BEIJING (AP) — Officials at a famous Beijing park said Sunday that they were investigating the mysterious deaths of stray cats in recent weeks, as protesters accused park authorities of killing the animals.

The Temple of Heaven park has stepped up patrols in an effort to prevent more deaths and cat carcasses from being dumped inside, said a park spokesman.

The spokesman, who gave only his surname, Xing, said he didn't know how many dead cats had been found, and that it was unclear whether they had died inside or outside the park. He said dead stray cats had also been found in other areas close to the large park, a UNESCO heritage site where emperors in the Ming and Qing dynasties offered sacrifices.

Protesters gathered Sunday morning outside the park's east gate.

One of them, Wang Lirong, said that cat lovers had found dozens of dead stray cats in the park since the beginning of October. She said she and other volunteers went to the park Sunday morning to feed cats, and a spontaneous protest broke out that lasted for six hours and attracted dozens of people after garnering publicity on social media.

Wang, who has fed strays in the park for four years, said insiders had told them the park had arranged to kill the cats, which it denied.

"The stray cats have been living in the park for more than 10 years. The park has no motive to kill the stray cats," Xing said.

He said the number of stray cats inside the park had grown in recent years, with a larger floating population leading to an increase in the number of people abandoning their pet cats when moving.

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