Mary Bale: we all know someone who looks a bit like her. The greying cropped hair, the loose-fitting clothes, the ambling figure of a care-worn bank clerk. What we didn't know until now is that, lurking behind the pleasant appearance of this familiar high street figure lies a monster, capable of carrying out an act of indefensible cruelty.
This was the revelation made by The Sun on Tuesday when it published CCTV pictures showing Ms Bale walking down a quiet road and befriending Lola the tabby cat, before dumping her in a wheelie bin where she stayed trapped for 15 hours. Columnists and outraged Facebook users have struggled to work out what was going through Ms Bale's mind, and she herself has described it as "a split second of misjudgement that has got completely out of control".
There have been death threats, inevitably, and there are already wheelie bin jokes – the council wants to fine her for using the wrong bin – and Max Clifford will shortly announce plans for a five-figure book deal, provisionally titled "Bin There, Done Cat".
But for all its appearance of prime silly season folly, the story of Mary Bale has shone a spotlight on some of the weirder truths of British life today. People really do have CCTV trained on their bins, it seems.
We hasten to answer our headline with a firm no: Mary Bale is not the most evil person in Britain. Acts of mindless cruelty are committed against animals and children every day: if this had been a 14-year-old in a hoodie, would Lola's owners have bothered to post it on YouTube? Of course not.
But as with the case of "that bigoted woman" Gillian Duffy, it has taken an ordinary member of the public to shatter the matrix of what is meant to happen, accidentally revealing a lot more than she could ever have imagined. "It's just a cat," said Ms Bale on Wednesday. How wrong could she be?
Who actually has CCTV cameras trained on their bins?
More people than you'd think. According to the electrical retailers Maplin, sales of home CCTV equipment jumped by 70 per cent between 2007 and 2008 in the UK's biggest urban areas. A recent Which? poll suggested 2 per cent of dwellings have CCTV, which translates to an astonishing 300,000. Stephanie and Darryl Andrews-Mann, the cat's owners, say they installed CCTV outside their house because their car had been repeatedly hit by careless drivers, and the bin happened to fall into its field of vision.
Isn't CCTV rather expensive?
No. "You can now get a basic one- camera system for £30," says leading supplier Spy Camera CCTV. Police tell victims of vandalism they are powerless to act without evidence, so are encouraging homeowners to install CCTV. "But you are legally required to put a little sign up saying you have CCTV," warns the property expert Ross Clark.
Aren't our streets already littered with CCTV cameras?
There are about four million cameras in the UK – one for every 14 people and reportedly more than in any other country. Privacy campaigners have questioned their efficiency, and a 2008 report by UK police chiefs concluded that only 3 per cent of crimes were solved by CCTV.
So the police don't actually bother to trawl through all that footage?
Don't be silly: they're too busy catching criminals.
There's something fishy about this story. Are you sure it wasn't all set up by The Sun?
Apparently not. The story emerged when Lola's owners posted the footage on YouTube, where a clip of the incident has drawn 910,810 hits.
Why would you post this on YouTube?
It all started with Jeremy Beadle. Britons love short videos of bizarre events. Now, instead of sending them to You've Been Framed, they post them on YouTube. Twenty-four hours of video are uploaded every minute, and the site gets two billion views per day. The average person spends 15 minutes per day looking at the five-year-old site, already the fourth-biggest website in the world.
So it was just a bit of fun?
No. Lola's owners initially posted the video to find out who the purr-petrator of this cruelty was. The Sun claimed a victory in tracking Mary Bale down to her house, less than half a mile away. Now the couple are reported to be horrified by the venom that's been unleashed against Ms Bale. She has needed police protection and faces losing her job at Royal Bank of Scotland.
Where does Facebook come into it?
Animal lovers have been channelling their anger through the social networking site, with alarming results. One group, Death to Mary Bale, was taken down by moderators after members called for her to be "repeatedly head-butted" and "flogged to within an inch of her life, the evil bitch". There were still several groups dedicated to her at the time of writing, including the Mary Bale Hate Group, which had 7, 649 members.
Haven't they got a point, though?
Although she has not been arrested, the RSPCA has interviewed Ms Bale and criminal proceedings may take place. There are 7.2 million cats in the UK, though no accurate figures exist on how many are abused. Nick Clegg has piled in to express his shock, and lawyers are working out if there are grounds for prosecution. The RSPCA would have to prove that she intended to cause harm. "If she is found to have committed an offence, she could be sentenced to up to one year in prison, or a £20,000 fine, or both," says Dominic Sullivan, of Cats Protection. "To see a cat treated like this is deeply upsetting for us," he adds. "We cannot imagine what possesses people to treat animals in this way." But if it comes to court she could plead momentary insanity.
Is she mad, then?
No, but the press has predictably branded her a spinster and a loner, and one columnist suggested she looked "unfulfilled".
Why else would anyone bin a cat?
That's the million-dollar question. There are those who hate cats – mostly bird-lovers or gardeners who object to their vegetable patches being treated like giant litter trays. But Ms Bale is not one of them: her mother says she is a cat lover and even had one as a child.
So what was she thinking?
According to psychologist Leila Collins of Middlesex University, Ms Bale's behaviour is a cause for concern. "People who are cruel to animals usually feel a lack of power in their own lives," she says. "They may feel helpless, lack authority and want to exercise control over something or someone who cannot retaliate. After experimenting with animal cruelty they can go on to target other vulnerable groups, like children or the elderly. If you look at the history of many serious criminals they often started by cutting the whiskers or tails off cats."
A bit like Stalin?
"Animal cruelty must be taken very seriously," says Ms Collins. "The most telling thing about the video is that she looks around to make sure no one is looking before she puts the cat in the bin. That shows she knows what she is doing is wrong. You have to be extremely disturbed to do that, so you have to look at her background. What has happened to her to make her do that? She may have been abused herself. She needs help."
And what about the cat – presumably she'll need therapy too?
Since her ordeal Lola has become Britain's most "pampered puss", according to The Sun, which has "kitt-ed" her out with "a smart new collar, cuddly toys and a scratching tower". Oh, and it reports she now sleeps on a pink fluffy pillow.
I think I'm going to be sick.
The good news for worried cat owners is that it need never happen to your loved one: there are now several cat-tracking systems on the market, like CatTraQ and CatCam.
How do they work?
The first uses GPS technology to let you know where your mog is at all times: a small device is attached to the collar which receives the signals of different GPS satellites, which then record its position. Apparently it works "even in the forest or in urban canyons because of the high sensitivity of the receiver" and costs between £25 and £80.
According to leading supplier Mr Lee, this is better for satisfying the curiosity of owners who want to know what their pets have been up to. A camera is strapped to the collar and when it gets home you can stream the images on to a TV or PC. Prices start at £40.
Nobody actually buys this, do they?
"I always wished to have such a device and you made my dream come true," writes one buyer on Mr Lee's website. It's a growing market in Germany and Switzerland, but not yet over here.
Is that the end of it?
Not quite. Now a video clip has been posted called "the cat's revenge" in which a man in a cat suit dumps a grey-haired woman in a bin. And there are games popping up on the internet such as Tabby Trash, where you help Mary Bale place as many cats in the bin as possible. Best of all is the Twitter account, catbinlady, which claims to reveal the inner thoughts of Mary Bale, such as "Lovely coffee at Brenda's, but as soon as she left the room I couldn't help tipping it down the back of her telly. Regretting it already."
Research by Olivia Evans and Jessie Bland