China's nascent animal rights movement claimed a rare and bloody victory today after rescuing more than 400 cats that were about to be slaughtered for their fur and meat.
The felines were saved from a market in Tianjin after a standoff last week between 100 pet lovers and police that left one protester hospitalised.
Until recent years, respect for animal rights was almost non-existent in China, where dogs, cats, birds, lizards and turtles are often displayed in cramped market cages, before being slaughtered - sometimes by being beaten to death.
But the country's rising affluence has brought with it a pet-pampering middle class, many of whom think of dogs as man's best friend rather than a popular item on a restaurant menu.
Activists are becoming bolder, posting video footage of cruel treatment on Youtube and staging protests.
Last November, 500 pet lovers in Beijing staged a noisy demonstration against a police cull of dogs and new limits on pet ownership - both introduced to halt the spread of rabies.
In the latest confrontation, 100 supporters of the "Love Kitty" group in Tianjin surrounded a market, where cats and dogs were being slaughtered. Many of the protesters were local people who had lost their pets and suspected the animals had been abducted by furriers.
The police refused to support the animal protection group because there is no law in China against killing cats and dogs, and all the animal traders were licensed.
Lu Di, director of the Small Animal Protection Association, described the confrontation that followed: "The demonstrators were afraid that the killings were continuing behind the closed doors so they made their way inside. They found cats crammed inside tiny wire cages about 10 cm high. About 80 police officers arrived and there were scuffles. One man suffered a head injury and is still in hospital."
To avoid further clashes, the Hebei provincial government allowed the cats to be taken to Lu's shelter in Beijing. But it has been difficult for her small, non-profit organisation to cope with so many maltreated animals. Of the 444 cats that were initially saved, 19 have died.
"We don't have enough money, food or medical care so we are calling for help," said Lu.
Her fellow volunteers want the government to take steps to prevent a recurrence. "In China, there is no law to protect animals," said the association's vice-director Zhang Dan.
"This is unacceptable. Even poor countries in Africa have such laws. We are petitioning the National People's Congress to make new legislation."
Attitudes to other animals may also need to change. Less than a week before the start of the Chinese Year of the Pig, the local media reported the maltreatment of hundreds of swine that were not allowed to be tended because of a lease dispute.
"Most pigs were so hungry and thirsty that they were not even able to stand and only huddled together, with some piglets lying lifeless," the Yangcheng Evening News said.
400 cats rescued in Chinese city