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The great cat massacre that never was

The great cat massacre that never was

Why we should be reassured by the moral panic over the Croydon Cat Killer 

Why we should be reassured by the moral panic over the Croydon Cat Killer 

Tim Smith-Laing | October 5th 2018

On September 20th, the Metropolitan police finally closed their investigation into the so-called Croydon Cat Killer, a.k.a. the M25 Cat Killer, who was alleged to have brutally murdered hundreds of cats in London and neighbouring counties. The Met’s conclusion? The pets died of nearly natural causes – which is to say, they were mostly hit by cars and then eaten by foxes. It was a rather limp denouement to a case which, for the last three years, has gripped Britain and beyond, and which at its height bordered on a full-blown moral panic. 

In case you missed the tale, here is the précis offered just a few weeks ago by Newsweek’s Katherine Hignett: “A killer is stalking the streets of England, taking more lives than Jack the Ripper, Ted Bundy and Jon Wayne Gacy combined.” The desecrated remains were often headless, sometimes limbless or earless, and “displayed in places children are sure to find them – in front of homes, in the family rabbit hutch or, in one case, outside the gates of a school.” 

Hignett’s script is hoary stuff, but captures the lurid tone of the articles that allowed the Cat Killer to work his way into the public’s imagination. You don’t need to have followed the case to know exactly what happens to the missing parts. They’ll be “trophies” in this sicko’s serial-killer trophy cabinet of death, of course. And every one of them a prize for Best Murderer. You’ll know too – just like the criminologists interviewed by Hignett – that the killer will be a man, probably “cool, calm, collected”, and probably “a misogynist too”, with cats standing in “for women who have rejected his advances.” 

Blow by blow, it is a tale that writes itself from the clichés of mass entertainment’s favourite serial killers. And like them, it was bound to stoke people’s fears. Local papers zeroed in on two intrepid, amateur investigators, Tony Jenkins and Boudicca Rising (she has refused to say whether this is her real name) of Croydon animal shelter SNARL, who believed that there was a pattern in local cat deaths. Attention snowballed. Despite the fact that there were no witnesses, no discernible pattern and no credible evidence of human involvement whatsoever, national news outlets soon picked up the story, alerting legions of concerned cat owners who reported more “suspicious” deaths, which in turn left the police with little option but to investigate, which only reinforced people’s fears that something really was going on…and so on.

The story rapidly crossed the Atlantic, with Jenkins and Rising featured in scepticism-free pieces in the New York Times in 2016 and Vanity Fair a few months ago. And all without a shred of actual evidence. It was, in other words, a witch-hunt, fuelled by the well-worn narratives of the worried and prurient, that put the Cat Killer, in his own small way, up there with Salem, Reds Under the Bed, Satanists in the 1980s, and paedophiles at the turn of the millennium. Tush tush, gullible public.

None of these episodes has ever been taken to reflect well on mankind. The standard reaction of the unsusceptible is to condemn moral panics as symptoms of society’s quite remarkable stupidity. You may well remember that the signal achievement of News of the World’s campaign in 2000 to “name and shame” alleged sex offenders was the vandalisation of a doctor’s home in Gwent, Wales by a handful of riled-up teenagers unable to distinguish between paedophiles and paediatricians. Or perhaps you have mistaken that incident for a frequently cited arson attack on a paediatrician in Portsmouth. I know that I did, and then I checked the facts. The arson attack never happened. The media repeatedly amplified and distorted the true story about the Welsh doctor until it had taken on a life of its own. The “innocent children’s doctor” was targeted by the “enraged” people of Portsmouth, the Daily Mail sputtered, in one of a “spate of attacks by dumb-headed vigilantes”, according to the Evening Standard. Such tales show how easy it is for cynics – as credulous when it comes to stories of mob idiocy as those who believed in the arson attack – to fall into a moral panic about a moral panic.  

Because of this, it is worth thinking twice about the Cat Killer. It is easy to laugh at SNARL, the tabloids and the flatfoots investigating their claims, and to see it all as another symptom of the decline of critical thinking in the age of fake news. But the truth is that the case of the Croydon Cat Killer is genuinely quite reassuring. 

Cats have come a long way in the last hundred years or so. For much of European history, they were objects of revulsion as much as affection. As Robert Darnton, a cultural historian, relates in a classic essay, “The Great Cat Massacre”, cat torture was, in fact, a gleefully indulged element of European social life. In Paris, Metz and other French cities, revellers burned cats alive on bonfires during carnivals well into the 18th century. In one lively scene in Reformation-era London, a crowd gathered to see a cat shaved, dressed as a Catholic priest, and hanged from the gallows on Cheapside. There was even, according to the 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher, a “katzenklavier”: a piano that made music by plunging a sharp spike into the tails of wretched cats. 

Compare that to an age in which rumours of cat torture shock readers across the world, and you are talking progress.