The animals, including rabbits, cats, dogs and guinea pigs, had been held in plastic or metal cages wrapped in boxes at the depot in Luohe, Henan province.
Sister Hua, a founder of the animal welfare group Utopia, said the entire place “reeked of rotting bodies” when her team arrived to rescue the animals earlier this week.
Hua and her 20 volunteers managed to save 870 rabbits, 99 hamsters, 70 dogs and 28 cats, but thousands had already perished by the time the team arrived at the Dongxing Logistics hub.
“It was like a living hell,” she told CBS News. “It was obvious they died of suffocation, dehydration and starvation.”
She said the site was “cluttered” with cardboard shipping boxes and the animals had been left without food or water for a week.
An investigation into the horror discovery has been launched by local authorities.
“Miscommunication inside the shipping company and the inconsistency of the implementation of shipping regulations directly led to the tragedy,” Hua said.
“Given the Covid-19 pandemic we are facing, it’s so terrifying to have those live animals transported that way and even ending up dead.
“Go for adoption instead of illegal buying and shipping of animals.”
Homes have been found for the healthy animals, Utopia said, while volunteers and pet stores are looking after the sick ones.
The group said most of the rabbits are less than a month old, and volunteers have been giving them glucose and vitamins in a bid to keep them alive.
“We’re waiting to see if they can make it,” a volunteer told the South China Morning Post.
Laws in China ban the shipping of live animals via the postal system and it is understood the pets were dumped at the depot after the logistics company refused to sign off on the illegal shipment.
Yang Aihua, an official from the Luohe’s commerce bureau, told The Beijing News the animals had been sent from neighbouring Jiangsu province on September 16.
The shipping company said it was not aware of the tragic incident, but staff confirmed they allowed live animals to be transported in boxes with holes, according to the Global Times newspaper.