Beijing - Animal activists are combing a forest in eastern China for more than 1 000 kittens rescued from a meat supplier only to be let loose by local authorities, an organiser said on Monday.
Animal protection volunteers and local police intercepted a truck "filled with cats" destined for dinner plates last week, said an activist surnamed Ni from the Wuxi Small Animal Protection Association in eastern Jiangsu province.
But local government officials released the felines - some as young as four months old - into a nearby mountain forest to fend for themselves, Ni said.
"They were being sent to Guangzhou to be eaten by people," he told AFP.
"We didn't want to release them, our volunteers had places to keep them. It's definitely irresponsible."
Volunteers are now scouring the hillsides with cages in an attempt to capture the cats, and hope to put those found up for adoption, Ni said, adding that more than 50 have been retrieved in the last week.
"Some of the cats are hungry, and haven't eaten, while others have been run over by cars," he said.
The state-run Beijing Youth Daily said on Sunday that authorities seized the cats because the lorry owner did not have the correct documents, but decided to release the animals into the wild as there was no source of funds to have them put down.
China's small but growing ranks of animal activists have staged a number of rescues in recent years.
Cats are not commonly eaten in most parts of China but some restaurants, particularly in the south, continue to serve them as food.
Around 600 cats stuffed into wooden crates and on their way to such a fate were rescued after a truck crash in January.
A convoy of trucks carrying some 500 dogs to be sold as meat was stopped by volunteers on a highway in Beijing in 2011 and the animals retrieved.
China does not have any laws to protect non-endangered animals.