Poisoning of CEO in Cat Stew Stirs Outrage Among Rights Activists

The use of poison in a dish of cat stew has shed light on the hunger for pet meat in a Chinese province, writes Dan Levin in Beijing.

The tycoon was famished, the hot-pot stew was bubbling, and the flesh floating in the broth was feline. But in the end, cat meat was not what killed billionaire forestry CEO Long Liyuan a few hours after he consumed the delicacy. It was poison.

In a case that would make even Sherlock Holmes lose his appetite and has triggered an uproar among Chinese animal-rights activists, police in China’s southern Guangdong province, notorious for its love of eating “everything with four legs except desks,” detained one of Long’s dining companions last week in connection with his death on Dec. 23. It appears the suspect, Huang Guang, the deputy director of a local forestry office, had led the tycoon and another associate to the restaurant after visiting a wooded area that was for sale. The authorities allege that once they had ordered the cat dish, Huang stepped away to make a phone call and then surreptitiously made his way into the kitchen. There he sampled the cat meat, announced it needed to boil longer and asked the restaurant owner to go buy some drinks while her husband was off buying cigarettes. Alone at the stove, Huang then dropped the deadly herb Gelsemium elegans, which grows wild in China’s forests, into the hot pot.

Rather than arouse suspicion later by refusing to share the simmering soup, Huang chowed down along with his associate and Long, 49. According to the Southern Metropolis Daily newspaper, the associate is reported to have claimed the meat tasted “bitter” and joked that the dish had been poisoned. Even the owner thought something tasted off after sampling it, saying there was “too much seasoning.”

The three soon became ill and were taken to a nearby clinic, where Long went into cardiac arrest and died. Huang was left unable to speak and unconscious for several days before recovering.

While at first the three were thought to have suffered from food poisoning, the tycoon’s family suspected murder and offered a reward of 100,000 yuan, or $16,000, for information about his death.

It turns out they were right. Long died from a deadly recipe of greed, embezzlement, and paws.

“Huang, who was helping Long take a lease on a forest, had himself used funds provided by Long. This led to an economic dispute and gave Huang the idea to kill Long with poison,” read a statement on the local Public Security Bureau’s official microblog.

Long allegedly had paid the suspect a total of 3.5 million yuan, or $556,000, for his services. Huang, however, had wanted more money and had sent a text message with his bank details to the tycoon’s cellphone, which led police to his hospital bed with a pair of handcuffs.

Guangdong has long been known for its menagerie of exotic ingredients. Many Chinese believe eating cat (and dog) is healthy, especially in winter, but over the past few years an increasing number of Chinese citizens have protested the practice as inhumane. Activists estimate that around 4 million cats are killed each year in China for various purposes, including for food. Cats are killed in brutal ways such as crushing their heads with sticks and hanging or starving them to death. For one dish, the chef paralyzes the cat and then throws it into boiling water alive before skinning. Once diced the flesh is used to make soup. Then there is the Cantonese dish known as "dragon, tiger, and phoenix", made of snake, cat, and chicken.

Aside from the torture of these animals, many Chinese are sickened by the pet-thieving industry that has arisen across China to sustain Cantonese tastes, with dogs and cats often stolen from their owners being sent down south for supper. “There are people who specialize in trapping and stealing cats and then transporting them from different parts of China to Guangdong,” said Deborah Cao, an animal-rights activist from China’s northeast. “They are family members and people's friends, not food.”

The battle to save cats and dogs comes at a time when rising incomes and pet ownership in China are pitting pet lovers against ancient customs and more modern authoritarian brutality. In 2006, more than 50,000 dogs were killed in an anti-rabies campaign, during which police officers forced some owners to personally hang their dogs from a tree. According to Chinese media reports, roving gangs accosted people walking their dogs and beat the animals to death in the street.

In recent years, some Chinese have turned to the Internet to glorify killing cats in animal “crush” videos. A few years ago, a woman in the city of Hangzhou was filmed stomping a kitten to death with her stilettos, setting off a frantic online chase to identify her amid calls for the Chinese government to ban animal cruelty. No law has been passed.

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This Christmas, some anonymous Chinese web users launched a campaign encouraging people to slaughter 1,314 cats and upload photos of the dead animals online. Not everyone was amused. “They revel in describing how they kill and torture animals, and sometimes they’ll even adopt animals from shelters just to kill them on video and then taunt us,” said a 29-year-old guerrilla activist, who would only give her screen name, “Little Cat,” in a phone interview. Unfortunately, tracking down the identities of these sadists proves nearly impossible. “We try to hunt them down, but they hide their IP addresses,” she said.

Many of those in China trying to protect their four-legged friends hope their battle has a wider impact.

“A lot of Chinese think people matter more than animals,” said the activist. “But I feel human and animal rights are linked.”