This picture taken on January 27, 2015 shows seized cages of live cats transported in a truck in Hanoi. Thousands of live cats destined "for consumption" were seized January 27 in Hanoi after being smuggled from China. Photo credit: AFP
Vietnamese authorities have buried thousands of seized cats -- many believed to have been alive at the time -- after the felines were smuggled from China to feed the nation's illegal cat meat trade.
A truck containing three tons of live cats crammed into bamboo crates was impounded January 27 in the Vietnamese capital Hanoi, with police initially undecided how to deal with the animals.
But on Wednesday, a police officer told AFP they had been buried in accordance with Vietnamese law on smuggled goods.
"The cats were from China, with no official origin papers and no quarantine," a policeman from the Dong Da district environmental police said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"Several of them had died, there was a terrible smell that could affect the environment and carried risks of future diseases," he said.
"Therefore, we culled them by burying them," he said, declining to confirm how many were alive at the time of burial.
Animal protection groups, who pleaded in vain for the cats to be spared, fear many of the creatures were alive when they were buried.
Other smuggled animals, including chickens, are routinely disposed of in a similar way.
The Asian Canine Protection Alliance, a regional coalition of animal rights groups, said it had heard "inhumane stories as to how the (cats) may have been destroyed".
"Our request for any visual evidence of their fate has been denied," the group said in a statement Wednesday, calling for the "practice of inhumane killing of trafficked animals" to be stopped.
Photographs of the cats crammed into dozens of bamboo crates stacked on top of one another prompted widespread calls for the felines' lives to be spared.
One petition on change.org urging Vietnamese authorities "to change their animal handling policies" had garnered more than 23,000 signatures from across the world by Wednesday.
But Professor Dang Huy Huynh, chairman of Vietnam's Zoology Association, said the cull was necessary to prevent the spread of disease and deter future smuggling.
"The best way to cull the illegally imported animals is burning them. But this might cost more, so authorities may choose to bury them alive -- still complying with procedures in accordance with laws," he said.
Vietnamese authorities could also have checked all the animals individually for disease before deciding whether to cull them, he said.
Either way, "we do not want these animals to be on the dining table at restaurants," he added.
Cat meat, known locally as "little tiger", is a delicacy in Vietnam and although officially banned it is widely available in specialist restaurants.
Vietnam has long banned its consumption in an effort to encourage cat ownership and keep the country's rat population under control.
But there are still dozens of restaurants serving cat in Hanoi and it is rare to see cats roaming the streets as most pet-owners keep them indoors or tied up fearing they could be stolen.
Such is the demand from restaurants that cats are sometimes smuggled across the border from China, Thailand and Laos.
Cat meat is not widely eaten in China but can be found at some restaurants, particularly in the south.
Vietnamese customs officials routinely seize large volumes of dead animals, including tigers and pangolins, smuggled into the country for use in traditional medicine or specialty dishes.