Nearly 400 Cats Rescued From Illegal Chinese Slaughterhouse After Tip-off From Heartbroken Pet Owner

A group of animal activists in northeastern China has rescued hundreds of cats destined to be killed at an illegal slaughterhouse in Tianjin, according to the Humane Society International (HSI).

The felines were discovered on December 1 by members of China Animal Protection Power (CAPP) after the group—which was formed with the help of HSI—received a tip-off from a heartbroken young man whose beloved cat had disappeared.

Read more: What will happen to these famous cloned monkeys?

When they entered the slaughterhouse, the activists found 24 wire cages containing 375 cats, many of which were emaciated and sick. Outside the building were piles of cat hair—the remains of likely thousands of felines that had already been killed at the site.

"The first three cages of the cats we saw were heart breaking," a leading member of CAPP, who identified himself only as Huang, said in a statement. "They were cages of misery. The hungry and sick cats cried louder when we approached them, as if asking us to help them."

CAPP had long suspected that there was an illegal cat slaughterhouse in this area of Tianjin's suburbs, however, it was only after the tip-off from the young man that they were able to pinpoint the location. The man's cat had disappeared two weeks previously and he was convinced that it had been stolen by pet thieves who snatch animals for the meat trade. While searching for his pet, he stumbled across the illegal slaughter operation.

"The problem of dog and cat theft is significant in China, and often angry pet owners take the law into their own hands to confront the thieves, and even physically assault them," Peter Li, China policy specialist at HSI, told Newsweek. "There have been instances where dog thieves have been killed. Without condoning that of course, the frustration of citizens is due to the complete lack of action by the police in many parts of China."

After the CAPP raid, news of the slaughterhouse's discovery spread on Chinese social media WeChat and Tianjin police received more than a thousand calls from across the country from people urging them to crack down on the illegal operation and save the cats.

"The way cats are killed for China's meat trade is notoriously brutal," Li said in a statement. "They are grabbed around the throat with large iron tongs and then beaten over the head with a metal or wooden stick whilst their terrified cage mates look on. Some may still be conscious when they are thrown into a pot of boiling water to remove their hair."

"After that they are disemboweled, beheaded and de-footed to disguise the species, before being shipped to buyers," he said. "This is the fate of an estimated 4 million cats a year in China, a mixture of stolen pets and urban strays. I have rescued cats from these slaughterhouses myself, and they are utterly grotesque places, often with piles of fur and pet collars thrown in the corner."

Cat meat is not generally marketed for sale in the region where the slaughterhouse is located. However, Chinese regions do supply cat meat for sale in the remote provinces of Guangdong and Guanxi in South China and some places in Sichuan and Hainan.

"In other provinces, cat meat has been suspected of being sold as mutton, rabbit or other meats to customers," Li said. "The majority of Chinese people do not eat dog and cat meat, however, it is a mistake to think this is part of the culinary mainstream for list people."

The dog and cat meat trade in China operates illegally because a large proportion of the animals are stolen pets and neither cats nor dogs are recognized as livestock.

But because there are currently no nationwide laws in China which explicitly prohibit the mistreatment of animals (some legislation does exist to protect the welfare of animals in certain contexts, such as zoos and research,) animal activists often use other examples of lawbreaking to persuade police to crack down on the illegal trade.

"Although there are no animal protection laws, China's dog and cat meat trade is a wanton violation of many other laws," Li said. "For example, the theft of companion animals is a criminal act according to China's Criminal Code, and dog and cat slaughter violates China's Food Safety Law that prohibits the killing for human consumption of animals from unknown sources, animals with illnesses, and animals that are dying of unknown causes."

"Most of the dogs and cats that our partner groups encounter in this trade are infected with disease, have shocking skin problems, and physical injuries," he added. "The transport of such large numbers of dogs across provincial borders also poses a recognised risk of rabies. The huge public health hazards implications of this trade and not sufficiently well understood in China."

The illegal operation in Tianjin is now under investigation by local police and the cats are being looked after by activists, who are now seeking to place them in shelters and homes in the city itself, as well as the capital Beijing about 80 miles away.

"CAPP activists negotiated with the local police department to confiscate all 375 cats who were signed over to Beijing's Capital Animal Welfare Association," Huang said. "We wanted not simply to save these individual cats, but to see the slaughterhouse permanently shut down, and to encourage the authorities to intensify action to crack down on all such illegal slaughter operations across the country."

"If the authorities enforced existing food safety, animal disease control, and property protection laws, we would see a huge decline in China's brutal dog and cat meat trade," he said. "A legislative ban on the trade is our ultimate goal, but we don't need to wait for that to make a difference. We just need police forces willing to act like this one in Tianjin."

According to Li, mainland China has witnessed an explosive expansion in the animal protection movement with thousands of advocacy groups, associations and rescue teams springing up in the last three decades.

"China's young people born in the 1980s and 1990s are very much like their counterparts in the West," he said. "These people are the least tolerant of animal abuse, and HSI proudly supports them. Growing up in much better economic conditions and being the single child of their families, they have lived with pets at home and are more friendly to animals."

"China is not a democracy," he added. "However, the animal protection movement does not challenge the political authority of the ruling Communist Party. As long as animal activists do not link animal cruelty with government policies or Party leaders, their operation is relatively safe. But, China has the world's biggest animal abuse industries: livestock farming, wildlife farming, zoos and aquariums and laboratory animals."

This article has been updated to include additional comment from Peter Li.

8edc841d-1654-4349-8b17-b4b052c933d8
An image of the cats in cages at the illegal slaughterhouse in Tianjin. Humane Society International