Phil Hoad | The Atavist | February 2021 | 5 minutes (1,558 words)

This is an excerpt from The Atavist‘s issue no. 112, “Cat and Mouse,” by writer Phil Hoad. With dozens of felines turning up dead around London, a pair of pet detectives set out to prove it was the work of a serial killer.

It was the body on the south London doorstep that got everyone’s attention. On the bright morning of September 23, 2015, a woman walked outside her home to find a cream-and-coffee-colored pelt, like a small furry Pierrot. It had dark forelegs, and its face was a smoky blot. It was a cat, slit throat to belly; its intestines were gone.

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The woman rang the authorities, who came and disposed of the body. Three days later, she looked at a leaflet that had come through her mail slot, asking whether anyone had seen Ukiyo, a four-year-old ragdoll mix whose coat matched that of the dead cat. The woman broke the bad news to Ukiyo’s owner, Penny Beeson, who lived just down Dalmally Road, a nearly unbroken strip of poky, pebble-dashed row houses in the Addiscombe area of Croydon.

Beeson was inconsolable. “I shook for the whole day,” she later told The Independent.

“R.I.P ukiyo I feel devastated,” her son, Richard, posted on Facebook. “Hacked to death and left on someone’s doorstep. Some people are so sick!”

A few days later, Addiscombe’s letter boxes clacked again as another leaflet was delivered. This one warned that Ukiyo’s demise wasn’t an isolated incident—there had been a troubling spate of cat deaths in the area. The leaflet was printed by a local group called South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty, or SNARL.

Tony Jenkins, one of SNARL’s founders, had recently become his own master. At 51, with a reassuring, yeomanly face and a golden tinge at the very tip of his long, gray ponytail, Jenkins was laid off after 25 years working for a nearby government council. He hadn’t gotten along with his boss, so getting sacked came as something of a relief. With a year’s severance in his pocket, “I was enjoying my downtime,” Jenkins said. That included being with his girlfriend, a 44-year-old South African who went by the name Boudicca Rising, after the first-century Celtic warrior queen who fought the Romans to save the Britons. Among other things, Rising and Jenkins shared feelings of guardianship toward animals. Their homes at one point housed 34 cats, a dog, two gerbils, and a cockatoo between them. The couple had formed SNARL together.

Scanning Facebook one day in September 2015, about a week before Ukiyo was found dead, Jenkins stumbled upon a post from the nearby branch of the United Kingdom’s largest veterinarian chain, Vets4Pets, that described four gruesome local incidents in the past few weeks: a cat with its throat cut, one with a severed tail, another decapitated, and a fourth with a slashed stomach. Only the final cat had survived. Jenkins told Rising about the post. “That doesn’t sound right,” she said. “We need to do some digging.”

Digging was her forte. Always impeccably dressed, with an ornate gothic kick, and unfailingly in heels, Rising was a multitasking demon on a laptop. By day she worked for an office management company. By night she was part of the global alliance of animal rights activists. She was one of many people who used small details in online videos of a man torturing felines to identify the culprit, a Canadian man named Luka Magnotta. He was reported to police, who didn’t take the allegations seriously, and Magnotta went on to murder and chop up his lover in 2012—a crime recounted in the Netflix documentary Don’t F**k with Cats.

On the heels of Ukiyo’s death, Rising and Jenkins distributed SNARL’s leaflets throughout Addiscombe, warning of the threat to local felines. While to an uninterested eye some of the attacks might have appeared to be the indiscriminate cruelty of nature—the work of a hungry predator, say—SNARL believed they might be a series of linked and deliberate killings. Whether the crimes were perpetrated by an individual or a group SNARL wasn’t sure. It hoped the leaflets would help turn up more information.

SNARL soon had reports of more incidents in the area, for a total of seven: one cat missing, two with what SNARL subsequently described as “serious injuries,” and four dead. Rising said that vets who saw the deceased cats’ bodies told her the mutilations had been made with a knife. On September 29, SNARL sent out an alert on its Facebook page saying as much. The cats’ wounds, the group insisted, “could only have been inflicted by a human. Their bodies have been displayed in such a way as to cause maximum distress.”

