Chinese seek to pull cats from the menu

The gray tabby cat with hazel eyes and a white nose scrunched at the bottom of a stack of metal cages filled with rabbits, quail, pigeons and ducks, across the aisle from the buckets of turtles and scorpions in a narrow shop with as many live animals as a petting zoo.

If it was male or female, young or old, nobody seemed to know or care. All that mattered was its weight, 6 1/2 pounds.

After a few quick calculations, the shopkeeper offered to sell the cat for $1.32 per pound, about $9.

"We'll cut it up right here in back for you," the shopkeeper suggested, gesturing toward a bloodstained room.

The scene is routine at butcher shops in Guangzhou, the capital of Guangdong province, formerly known as Canton.

Although Cantonese cooking is known abroad for dim sum and won-ton soup, it is also recognized as the most exotic of the Chinese cuisines, serving up a veritable Noah's ark of species on the dinner plate. As a popular saying goes, the Cantonese will eat anything that walks, crawls, hops or flies.

But now fellow Chinese are drawing the line. Eating cat, they say -- that is just too disgusting.

"Cats are your friends, not food," read the banners carried at a demonstration last week at the Guangzhou train station, where protesters were trying to intercept a shipment of cats.

"Shame on Guangdong!" they chanted at another demonstration, held at the Beijing offices of the Guangdong provincial government.

Dog is eaten in many parts of China, but only in Guangdong do people eat cat. It is rare to see a stray wandering the streets. Many cats served for supper here are shipped down from the north.

The Small Animal Protection Assn. says one Guangzhou-based business captures up to 10,000 cats per day from different parts of China. The cat snatchers are typically formerly unemployed people who use large fishing nets and are paid $1.50 per cat.

"They've eaten all their cats so they have to take ours from Beijing. People don't want to let their cats go out on the street," said Zhao Ming, a 55-year-old physician who was among about 40 people demonstrating in Beijing.

The cat trade thrives in a seemingly boundless gray area of commerce. Police are reluctant to charge the cat catchers with theft because many of the cats involved live outside and, in the famously independent way of cats, are not technically owned by humans, merely fed and nurtured.

In the absence of police action, cat lovers are increasingly taking matters into their own hands.

When Shanghai activists got a tip in August that a truckload of cats was passing nearby on its way to Guangdong, they staged an ambush. About 11 p.m., they confronted the truck at a market, where the driver had stopped to rest, and tried to buy the cats.

When the driver refused, a standoff dragged on until the next afternoon. While some activists argued with the driver and police, others opened the back of the truck and released about 1,600 cats. About 300 cats were found dead.

Many of the rescue efforts are directed by Lu Di, a nearly 80-year-old woman who used to work for Mao Tse-tung, reading to the Chinese leader in his final years when his eyesight was poor.

"You can judge how advanced a civilization is by the way it treats its animals," said Lu, paraphrasing Gandhi. She founded the Small Animal Protection Assn., which she runs out of the Beijing apartment she shares with 15 cats, more than a dozen dogs, a quail, a pigeon and a monkey.

She picked up one cat with a fresh red scar running around its body caused by a wire that dealers wrap around cats to keep them from running away. Often, the cats are badly mistreated in their final moments, crammed as tightly as tomatoes into crates so they can't breathe, and clubbed into semiconsciousness before being thrown alive into boiling water.

"This is a crime that humiliates all Chinese people," Lu said.

Eating cats clearly has become socially unacceptable for many Chinese. When the Guangzhou-based newspaper Southern Metropolis Daily published an expose this month on a cat-snatching operation, it set off last week's demonstrations.

Chinese websites were filled with outrage.

"Guangdong people are the most unprincipled of the human species!" wrote one person. "They would eat their mothers-in-law if there was no law."

The dispute over eating cat cuts across the fault lines of Chinese society. Among the increasingly Westernized middle class, there is a fast-growing culture of cat fanciers who like them for cuddling, not eating. Restrictions on the size and number of dogs one can have as pets make cats popular pets in the city.

Inside Beijing's largest shopping mall, a dozen pampered felines recently lounged inside a huge display case of a pet store specializing in cats. Well-heeled shoppers strolled by oohing and aahing through the glass.

The pet store was a study in contrasts with the Yongxing- long food shop (the name means "Forever Prosperous") in Guangzhou. Butcher shops in these parts are not for the squeamish since much of the merchandise is sold alive and then butchered in front of the customers.

"Cat meat is good for women. You can eat it in the summer or winter. It is very light. Men usually prefer dog. It is like yin and yang. Cat is yin and dog is yang," said customer Jiang Changlin, who works for the local government.

He recommended that visitors try one of Guangdong's most famous recipes, "dragon fighting tiger," a dish made with both snake and cat, its distinctiveness coming from the competing power of the ingredients.

"Delicious!" Jiang said.

Still eager to sell the cat in the cage, the shop's manager, Tang Huacheng, suggested a simple recipe.

"You just have to boil the cat for a long time," Tang said. "It has a very nice, fresh taste."

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Epilogue

After some negotiations, this reporter bought the cat alive for the equivalent of $9. A cage cost an additional $10.

Guangzhou is a dense city with almost no place to leave a cat. A row of apartment houses next to an empty lot seemed like a good place. There were small restaurants at street level. People sat around a plastic table on the sidewalk playing mah-jongg.

The cat, its underbelly white and soft and its hazel eyes clear, appeared tame. It walked calmly to sit under a shrub.

"Oh, we really need a cat here," said one of the women gathered around. "There are mice in the empty lot."

Her accent indicated that she came from northern China, and many of the people around the neighborhood were migrant workers from outside Guangdong. They don't eat cats.

We can only hope for the best.

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barbara.demick@latimes.com

Eliot Gao and Nicole Liu of The Times' Beijing Bureau contributed to this report.

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