In a little Lancashire village, a cat a day is vanishing into thin air. What is going on?

THE RUMOUR spread like wildfire through the east Lancashire village of Lumb yesterday. Fourteen cats, so the whisper went, had been seen dead in an isolated country lane. The details were precise, police officers searched, but by nightfall their efforts had come to nothing.

This means the village is still no nearer an explanation to a baffling riddle that is fuelling rumour and counter-rumour. Fifteen cats have vanished here in the space of two weeks from an area of just a few hundred square yards, but no one knows why.

There is an abundance of theories and, in the words of PC Bill King, the neighbourhood officer, "none of them are pleasant". The creatures have been taken for the fur trade, say some. A cat killer is on the loose, claim others. There is even a suggestion that the cats have been sold to research laboratories.

Whatever the answer, the saga has left locals living on frayed nerves and the village postmaster's door plastered with photographs of lamented pets. "We've lost our Chloe, a timid, ginger she-cat," reads one, between posters for Lumb Baptist Church's Friday football night and a holy beetle drive. "Missing cat, if seen please telephone," states another. "Fluffy, green eyes, very nervous, pounds 200 for safe return" and "Lost, answers to the name of Tiger".

The first to vanish from the village, in the Rossendale Valley between Rawtenstall and Burnley, were three rare pedigree Bengals. Two of them, blue-eyed Emma and Ella, were the first snow leopard variety ever bred in Britain and worth pounds 1,250. When they went missing on 2 November, many people believed they had been stolen because of their value.

Their owner, Lisa Shasby, also lost a six-year-old ginger called Axl a week later, though, and it then seemed the cats were being picked off indiscriminately. The Parkinson family on a neighbouring street lost their two-week-old ginger, Jasper, a week ago. "Three went on the worst single night," said PC King.

His own search has taken him through the bed of the nearby Whitewell brook while locals have combed fields in the valley. To have discovered a dead or injured cat would have been a blessing in some ways, said PC King, who is based at nearby Bacup. "It is the lack of tangible evidence of these cats which makes us believe something sinister is going on. There's more to this than just `cats will be cats'," he said.

PC King discounts a few more far-fetched explanations. Fifteen years ago, for instance, it was said the Beast of Rossendale roamed these parts. "There's no danger of that," said PC King. "The Daily Star also interviewed someone who claimed the `Beast of Bacup ate my Butties' a few years ago but all that's nonsense."

The charity Pet Search UK said it has never known so many cats go in such a small area though these incidents do follow a case in the Huddersfield suburb of Marsh last month, in which 25 cats fell victim to a poisoner.

In Lumb, 27-year-old Mrs Shasby has just one cat left, a Bengal called Taz. "I am not letting him out of my sight. He is barricaded inside," she said.

Last night, as a Lancashire Police spokeswoman confirmed the cats were "still not accounted for", PC King sent a message to anyone who might try to take a 16th. "If this person thinks he can come to Lancashire and steal cats he should think again," he said. "If he comes back here I'll have him."

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