With so much global attention focused on the dog meat trade in a handful of Asian countries, it’s important not to overlook the fact that there is a regional cat meat trade as well. The best one could say is that it’s smaller than the dog meat industry, thankfully. Otherwise, it’s got the same cruelties, the same suffering, and the same misery.

We’re just as determined to stop it, too, and last week, with our partner groups in China—CAWA and Vshine—we helped strike a big blow against the trade by assisting activists who had halted a shipment of 620 cats being trucked to a slaughterhouse. They’re all safe now.

On July 31, Chinese advocates in Nanjing spotted a truck filled with cats, which they reported to local authorities. The trader involved, aware of the risks of possible prosecution under food safety and other laws in China, surrendered all 620 cats.

On receiving a call for help, Humane Society International responded immediately by sending life saving funds and partner activists to help at the scene. Now, our attention is focused on the welfare and care of the animals. They’re in the custody of local animal protection groups, and some 100 of the cats are being looked after in a facility jointly maintained by Vshine Animal Protection Association and HSI. They will soon be ready for domestic and international adoption.

The cats are in poor physical condition and these vital days after a rescue are critical. Many display friendly behavior suggesting that they were stolen pets; some were wearing collars when rescued, and some had been spayed or neutered. We suspect they were held somewhere by the cat meat traders for weeks because many of them were dangerously thin and undernourished and at risk of dying of thirst.

In China, although dog meat is only eaten by a relatively small percentage of the population, consumption occurs to some degree or another within almost all mainland provinces. By contrast, cat meat consumption is more restricted to the two southern provinces of Guangdong and Guangxi (where the Yulin dog meat festival occurs). Like dogs shipped over great distances to the three main dog meat markets in China, cats typically are stolen pets or strays from urban residential areas. These stolen cats are shipped to Guangdong and Guangxi because the other dog meat markets (Central China and Northeast China) do not sell cat meat.

Nanjing, where the cat shipment was stopped, is a city of some 8.3 million people, with a reputation for progressive animal management practices. It was China’s capital city between 1927-1949 and the site of China's first animal protection organization (Nanjing Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) created in 1933 with strong support from China's first lady, Soong Mei-ling (Madame Chiang Kai Shek). In 2010, HSI co-sponsored a "China Dog Ownership Management Symposium" in Nanjing together with Animals Asia and Nanjing Ping An Animal Protection Association and the Nanjing Police Department.

The rescue of so many cats at once from an illicit trade that too few people know about is a great victory for the Chinese animal protection movement. Among other things, it is a strong signal to the authorities that the country's food processing industry should be placed under closer government supervision, and a wake-up call to Chinese consumers that they have reason to worry about what they might actually consume.