Chinese activists who fight the dog and cat meat trade see some pretty horrible sights in their work, and this is no less true of a recent rescue of 150 cats who were lured and trapped by thieves using wild-caught sparrows as bait.

According to police—who arrested members of a gang in the city of Jinan, in east China’s Shandong province—the cat thieves caught curious local pets and community cats by placing the flapping and chirping sparrows inside a wire bag within a remote-controlled trap. Thanks to a tip-off from activists, police found 31 sparrows—a protected species in China—at the scene, along with seven cages crammed with 148 cats. (Two kittens were born post-rescue.)

It’s always gratifying when lost cats can be reunited with their families—and in this case, it’s miraculous. Two Jinan residents identified their stolen pets among the caged cats, according to the Chinese animal protection group and partner of Humane Society International, Vshine, which is coordinating the post-rescue accommodation and care of the rescued cats.

Much of the trade in cat and dog meat relies on illegal activity such as theft, illegal slaughter and breaches of animal transport and quarantine laws.

Just like dogs, cats undergo terrible suffering in the meat trade in China. An estimated four million cats are killed each year for this brutal trade. When these cats were discovered, they were overheated, exhausted and crying out from their cages.

Most people in China don’t eat cat or dog meat, and there is growing opposition to the cat and dog meat trade in the country, especially as concern for animal welfare grows. If police hadn’t stepped in, these 150 cats would most likely have been driven for hundreds of miles across China to be killed in markets and slaughterhouses in the two provinces in southwest China where cat meat is eaten.

China has no national animal protection laws under which to prosecute the gang for cruelty to the cats, but the Chinese law prohibiting possession of protected sparrows made possible the arrest of the gang members. And because at least two of the cats were confirmed by residents as stolen pets, the thieves could also be charged with violating property theft laws. Much of the trade in cat and dog meat relies on illegal activity such as theft, so it's important to acknowledge the good work of police like those in Jinan when they crack down on the illegal activity that allows the trade to continue.

These cats are currently receiving veterinary care and recovering at local shelters. In the coming days, the shelters will attempt to identify more owners who might have had their cats stolen. With any luck, more cats will be reunited with their families.

The 29 surviving sparrows have already been released back into the wild. And the fight to end the cat and dog meat trade continues. Encouraged by this successful rescue, activists in Southeast China’s Jiangxi province helped local police to intercept a truck on August 28. Some 1,900 stolen cats were rescued. You can make a donation to help.

Follow Kitty Block on Twitter @HSUSKittyBlock.