That was SNARL’s official line. On Rising’s personal page she went further, emphasizing her belief that Addiscombe was dealing with a serial killer. “This is a psychopath,” she wrote.

While to an uninterested eye some of the attacks might have appeared to be the indiscriminate cruelty of nature, SNARL believed they might be a series of linked and deliberate killings.

On the afternoon of October 24, 2015, two miles southeast of Addiscombe, 47-year-old Wayne Bryant picked his way over the fallen leaves of Threehalfpenny Wood, named for a 19th-century murder victim found there with that sum of money in his pocket. The dry autumn air kept Bryant alert as his wide-spaced blue eyes scanned left and right and he listened to the wind hissing through the oak canopy. Bryant’s cat, Amber, like many domestic felines, kept regular hours with her comings and goings, but the previous day she hadn’t returned in the mid-afternoon as she usually did. When Amber didn’t show up the following morning, Bryant and his wife, Wendy, formed a search party.

A few years before, Bryant had suffered a serious spinal injury at work, causing a leak of cerebrospinal fluid and, eventually, several hematomas. Animals had always been a big part of his life—he and Wendy had a menagerie of rescue pets, from dogs to guinea pigs to lizards—but as he struggled with memory problems and long-term unemployment, the emotional support they provided became irreplaceable. Bryant had had Amber for eight years, since she was a six-week-old kitten. “A friendly little thing,” he told the website AnimalLogic. “A little curtain-climber.”

As they searched the woods, Bryant’s wife called to him. In a small clearing off a path, sheltered by a cluster of exposed tree roots, the ball of black and orange fur was unmistakable. But Amber was headless and tailless, except for that appendage’s very tip, which had been placed on her belly. The couple were sickened. They shrouded their beloved pet in a towel and took her home. Then Bryant remembered an article in the Croydon Advertiser about a group convinced that several recent cat killings were all connected.

A couple of hours later, Jenkins and Rising were at Bryant’s door. “I remember Wayne’s first words to me: ‘Ain’t no fox did that,’” Jenkins told me. “If I ever write a book about this, that’s what I’d call it.”

It was the first time either Jenkins or Rising had come face-to-face with a suspected cat killing. Neither of them had any forensics training. Unwrapping the towel that held Amber, they noted the clean severing of her head and tail, which seemed to corroborate Bryant’s view that no animal could be responsible. They asked the family to show them the crime scene. There was no blood on the ground, meaning that either her injuries were inflicted after death or Amber was killed elsewhere and moved to the spot in Threehalfpenny Wood where her owners found her. Rising and Jenkins took Amber’s body to a vet for further examination.

Bryant gave a statement to the police, and Rising went to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), the UK’s main animal welfare charity. She later claimed that a representative brushed her off, saying that a fox probably killed Amber. Besides, the RSPCA dealt primarily with instances of cruelty in which the victims were still alive: It received more than 11,000 complaints a year in Greater London alone.

Jenkins was incredulous when he heard about the RSPCA’s response. “Although Croydon’s got a bad reputation, a lot of crime, I don’t think our foxes carry knives. And foxes certainly do not kill cats,” he said. At least, “it’s very, very rare.” He doubted that scavenging creatures would be interested in removing and eating feline heads and tails. Rather, they’d go for the nutritious internal organs, and SNARL hadn’t seen that kind of damage in any killing other than Ukiyo’s.

In October, there was another suspected cat killing in Croydon. Then SNARL began to get reports from farther afield, one in neighboring Mitcham and two in nearby West Norwood. Nick Jerome’s cat, Oscar, was found headless on his street. “None of us went to pieces over it, but it was obviously distressing at the time,” he said. In Coulsdon, on the southern edge of Croydon, David Emmerson discovered his cat, Missy, decapitated and tailless. His 18-year-old daughter, already struggling with the loss of her aunt the previous year, was devastated. Emmerson never told his autistic son the full story of what happened. The truth was too ugly. “I never grew up as a cat person,” he said, “but maybe because we got her as a kitten, she became one of us. Mine was the lap she chose to sit on when she sat down. I’m not sure why. I adored her.”

The RSPCA had its party line and wasn’t getting involved, but that didn’t stop the local press, which knew a good story when it heard one. By mid-November, reporters had made a lurid christening: The Croydon Cat Killer was on the prowl.