As a flashlight rolls over towers of boxes in the back of a delivery truck, tufts of fur can be glimpsed through tiny air holes. Those are the luckier animals — other boxes appear completely taped up.
Animal rights group Love Home filmed this raid on May 3 in the central Chinese city of Chengdu, during which it uncovered 156 boxes of months’ old puppies and kittens, some of whom were dead.
The images scandalized Chinese social media users, who were horrified the animals had become victims of a shopping craze sweeping China called “mystery boxes.”
It works something like this: Consumers buy a small box with an unknown present inside — normally, a collectible figurine. Ding Ying, an associate professor of marketing at Beijing’s Renmin University of China, told state-run newspaper People’s Daily the boxes were “addictive,” especially when the prizes were part of a collectible series. “Consumers have an inherent need for closure, thus they tend to [want to] own the whole series once they get one,” she said.
That has turned the boxes into big business. In December, mystery box maker Pop Mart, whose boxes contain cute, plastic figurines, raised $676 million in its initial public offering. That month, the state-run China Daily newspaper said the mystery box industry could be worth 30 billion yuan ($4.7 billion) by 2024, citing an industry report.
But there’s a darker side of the trend.
While delivery of live animals by mail is illegal in China, it is poorly policed, according to state-run media. Some mystery box operators are exploiting that blind spot to offer surprise pets delivered to consumers’ doors for as little as 32 yuan ($5).
Animal rights groups say it is cruel to the animals, not all of whom survive the trip to their new owners.
“I told the young man selling the animal blind boxes that he was making money at the cost of the lives of these animals,” Love Home founder Chen Yunlian told state broadcaster CCTV.
CNN Business reached out to Love Home for this article, but Chen declined to be interviewed.
‘Everything can be put inside a mystery box’
As the mystery box trend has exploded in recent years, it has grown to include expensive goods, including smart phones, watches and sunglasses.
Major international brands including Starbucks, Sephora and Converse have created their own mystery boxes for Chinese consumers. Social media influencers post elaborate videos showing people opening their “blind boxes” and comparing what they found.
On Chinese social media, there is a new catchphrase: “Everything can be put inside a mystery box.”
But on some sites, that catchphrase is being taken a step too far. For example, on Pinduoduo, one of the largest online shopping platforms in China, one listing seen by CNN Business offered, a “fresh, little cute” mystery box, which will contain a “random” dog for 599 yuan ($92). The picture attached to the advertisement is of a happy, healthy long-haired chihuahua. CNN Business reached out to Pinduoduo for comment.
The mystery pet boxes have also turned up on other major online marketplaces, including Alibaba’s Taobao. Alibaba did not respond to a request for comment from CNN Business.
In one post on an undisclosed website, shown in a documentary by state broadcast CCTV, one seller offered a dog “mystery box” for 32 yuan ($5) alongside a picture of a smiling shiba inu. And one social media influencer posted himself unwrapping a mystery box with a random crustacean inside. It’s unclear where he purchased the box from.
Most mystery box ads specify which type of animal they’re selling and guarantee a high-quality pet — but it was a different story when the Love Home Animal Rescue Center raided the truck in Chengdu, run by China-based ZTO Express, a delivery company. Instead of pedigrees, they found mixed-breed puppies and kittens wedged together in the small, taped-up plastic crates.
The group said on Weibo that many were dead or dying from suffocation and starvation. It isn’t clear which platform they were sold on, but Love Home told state media they had been monitoring the nearby ZTO station for when the animals would arrive. When they raided the truck, it was clear from the labels on the crates that the animals were intended for mystery box market, according to the organization.
“Vendors usually stop providing food and water a day before the departure to limit animals’ excretions,” said the Love Home’s Chen on social media. In one box, barely 30 centimeters wide (12 inches), three puppies were wedged together side-by-side, motionless.
It isn’t the first time questions have been raised about the quality of the pets in the mystery boxes. In reviews of mystery pet box listings on Chinese e-commerce sites, customers describe receiving animals who were dirty and sick.
“[My] dog has been in low spirits, looking sick, and hasn’t moved much since it arrived … Please think twice before you buy these dogs!” one reviewer said on Pinduoduo.
“The dog wouldn’t move much and customer service said to let it rest … and it died,” said another customer on the same website.
China’s parcel delivery industry has faced animal mistreatment scandals before. In September 2020, at least 5,000 animals, including dogs, cats and rabbits, were found dead in a logistics station in central Henan province.
But the Love Home footage and photos outraged Weibo users, who read more than 450 million posts with the “Pet Blind Box” hashtag.
“Resolutely resist blind pet boxes!! Boycott live transportation!!” Love Home Animal Rescue Center posted to social media.
A number of listings for mystery box pets have been taken down from e-commerce sites since the Love Home animal rights group exposed the scandal.
Others have tried to disguise their products by changing the ad descriptions to remove the word “mystery box,” or labeling them as adoption or rescue services.
In a commentary on May 5, state-run news agency Xinhua denounced treating pets as toys and called the products a desecration of life. “Both buyers and sellers should start from their hearts, have more goodwill and more respect for life,” the commentary said.
After the raid, the Hong Kong-listed delivery company ZTO issued an apology over the organization’s “misconduct.” “Our investigation found this batch of live animals were sold online and collected in violation of regulations,” the statement said.
“The healthy development of courier industry is not on built on strict regulation and safe management but also righteous sense of life and value.”
ZTO also said in their statement that the Chengdu delivery facility where the crates were found would be closed, and the company would cooperate with the police investigation.
In a statement at the time, the Chengdu postal authorities said they had fined ZTO $12,419 (80,000 yuan) for the misconduct.
Despite the widespread outrage and media coverage, just over a week after the Chengdu raid, more mystery pet boxes were found in Jiangsu province, Global Times said.
When authorities reached the ZTO Express transfer center in Jiangsu, they found 13 boxes of animals, many of whom were already dead.
In response to state media paper.cn, ZTO said the animals found in Suzhou were stranded in the Suzhou center, as they were being returned after it started to rectify the practice of live animal delivery since May 5.
Evan Sun, a scientist at the non-government organization World Animal Protection (WAP) in China, said the discovery of a second batch of pet boxes so soon after the initial raid showed ZTO Express had not taken enough action to correct the problem.
“For people who want a pet, they should be aware that it is unaccepted to transport animals in such an inhumane way,” he said. ZTO did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the second case.
Threat of disease
Currently, China has no broad, nationwide laws which protect animals from mistreatment. But in the wake of the mystery pet box scandal, experts have called for such legislation to be introduced.
“There is a need to continue to raise animal welfare awareness in the whole society, leading to a stronger animal protection legal system in future,” said WAP’s Sun. “Collective actions are required to end this cruel animal trade.”
But animal rights groups and state media said there is another risk from an unregulated, mystery pet box industry — the possibility of rapidly spreading diseases.
According to one volunteer from Love Home, who was quoted in an article by state-run China Daily, more than a dozen of the cats and dogs found in the Chengdu raid were diagnosed with diseases, including “distemper and cat plague.”
The World Health Organization concluded in its draft report into the origins of Covid-19 that an animal was the most likely source of the pandemic, which has killed three million people globally as of May 2021.
China has introduced strict new laws in an attempt to prevent outbreaks of animal-borne diseases in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, including a ban on the eating of wild animals. But state-run China Daily said many pet dealers on e-commerce platforms “simply ignore” inspection and quarantine requirements laid out by the government.
Ultimately, if extra attention is not paid to preventing the unregulated trading of animals, the paper said “the suffering may not be restricted to the bought-and-sold animals only.”