While animal lovers in Beijing protested the killing of cats for food on Thursday, a butcher in Guangdong province - where felines are the main ingredient in a famous soup - just shrugged her shoulders and wielded her cleaver. "Cats have a strong flavor. Dogs taste much better, but if you really want cat meat, I can have it delivered by tomorrow," said the butcher, who gave only her surname, Huang.
It was just this attitude that outraged about 40 cat lovers who unfurled banners in a tearful protest outside the Guangdong government office in Beijing. Many were retirees who care for stray felines they said were being rounded up by dealers.
"We must make them correct this uncivilized behavior," said Wang Hongyao, who represented the group in submitting a letter urging the provincial government to crack down on traders and restaurants, although they were breaking no laws.
The protest was the latest clash between age-old traditions and the new sensibilities made possible by China's growing affluence. Pet ownership was once rare because the Communist Party condemned it as bourgeois and most people simply couldn't afford a cat or dog.
The protesters' indignation was whipped up by recent reports in Chinese newspapers about the cat meat industry. On Monday, the Southern Metropolis Daily - a Guangdong paper famous for its exposes and aggressive reporting - ran a story that said about 1,000 cats were transported by train to Guangdong each day.
The animals came from Nanjing, a major trading hub for cats, the newspaper said. They were brought to market by dealers on motorcycles, crammed into wooden crates and sent to Guangdong on trains. A photo showed a cat with green eyes peering from a crowded crate.
Some people in Nanjing spend their days "fishing for cats," often stealing pets, the report said.
One cat owner in Guanghzou said people are afraid to let their pets leave the house for fear they will get nabbed.
"It's never been this bad. Who knows, it might be because of the bad economy. I've heard that there are cat-nabbing syndicates from Hunan that are rounding up cats," said the man, who would only give his surname, Lai, because he feared the cat business might be run by gangsters.
Animal protection groups have occasionally ambushed truck convoys loaded with bamboo cages filled with cats bound for Guangdong. In one recent case, hundreds of cats escaped after their cages were opened, though hundreds more remained penned in the vehicle.
Lai Xiaoyu, who was involved in the attempted "rescue," said authorities couldn't stop the cat shipment because the traders said the animals were to be raised as pets.