Meet China’s Ace Ventura, Pet Detective Sun Jinrong

SHANGHAI — On a freezing December night, three men rush into a downtown residential complex carrying a ladder, flashlights, and backpacks loaded with high-tech detection equipment.

The black-clad figures are here to meet their latest client, who called the team in distress just hours before. The woman, a Shanghai native in her 20s, says her loved one has been missing for days and she doesn’t know what to do.

Sun Jinrong, the lead detective, quickly establishes the target’s details: white, less than half a meter tall, around 4 kilograms in weight. Then, he begins sweeping the woman’s home for clues.

Sixth Tone spent an evening tailing lost pets with Shanghai-based pet detective, Sun Jinrong. By Daniel Holmes and Zhou Zhen/Sixth Tone

Within minutes, Sun spots a half-open window — the most likely escape route, he deduces. He heads to the complex’s security room to view surveillance footage of the building.

Just as he suspected, the recording shows a white cat dropping down from the window. Moments later, a couple from the same building carries it away.

Sun finds out which apartment belongs to the couple and heads straight there. Taking out his cat-hair detector, he bangs on the door. The suspects are caught red-handed.

The client repeatedly thanks Sun as he hands over her rescued pet and transfers 2,000 yuan ($285) to his bank account. The whole job has taken about 30 minutes.

For Sun, it’s all in a night’s work. Since 2013, the man who styles himself as China’s first pet detective has helped more than 1,000 pet owners track down missing cats and dogs.

Sun’s business has boomed in recent years as China has emerged as a nation of animal lovers. Nearly 100 million Chinese households now have a pet — up 44% since 2014 — and the country’s pet market grew over 18% year-over-year to reach 200 billion yuan last year.

In a 2019 survey, nearly 60% of Chinese pet owners said they viewed their pets as their children, and they’re increasingly willing to spend large sums to pamper their little four-legged emperors. High-end pet accessories, lavish pet funerals, and even pet cloning are all growing in popularity.

From his base in suburban Shanghai, where he lives in a rented house with his crew of 10 assistants, Sun now serves around 30 clients per month in cities across China. His fee for a Shanghai-based job starts from 800 yuan, while Beijing pet owners pay at least 8,500 yuan — including airfare and accommodation.

His fame has spread through word-of-mouth and a clever social media game. Each time he rescues an animal, Sun asks the owner to record a short video for his TikTok and Weibo social media channels. He now has 150,000 and 76,000 followers on the platforms, respectively.

The son of an air force mechanic, Sun grew up on a Chinese military base — an experience that taught him rigor and discipline, he says. In person, he exudes a poker-faced professionalism that helps him calm down often-emotional clients.

“Some cry on the phone and are still crying when they see me,” Sun tells Sixth Tone. “They regard me as their savior and place all their hopes on me.”

The 38-year-old moved to Shanghai with his parents from the neighboring Anhui province over a decade ago. He started his career working in a printing factory, volunteering at a pet fostering agency in his spare time.

At the agency, Sun’s role was to rescue strays and then arrange for them to be adopted. Occasionally, newly adopted cats and dogs would go missing, and Sun would help the owners search for them. He soon found he had a knack for it.

“It’s like they (the animals) are playing hide-and-seek with me,” says Sun. “I have to think about how to win the game.”

Owners began approaching Sun directly, offering to pay him to find their lost pets. In 2013, he decided to quit his factory job and become a full-time pet detective.

Success didn’t come overnight, however. Pets were still relatively rare in many parts of China at the time, and owners didn’t cherish their animals in quite the same way. “People hadn’t yet reached the point of being willing to pay to recover their lost pets,” says Sun.

For a long time, Sun couldn’t support himself financially and had to eat at his parents’ house to save money. His family, with their military background, struggled to accept his choice of profession. “They’re of a generation that doesn’t think anything to do with pets and animals is a real job,” says Sun.

In the early days, Sun had a hard time convincing potential clients to trust him. Many accused him of being a fraud, he says. But as he cracked more and more cases, he gradually built up a reputation.

“When the owners are reunited with their pets, they thank me with tears, laughter, and inarticulate exclamations,” says Sun. “Some have even gotten down on their knees.”

The detective takes his career extremely seriously. Over the years, he’s witnessed how the loss of a pet can deeply affect people’s lives: Clients have quit their jobs to search for missing dogs, while couples have started fighting and eventually divorced, he says.

