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Vietnam Can't Figure Out How to Deal With the Country's Appetite for Cat Meat

One smuggler recently got busted in Hanoi for transporting three tons of illegal felines that were bound for restaurants.

Just after midnight on Tuesday, police in Hanoi detained a truck smuggling three tons of live cats into Vietnam. The driver, a 30-year-old man named Hoang Van Hieu, admitted that the ill-begotten cats were bound for restaurants in the country, where cat meat is, in fact, a delicacy, especially in the provinces of Thai Binh and Nam Dinh, not far from Hanoi.

"After receiving a tip, we searched the truck and discovered the cats inside," Sky News quoted Dong Da district deputy chief of police Cao Van Loc as saying. "The owner, also the driver, said he bought the cats at the [Chinese] border area of Quang Ninh province. All of the cats were from China."

With an average adult weight of about ten pounds for a healthy domestic feline, three tons means we're talking hundreds of cats. The animals, crammed on top of one another in bamboo cages, were just the latest haul in a small cat-trafficking market that sources from nearby China, Laos, and Thailand to satiate Vietnam's appetite for kitty flesh.

Of course, Vietnam isn't the only nation to enjoy the occasional cat. Feral cats, strays, and captured pets have been consumed with some regularity in the Canton (Guangdong) region of China, South Korea, and parts of rural Taiwan. Some animal-protection publications suggest the Asian cat market consumes up to 4 million kittens a year. Whatever the number, a fixation on unconventional meats in Asia looms in the American imagination—though there's evidence eating cats and dogs is relatively common in other places, notably Switzerland.

The reality is that in most regions of the world, the market for cat meat is undergoing a mix of popular backlash and official clampdowns. Concerns about disease transmission from unregulated meat, cruelty (many cats are electrocuted, hung, beaten, or even cooked alive), and general sentiment toward kittens have led to outright (if poorly enforced) bans on the market in Japan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, and Taiwan. In 2010, animal rights groups in China proposed (but failed to push through) a ban on eating cat that would have fined consumers more than $700 (with a maximum 15-day jail sentence) and producers $1,500 to $75,000. Despite the failure of the bill, massive ad campaigns have emerged, playing on popular emotions and morality to advocate some kind of overhaul in the government's policy toward cat consumption.

Despite official government condemnation of unsanitary kitten meat and the promotion of the use of cats to control urban rats, shop owners in Vietnam continue to sell cat for up to $50 to $70 apiece—a rate that suggests high demand. Due to a lack of cat breeders who sell their charges for food and the extreme caution of pet owners in Vietnam, this demand appears to be encouraging smuggling from neighboring countries like China. And this most recent three-ton shipment far surpasses the 90-cat haul that came over the border from Thailand, which made regional headlines in 2013—a sign of the market's growth.

"A lot of people eat cat meat," Van Duang, a Hanoi restaurant owner, told AFP in 2014. "It's a novelty. They want to try it."

Maybe the novelty of cat meat will wear off, or popular sentiment will change as more locals keep cats as pets. But for now, the government's efforts to rein in trafficking have fallen pretty flat.

Hoang Van Hieu's three-ton haul earned him a $350 fine for carrying undocumented and illicit goods. But doing the math suggests this was only a fraction of what the merchandise would have netted him—potentially thousands of dollars. He may have lost one shipment, but a few hundred bucks versus the potential final payoff for any successful shipment is no real deterrent. It would be both easy and logical for him and others to continue trafficking despite the high-profile bust.

Ironically, the losers in this sting may not have been the cat smugglers or consumers, but the cats in Hoang Van Hieu's truck. Vietnamese law maintains that any smuggled products must be destroyed. There's some doubt as to whether or not the state will find a loophole for the cats given the sheer number of cats, but according to Sky News, Chief Cao Van Loc has indicated the cats will likely be killed as per protocol.

Follow Mark Hay on Twitter.