherwise the cruelty will never end,” she says.

Cases of animal abuse are not rare in China. In 2006, an online clip showed a woman stomping a cat to death. In 2002, a 22-year-old Tsinghua University student splashed sulphuric acid on bears in Beijing Zoo. Both cases drew public outcry, but the abusers were not punishable under existing Chinese law.

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