Volunteers unloaded some 160 puppies and kittens from the truck they intercepted in Chengdu.
Fodian Shipin/ Weibo
  • Animal rights activists in China found 160 puppies and kittens being transported in a shipping truck.
  • The animals were being shipped in "mystery boxes" sold by a Chengdu animal breeder on Chinese shopping site Taobao for $1.50.
  • Many of the animals starved and suffocated as they made a cross-country journey to customers.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Outrage over the sheer cruelty of animal "mystery boxes" sparked on Chinese social networking site Weibo after some 160 distressed and dying puppies and kittens were found in the back of a Chinese delivery truck.

According to the Weibo account of Chinese animal rescue group Chengdu Aizhijia Animal Rescue Center, volunteers intercepted a delivery truck in Chengdu, a city in the southwestern Sichuan province, and found around 160 crates containing dogs and cats.

Footage from the scene showed crates full of squealing puppies and yowling kittens piled on top of each other in tightly-covered boxes.

The center believes that the boxes of animals were on their way to customers who had purchased kitten and puppy "mystery boxes" for a special promotion price of $1.50.

"This is cruelty. The pets are barely breathing," said a volunteer in a video.

The center said in a Weibo post that the crates did not contain food or water and that several animals had died in transit. The organisation also estimated that most of the dogs and cats recovered in the operation were between one and three months old, and barely weaned.

The courier company in charge of the intercepted shipment, ZTO, posted a notice on Weibo apologizing for the incident, noting that the manager in charge of courier services in the Sichuan region had been disciplined.

The company added that it would step up training procedures, and look into how to "protect animals," but did not say if it would ban the transport of live animals entirely.

As of Thursday, the Chengdu Aizhijia Animal Rescue Center has transported most of the animals back to its home base, where it says it will find suitable homes for the animals. The group also announced that around 38 animals were sent to vets for medical treatment, as volunteers suspect they may have contracted diseases or been injured in transit.

As the original listing has been deleted, it is currently unclear where the Chengdu-based seller sourced the animals from - but the rights group managed to track the shipment after spotting the 9.90 CNY-per-mystery-box promotion on Taobao - a shopping platform similar to Amazon.

A report in January by local news outlet Zhejiang Zaixian noted that the Chinese postal service began clamping down on animal mystery boxes in late 2020 when web users noted a sudden surge in the number of animal mystery boxes being sold on e-commerce platforms.

A local animal rights group based in Beijing called Protecting the Voices of Asian Animals told Insider that they had noted an uptick in the number of animal mystery box listings on e-commerce platforms this year.

"It started with mystery boxes for things like shampoo and beauty products, but animal breeders started employing it as a way to sell more animals for cheap," the group's representative, Liu Zexin, told Insider.

Lin said that it was impossible to estimate the total number of sellers who were peddling the mystery boxes online.

"China is a big country. If you shut one down, another will pop up under another name. The craze will not stop until the e-commerce platforms step in, or if people boycott the boxes. I am not optimistic, as the appeal of buying a cute animal for such a low price is irresistible to some customers," Liu added.

According to news site Sohu, while Taobao does not govern the sale of live animals, there is a blanket ban on shipping live creatures in the country. Sohu reported that Lin Junhai, deputy chief of the Chinese Consumer Association, called on Taobao to step up and exercise more oversight.

"Platforms like Taobao should take responsibility for the humane treatment of animals. I ask e-commerce platforms to be watchful of such animal mystery boxes and to acknowledge the ethical problems that the animal 'mystery box' business creates," Lin said.

Taobao did not immediately reply to a request for comment from Insider.

Weibo users call for a boycott of animal mystery boxes

The discovery in Sichuan led to widespread anger on Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). Weibo users protested against the extreme cruelty and called for the Chinese government to put an end to the sale of live animals on shopping platforms, and for customers to boycott the boxes.

In a post that was re-blogged around 60,000 times, one Weibo user pointed out that the trade of live animals in mystery boxes was not new.

"People have been buying this on Taobao ... for a while. A lot of the animals get there, and die within a week because of the cruel treatment during transit," Weibo user Lingshihshaonv wrote - providing multiple screenshots of animals that arrived dead or seriously ill.

Trades continue despite Taobao clampdown

A puppy in an animal mystery box discovered in Sichuan gasps for air when rescuers cut the box open.

As of Friday morning (Chinese local time) all listings of "live creatures" or "live animal mystery boxes" had been pulled from Taobao, but screenshots of listings from earlier this week showed a wide range of animals were being sold.

A "tortoise mystery box," for instance, only cost $.50. "European rabbit breeds" were seen going for $4.50, while another mystery box for puppies cost customers $3 per box, and promised "no local dogs, American breeds only".

Conversations on Wechat between potential buyers and sellers of these "mystery boxes" indicated that sellers who had their listings pulled from Taobao were still happy to ship out animals - for a price.

In screenshots of conversations seen by Insider, a seller based in Jiangsu province in China messaged his customers this week outlining caveats and disclaimers that said he could not guarantee if certain animals would "get there alive".

"We are trying to improve our processes, but we can't guarantee that the pets will get there 100% alive. If there happens to be an accident, you might be disappointed," said the man, who customers only knew as "Zhao the pet seller".

Zhao then goes on to outline his refund policies in the event that the animals die in transit.

"Hamsters - if they die, I'll give you $2, or send you another one. As for dogs and cats, I guarantee they'll be alive when they get to you, but if something happens on the day you receive them, I'll send you another item within a week," he said.

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