A social media post from one of China’s largest newspapers included a crying-laughing emoji.
It showed a dead rat after it was caught stealing rice in a shop.
Spreadeagled and strung up by its limbs, it had a sign hung around its neck reading “I won’t dare do this again.”
But, the almost 6,000 commenters who weighed in on the Weibo post – versions of which have gone viral on the Chinese web in recent days – weren’t finding it funny.
Many wrote how they were disgusted by the display and expressed sympathy for the animal.
“You can kill (a rat), but don’t torture it,” read one comment. “Even though rats are harmful, please respect life.”
Another wrote: “Every ordinary thing has life, why torture a rat? If you were a rat, wouldn’t you find this cruel after you were killed? Stealing rice is part of a rat’s nature. It did it to survive.”
The largely negative reaction to the viral rat photos shows how attitudes in China – a country once notorious for cases of animal cruelty – are changing.
Jason Baker, Asia vice president of international campaigns for PETA, which denounced the rat photos as a “sick stunt,” said the reaction “made it clear that people don’t believe any animal should be treated like this.”
“The inability to empathize with the plight of the most helpless among us quite rightly horrifies caring people everywhere and is a cause for concern in the community,” Baker said.
In 2014, China revoked a law making animal testing mandatory for cosmetics, while a study by researchers from Nanjing Agricultural University in the same year found a majority of respondents supported stronger animal welfare laws.
While researchers said in China “animal welfare is still at the early stage of development,” they found the “necessity of establishing animal welfare laws is widely recognized by the public in China.”
In December, China announced it would phase out ivory trading by the end of 2017.
Thousands of people have also signed petitions to free Pizza, the “world’s saddest polar bear,” from his tiny display in a Guangzhou shopping mall.
Pizza was recently temporarily relocated thanks in part to public pressure.
Room for progress
However, there is still a long way to go for animal rights in China, campaigners said.
Chinese medicine consumers are also some of the biggest drivers of animal poaching around the world.
Lai Haiwen, who took the original photos of the rat, told CNN he doesn’t see what the fuss is about. Workers at a friend’s shop in Zhuhai, Guangdong, tied the rat up after it was caught eating rice.
“Rats should be killed, they steal food from people,” Lai said, adding that most commenters on his original Weibo post “thought it was funny.”