Decision to euthanise 154 cats found in smuggling operation sparks outrage in pet-loving Taiwan

A decision by Taiwan authorities to euthanise 154 cats found in an attempted smuggling operation has sparked outcry and calls to change laws and increase penalties.

Coast guards intercepted a fishing vessel from Sjina on Thursday about 40 nautical miles off the coast of Kaohsiung, on Taiwan’s southern tip. After Covid screening, officials boarded the fishing boat the following day and discovered 62 cages containing the cats, including Russian Blue, Ragdoll, Persian American Shorthair, and British Shorthair breeds.

The animals were estimated to have a value of $10m New Taiwan Dollars (US$357,504). All were put down on Saturday, which also happened to be International Homeless Animals Day.

Government officials said they made the decision to euthanise all the cats as their origin was unknown and they posed a biosecurity risk, but the drastic measure prompted an outpouring of grief and anger among Taiwanese people and animal rights groups.

Taiwan has a high rate of pet ownership and a booming industry around caring for them, including accessories like prams and services like pet psychics. The news of the 154 cats, which lead many local outlets’ “most-read” lists, was also accompanied by photos of the cages all lined up in a government facility, and some close up images of kittens, prior to their destruction.

The outcry prompted a public statement from Taiwan’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who herself owns two cats which are frequently shown in her social media posts.

Tsai said she was saddened by the event, but blamed the deaths on the smugglers and urged the public to understand the need to prevent the inadvertent importation of diseases in smuggled animals. However she also said amendments to current law should be considered to allow for more humane approaches.

In tens of thousands of comments, many Taiwan residents questioned why the cats couldn’t go into quarantine or be treated. Much of the anger was directed at the smugglers, while some commenters questioned the ferocity of the outcry over pet cats compared to the culling of other species for biosecurity reasons. Others urged people to learn from the incident and adopt their pets instead of seeking out prestigious breeds.

Chen Chi-chung, head of the government’s agriculture council, stood by the decision and took full responsibility.

“Even after quarantine, these cats could still carry … diseases due to the long latency periods of viruses, which could pose a major threat to pets and farm animals in Taiwan,” Chen said, according to the Taipei Times.

He said they were working with the Ministry of Justice to increase penalties for animal smuggling, flagging an increase of fines for selling animals from unknown sources to at least $3m.

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