He invests heavily in equipment that might be useful during a case. His minivan is stuffed with cat traps, night vision devices, monitors, and alarms with wireless transmission functions. The most expensive gadget — a life detector used by disaster rescue teams to locate survivors — cost over 20,000 yuan.

The former factory worker is also a devoted autodidact. He spent two years learning to imitate the calls of young birds to lure out hidden cats. When he’s not on duty, he reads books on psychology and zoology.

“Since I’m a pet detective, I have to learn more about animal behavior and the mentality of pet owners,” says Sun.

For Sun, the key to a pet detective’s success is learning the art of deduction. Whenever he arrives at a client’s home, his first move is to get a description of the animal, including its age, gender, breed, and whether it’s been neutered. “If it’s a senior husky, we know it won’t have run too far away,” he says.

Pet owners often fail to find their pets because they’re blinded by emotion, according to Sun.

“They say, ‘my baby is so smart; he’d never fall into a river or trap,’ or, ‘there’s no way my timid dog would cross the road by himself,’” says Sun. “It limits their search.”

When asked about his success rate, Sun says it depends on the specifics of each case. “If the dog is lost in a region where people have the tradition of eating dog meat, the chances of finding it are close to zero,” he says.

He’s learned to manage his clients’ expectations and stress that the outcome is always uncertain. “For the pet owners, it makes no difference if the odds of success are 40% or 80%,” he says. “To them, the pet is either found or it isn’t.”

The joy of success has faded over the years as it’s become routine, says Sun. But the memories of failed cases are still “painful.” If he isn’t able to locate a client’s pet, Sun will normally never speak with them again.

“We tend to let the owner heal by themselves, rather than bring back unpleasant memories,” says Sun. “We can’t and dare not offer any follow-up service, unlike other industries.”

Sometimes, however, cases resolve themselves naturally. The same December night that found Sun retrieving the white cat, the team failed to locate the feline of a Taiwanese resident nearby, despite looking for three hours.

Sun had tried everything to lure out the animal — which he sensed was hiding somewhere near the man’s apartment building — setting up a cage full of dried squid with two cameras trained on it. The cat, however, failed to appear, and the team finally gave up at 2 a.m.

Two days later, the man informed Sun he’d found the cat wandering around just outside the building’s entrance.

“A happy ending,” says Sun. “I hope my industry will disappear one day, because it’ll mean no more pets will be lost.”

Contributions: Zhou Zhen; editor: Dominic Morgan.

This article was published on Sixth Tone.

How COVID-19 Sparked a Silver Tech Revolution in China

SHANGHAI — Two months ago, Xu Wenyan didn’t even have a data plan on her phone. Now, the 62-year-old spends most of her day online.

Each morning, Xu orders groceries using a mobile app. Then, she listens to the news on her phone while cooking. Afternoons are for sharing photos of her freshly prepared dishes with her friends. After dinner, she and her husband often play around with a karaoke app, waiting eagerly for other users to comment on their performances.

Like millions of elderly Chinese, the spread of the novel coronavirus has forced Xu to embrace the digital world. As the country struggled to contain the virus, the markets, stores, and parks that she frequented in central Shanghai suddenly shut down — leaving her feeling helpless.

“I was really upset at first,” Xu tells Sixth Tone. “I didn’t even know how to deal with the meals, let alone find alternatives for other leisure activities.”

Though China’s cities are now slowly coming back to life, the country’s tech firms are hoping the lockdowns will prove to be a game changer, opening up a huge tranche of new users that were previously out-of-reach.

China has around 250 million people over 60, and this figure is expected to surpass 480 million by the middle of the century. In Shanghai, over one-third of residents are aged over 60.

In the past, Chinese seniors were far less likely to use digital services than younger generations. According to data released by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in 2018, some 60% of people over 50 watch videos on their smartphones and just over half have used digital payment methods like Alipay and WeChat Pay. Around one-third of the group use navigation and online shopping apps, while only one-quarter use ride-hailing services.

But internet companies have reported a surge in business from elderly users since the outbreak began, according to Duan Mingjie, founder of AgeClub, a consulting firm that advises brands on how to target older-age customers.

“Many of our clients have witnessed significant growth in (elderly) users and sales of some of their paid services have increased 50%-80%,” says Duan. “The quarantines have encouraged the aging population to use apps to meet various needs in life.”

