Around 600 cats stuffed into wooden crates and destined for dinner plates in southern China were rescued by animal protection volunteers after a truck crash, a volunteer said on Thursday.
Volunteers hauled the felines from the lorry on Monday after the accident in the central city of Changsha, said Xu Chenxin of the Changsha Small Animal Protection Association. About another 100 were already dead.
Pictures of the rescue, showing volunteers unloading the crates late at night, were widely shared on Chinese social media sites.
Many of the cats, which were white and plump, had escaped or died after being left out in the cold for more than 24 hours. The cats were "clearly" due to be served as food in southern China, Xu told AFP.
"It was easy to tell they were meant to be eaten, from looking at the crates you could tell their owners didn't care if they were alive or dead," Xu said.
"When I arrived, the truck was piled high with more than 50 crates. The cats had travelled for days, without water or food, and the smell was dreadful," he added.
The cats were "said to be heading to restaurants in Guangdong" province in the south, the state-run China Daily reported.
The volunteer group negotiated with one of the truck's drivers to buy the animals for 10,000 yuan ($1,600) and they were now awaiting adoption, Xu said. "We've already had inquiries from families across Changsha."
The cat rescue is not the first of its kind in China. A convoy of trucks carrying some 500 dogs to be sold as meat was stopped by activists on a highway in Beijing in 2011 and the animals rescued.
Cats are not commonly eaten in most parts of China but restaurants, particularly in the south, continue to serve the animal as food. The country does not have any laws to protect non-endangered animals.