Beijing — At least 5,000 pets were found dead in cardboard shipping boxes last week at a logistics facility in Central China, likely casualties of a miscommunication in the supply chain of China's thriving mass-breeding industry. Only a couple hundred animals were saved, and authorities have launched an investigation into the grim discovery in Henan Province, a local animal rescue group told CBS News on Wednesday.
"The station was cluttered with express boxes with thousands of animals that had already died, and the entire place reeks of rotting bodies," said Sister Hua, the founder of animal rescue group Utopia. She doesn't use her real name, saying she prefers to keep attention on the animals rather than her personally.
"It was like a living hell," she told CBS News in a phone interview on Wednesday.
THIS REPORT INCLUDES IMAGES OF DEAD ANIMALS
The animals included rabbits, guinea pigs, cats and dogs, all held in plastic or metal cages wrapped in cardboard boxes with breathing holes. They had been left in the boxes without food or water for about a week before they were discovered at the Dongxing Logistics station in Henan's Luohe city.
"It was obvious they died of suffocation, dehydration and starvation," said Hua.
Chinese law prohibits the shipping of live animals in normal packaging. Hua said it was likely the animals were bought online as pets but left stranded at the logistics depot because of a delayed collection, as the logistics company involved may have refused to sign off on a shipment violating transport laws.
"Miscommunication inside the shipping company and the inconsistency of the implementation of shipping regulations directly led to the tragedy," Hua said. "Of course, both buyers and sellers bear the responsibility, too."
The shipping company, Yunda, told local media that it was not aware of the incident, but that its staff had confirmed that they allowed live animals to be transported in boxes with holes, according to the state-run Global Times newspaper.
Hua and her 20 fellow volunteers managed to rescue 200 rabbits and 50 dogs and cats from the scene. Many were adopted on site and the severely ill animals were sent to veterinary clinics. Local authorities arranged for the thousands of dead animals to be collected, disinfected and buried.
After the rescue operation in Luohe city, Hua and her charity heard about another batch of animals being transported to the nearby village of Dameng. After 13 hours of further rescue operations, the group was able to save about 1,000 more animals, mostly rabbits. But that was only about half of the total number found at the second site, and the rest died.
She told CBS News that both incidents are unacceptable both in terms of animal welfare, and the risk posed to human public health.
"we are facing, it's so terrifying to have those live animals transported that way, and even ending up dead," she said.
"Go for adoption instead of illegal buying and shipping of animals," Hua urged the public, while calling on Chinese authorities to "strictly enforce" rules already on the books regarding the shipping of live animals.