The air at Nanjing West Railway station was full of the wailing of cats as a trainload of the animals began their journey south on December 2. Pictures of the animals stacked one atop another enraged Internet cat lovers – especially once they learned they were bound for Guangdong province.
During the following three days, more than 5,000 cats made the trip south. Cats that survived the long train ride were to be skinned alive by local chefs for use in the region’s traditional dishes.
Netizens phoned Guangdong police on December 4 to ask them to halt the train. Police refused, stating the delivery company had filed the correct paperwork to transport live animals.
The fight against the abuse of domesticated animals has raged in recent years as more Chinese families embrace pet ownership. The “human flesh search engine,” the cyber-world’s lynch mob, rooted out one woman who posted photos of herself crushing cats with the heels of her shoes in 2006.
But cat meat remains in high demand with most supplies coming from a well-organized delivery system that sources cats in several provinces.
The Oriental Guardian reported that Guangzhou has received shipments of meat cats from Nanjing for more than 10 years. Dealers have only recently started using rail transportation. Roughly 1,000 meat cats enter the province each day.
In the suburbs of Nanjing, the kidnapping and sale of cats to meat suppliers has turned into an underground trade that supports many on the fringe of society.
So-called “catnappers” sell their prey to a local boss for 10 yuan per head – most catch as many as 20 cats each night. Local bosses manage a network of 10 or more catnappers and resell their purchases to larger meat suppliers.
Many in Guangdong believe that eating cat meat serves a traditional medicinal function, helping the body to eliminate excess humidity during the winter. Guangdong is infamous for its unorthodox culinary ingredients and is a frequent target of animal protection groups.
The domestic cat is not listed as a protected species by the Wildlife Conservation Association, meaning there is no legal barrier to ailurophagy. There are also no policies in place to protect strays, leaving police and government departments with no power to stem the trade.
Opponents have focused their efforts on limiting the number of strays available to catnappers.
“We have worked with 50 pet hospitals to sterilize stray cats and build a base for cat adoption,” said Yao Liyou, a spokesman for the Association for the Protection of Small Animals in Beijing.
“As far as I know there are no cats sold as meat in Beijing, but we have received calls from other cities which were seeking help with similar issues,” Yao said.