The biggest beneficiaries have been online grocery companies. Customers have turned to delivery services in droves to avoid visiting crowded supermarkets — or because they have been banned from leaving their residential compounds, as has happened in several virus-stricken areas.

During Spring Festival — when China was uncovering hundreds of new infections each day — Alibaba’s online supermarket Hema reported that orders were up 220% year-over-year. Sales for competitors Miss Fresh and’s online grocery platform, meanwhile, were up 350% and 470% during the same period, respectively.

New business from elderly users appeared to account for a significant chunk of these increases. According to Alibaba, the number of grocery orders placed by users born in the ’60s was four times higher than normal during Spring Festival. Miss Fresh claims its number of users aged over 40 has risen by 237% during the pandemic.

Xu and her husband started using grocery-ordering apps in late January. There’s a wet market just a 10-minute walk from the couple’s home, and Xu says she enjoys shopping there. But she became reluctant to go due to the shortage of face masks in Shanghai.

“My daughter has been trying to talk me into buying groceries using apps for over a year, and now I’m finally open to it,” says Xu.

The couple downloaded five apps on their daughter’s recommendation. Initially, however, the services didn’t turn out to be as convenient as they’d expected. The massive number of orders being placed, combined with the shortage of delivery drivers during Spring Festival, made it difficult for Xu to get the goods she wanted.

“I set an alarm to place orders for each app in the morning,” says Xu. The earliest would go off at 4:30 a.m. “I could mostly get what I wanted,” she adds. “I even sent some stuff to my daughter, as she couldn’t get up that early.”

Before the pandemic, Xu estimates, less than 10% of her friends had tried buying groceries online. Now, she says, nearly all of them have experimented with it. On the messaging app WeChat, her contacts are continually sending each other links to new items on the apps and tips on how to get good discounts.

The elderly have turned to tech to meet other needs, too. Chen Xianhua, a retired accountant from Shanghai, tells Sixth Tone she’s been ordering medicine and consulting doctors via health apps during the crisis. Meituan, one of the country’s largest delivery platforms, reported orders for medication related to chronic diseases including high blood pressure, diabetes, and arthritis increased by over 200% during Spring Festival.

Chen and her husband have also become big fans of the short video platforms TikTok and Kuaishou, which they downloaded for the first time in February. Chen says they mainly watch funny skits, videos of cute dogs, and livestreams of shows on the apps, as well as news about the pandemic.

“The whole social atmosphere is quite depressing at the moment — we need to keep our sense of humor,” says Chen. “Without these apps, I don’t know how my husband and I would ever stay optimistic.”

For the tech giants, the question is whether their new silver-haired users will stick around after the pandemic subsides. Several of them have already laid out strategies to target the elderly, judging it to be a growth market.

Miss Fresh has announced plans to roll out new services and product categories for older consumers, after seeing the potential in the market over recent weeks. Alibaba has already started down this path, launching a special senior-friendly version of its Taobao shopping app in 2018.

Chen, who first tried ordering groceries online six months ago, says she still prefers going to the wet market herself, because she enjoys chatting with her neighbors and bargaining with the vendors. But she’s come to value the apps, especially when it’s raining or she’s feeling tired.

“At first, I had concerns,” says Chen. “But then I found the vegetables I ordered online to be just as fresh as the ones I personally pick in the market … The app offers me an alternative.”

The 65-year-old has also gotten hooked on some of the app’s extra features, such as the “what to eat and cook” section, which suggests new recipes to try. She’s even started posting her own recipes on another cookery app she recently downloaded, as she enjoys reading the comments posted by other users.

“I’m keen on being active online, because I don’t want to be behind the times,” says Chen.

AgeClub founder Duan says elderly consumers often describe going through a similar shift in mindset during his company’s focus groups.

“This pandemic will have a significant impact, as it’ll make many elderly people who didn’t previously use the internet form new online consumption habits,” says Duan. “Once elderly users get used to the internet, they find there is far greater choice online.”

Xu is no longer getting up before dawn to secure a delivery slot, but she still enjoys surprising her daughter with her newfound tech savvy.

“My daughter said it had never occurred to her that one day I’d be ordering vegetables for her online,” she says. “It makes me feel useful and up-to-date.”

This article was published onSixth Tone.