How did a group of cats end up being grabbed at by a metal arm in a "claw machine" at an arcade?
That is the bizarre question that many viewers contemplated in the spring of 2017, when video footage emerged from China appearing to show a customer maneuvering the claw towards an uncomfortable-looking cat. The video was posted by the Shanghaiist Facebook page, but the story was reported a month earlier by the Chinese web site Chung Tien TV:
The video was brought to light again in January 2018, when the French branch of animal-rights group the Animal Liberation Front shared it on Facebook, along with this message:
An arcade in China, cats that are at most one or two months old, trapped in a vending machine. As if they were objects or plastic balls, with some sadistic people trying to grab them with the claw machine.
The exact origins of the footage are not clear, and we don't know whether there is an arcade in China that offers live cats as claw machine prizes. However, the person who first posted it to social media in China says it was part of an advertisement and "just a joke."
We contacted the Hong Kong-based charity Animals Asia, who got in touch with the woman who published the video clip on the Chinese social network Weibo, in April 2017.
According to a representative for Animals Asia, the woman said "it was her friend's company shooting an advertisement," though she did not offer any more specific details about the nature of the company. The woman expressed surprise at the news coverage about the video, telling Animals Asia "it was just a joke."
Without corroborating details about the name and nature of the company and advertising campaign, we can't be certain about the exact origin of the footage, or what it shows. However, according to Animals Asia — which advocates for animal welfare and tracks instances of animal cruelty in Hong Kong, China and elsewhere on the continent — the incident was likely a one-off. "We do not have any evidence that cats are regularly being made to be available as prizes at fairs/arcades," a spokesperson told us by email:
...[This] is the first time I have heard of cats deliberately being placed in vending machines. It is not something I have seen at all in Hong Kong and this is the first I have heard of it in China.
In recent years, videos and photographs have emerged showing cats in claw machines in Dubai, Serbia, Turkey, and the United States, as well as other unknown locations.
It's not clear from any of this evidence that the cats in question had been permanently kept inside the machine to be won as "prizes," as opposed to being temporarily placed there as a diversion or for the purposes of recording a video.
In some of the videos, the claw machine has low sides, meaning the cats could conceivably have crawled in there of their own accord, or could be easily put in there and removed.
Pete Gustafson, Executive Vice President of the American Amusement Machine Association, told us the machines are typically opened by a hinged door on the front, back or side, using a key. This suggests only the owner or operator of the machine — as opposed to members of the public — could usually insert and remove something from there. However, Gustafson told us he had never once heard of a cat ending up in a claw machine in the United States, despite working in the industry for 38 years:
If this was a phenomenon, it would have been brought to my attention.
Regardless of whether the cats were being offered as "prizes" or dropped into the machines as stunts or for photo-ops, a spokesperson for Animals Asia warned against it:
This practice is discouraged by animal welfare groups for the negative impact it has on the animals but also due to the promotion of animals as commodities to be 'won'.
Responsible care of any animal requires serious commitment for the duration of the animals life, preparation and research to ensure their needs are met and understand of appropriate nutrition and care.