Dateline: 15th January 2015

The Ipswich Cat Killer

 
If dogs are man's best friend cats are possibly in the running to be next in line. There are around 8.5 million domestic cats kept in the UK, and for many they are close personal companions. In particular, the association of women with cats is a common theme in popular culture - from the "crazy cat lady" to the witch (rarely depicted without her cat 'familiar').

So when there is a suggestion that cats are being taken, tortured and killed, it strikes at the heart of what many people consider to be part of the very fabric of civilisation.

The cat owners of Suffolk are currently riven with that very fear - and have created a website dedicated to tracking the missing felids.

According to press reports, no fewer than 108 cats went missing in Ipswich and neighbouring Stowmarket between the beginning of the year and the time the first reports hit the media in around October. (the Metro - demonstrating a remarkable laxity to fact - claims 108 cats have vanished "in a week") It is said that just two have returned - one so badly injured it had to be put down, the other limping home having been apparently tortured.

One Ipswich resident, Louise Catchpole, described her own experience to reporters following the return of her own cats - Rupert and Nigella:

“One returned home on Monday but he was covered in faeces, his whiskers had been burned and his fur was pulled out. He had been t ortured. My other cat had been dumped in Gippeswyk Park and a passer-by handed her into the vet on Wednesday afternoon.When I went to collect her, a woman in the vet told me another cat had been found in that same park, tortured.”

A Facebook group has been established called "Ipswich Missing Cats" describing it function thus:

"This group has been created for Ipswich cats that have gone missing. Many owners are concerned cats are missing all over Ipswich, and have been taken, in some cases more than one cat per family has disappeared. List your missing cat with picture and the area please so we and can try and monitor."

At the time of writing, no fewer than 1058 people were members of this group, giving some indication of the scale of the scare.

Is the 'Cat Killer' real?

Whenever a scare takes hold of a community, it is easy to assume that routine events begin to be seen through a filter dominated by that scare. In such circumstances, every day instances are seen as belonging to the wider scare.

If one assumes that Ipswich (population 133,000 at the last census in 2011) has a similar profile of cat ownership to the rest of the country, it is implied that it is home to around 1600 cats.

Domestic cats have an average lifespan of 15 years so assuming that the rate of ownership is stable, then 100 cats or so could be expected to die anyway in Ipswich each year.

According to research carried out on behalf of Sainsbury's Bank elite Pet Insurance division - around 500,000 dogs and cats are reported as missing in the UK each year. The figures are not broken down by species, but we can draw some assumptions.

The number of cats is roughly equal to that of dogs - at around 8.5 million. One notable feature of cat ownership is that cats are generally freer to come and go as they please (indeed, to some this is part of their very appeal as pets) in a way that is rarely allowed for dogs, with many cats being 'let out' at night.

Given that, it seems reasonable to assume that over half of the missing animals reported by Sainsbury's Bank are cats. Erring on the side of caution, we could say that perhaps 300,000 go missing in the UK each year. Some idea of the scale can be gleaned from a quick visit to nationalpetregister.org.

What happens to these animals is often unknown, but we can guess a few possible outcomes:
  • Returning home some time after being reported as missing
  • Natural death while outside the home
  • Killed by other animals
  • Killed in road accidents
  • Trapped in machinery, pipework, drainage etc
  • Simply moving to someone else's house
  • Theft
  • Being taken by a person: possibly a cat killer
Obviously, without scientific rigour being brought to bear on each disappearance, it is impossible to say, but again (given Ipswich's size) we would expect around 60 cats to go missing in Ipswich every year in any event. This number could be much higher, depending on the proportion of cats to dogs reported as missing (remember our assumption that 3/5 of missing animals are cats).

So statistically speaking, the number of cats reported as missing is not wildly out of keeping with that which Ipswich would normally expect were the residents keen on statistical analysis.

What else can we glean from the story as presented in the press? Well the very first thing - as reported by the Telegraph is:

"Of the 108 cats to have gone missing in Ipswich and the neighbouring town of Stowmarket since the beginning of the year, only two have returned."

And yet, in their own report they follow up with the story of Mrs Catchpole, both of whose cats returned. By her account, both were alive (although with evidence of maltreatment) which runs counter to the story's lead which describes how "only two" cats had returned, having "limped home after being tortured... one was so badly hurt it had to be put down."

Clearly then, the press reports are inaccurate, as both of Mrs Catchpole's cats survived.

The BBC's report adds some more nuance. Their report of the 9th October pointed out that:

"Some of the cats have been missing for as long as six months, while others have disappeared more recently."

Without exact proportions being given, it is clear then that the number of "108" includes disappearances that wouldn't usual be treated as 'suspicious' as such (the disappearance and death of at least some cats) being a sad inevitably. It also includes more recent disappearances, which may yet result in the cat returning home. History is replete with stories of cats coming home after periods of anything up to 10 years, so a disappearance of anything under a fortnight cannot be so unusual.

Torture?

Here again, specifics seem to be lacking. In the press reports, Mrs Catchpole's cats are the only named examples we can go by. By her own account in the Telegraph story, one was "dumped" in a nearby park, while the other had had its whiskers burnt and its fur pulled out.

Firstly, we know nothing about the manner of the "dumping" so we cannot say what this actually means. But in terms of the other cats fur being pulled out, we only pause to note that this is a regular occurrence for any cat that encounters  another in a fight. We cannot, of course, speak to the burning of the whiskers, but would note that if you wanted to torture a cat, this seems an oddly specific (and not actually that harmful) way to go about it.

The rest of the story seems then to hinge on the anonymous vet's receptionist who told Mrs Catchpole about another cat found in the park that had been tortured. Of course, this is also undated, so we have no way of knowing whether this was hours, days, weeks or even months before Mrs Catchpole was reunited with her cat.

Provisos

In case this article appears to be sceptical, there are some other notes to bear in mind. It is noted that the torture of animals is often seen as one of the "MacDonald Triad" of behaviours common to serial killers (the others being bedwetting and arson). Sadly, many individuals do exist that find pleasure in animal cruelty, and if one were to obtain any animal for such purposes, then the cat would be the easiest one to acquire.

We do, however, note that this alleged spate of disappearances - so quickly taken up by the national media - is short on specifics and has interesting parallels in the stories of immigrants eating swans or bogus social workers. This isn't to deny the possibility, but just to sound a note of caution in accepting apparently credible stories that appear in the media.

A follow up article (also in the Telegraph) reports some other interesting overtones which are suggestive of folkloric motifs: "with one man claiming to have pinpointed the 'killer' while others advocated a boycott of take-aways amid fears the animals had been used in kebabs."

The alleged presence of unusual meat in takeaway food is a folkloric motif in excelsis - and one that I have heard directly from the mouths of others who have avoid specific takeaways because a friend-of-a-friend choked on a bone in their dinner.... which was later identified as belonging to a cat/rat/whatever.

How quickly and deeply rooted this belief has come into play in the Ipswich case can be seen in these anonymous comments from a local resident quoted in the press:

"A lot of cats have gone missing in [areas of Ipswich with] lots of take-aways. It is too big a coincidence. You start to think, what is actually on those kebab sticks? It’s all cuts of meat that are all moulded together. We need to find out what is going on. All of them should be having food tests. She added that people should stop eating in take-aways until their food has been tested to ensure it contains no traces of cat meat. The take-away theory makes sense because the missing cats' bodies are just not turning up. Although now they will be scrabbling around trying to get rid of any evidence."

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