Liz Hoggard: Tough on the causes of cat crime

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So where do you stand on Catgate? Should Mary Bale, the Coventry woman who threw four-year-old tabby Lola into a wheelie bin, be strung up? Sectioned? Forced to make a public apology on YouTube (the modern equivalent of the medieval stocks). Or is the public outcry – Bale has received death threats – a massive over-reaction?

I adore cats. I own three, all of them totally indulged (they eat gourmet cat food, sit on the furniture). Outside the door are 10 feral bruisers who I'm trying not to feed too much. I have Celia Hammond rescue cats on speed dial. It's brilliant to have a national outcry about animal cruelty. Sometimes I wonder if we really are a nation of pet-lovers any more.

Of course we want the perpetrator "punished", in the form of a fine or community service. The cat survived – but it's a symbolic crime that deserves firm action. And yet. And yet. Part of me is scared by the mob fury (look at how Facebook fans turned Raoul Moat into a modern-day Robin Hood). We all know self-righteous indignation can turn ugly.

Maybe it's a fear of casting the first stone. Most people are guilty of silly, random acts. I would never ever throw a cat in a bin, assuming it could climb out. But anger, loneliness, and frustration are emotional drivers. Ms Bale originally told a journalist: "I did it as a joke. I never thought it would be trapped, I expected it to wriggle out." Adding unwisely, "I don't know what the fuss is about. It's just a cat."

It is never just a cat, lady. For many of us cats are friends, proto-lovers, substitute children. It's not a good fight to pick. But it's true that cats don't work on the same clock. If they want affection or food or shelter, they expect us to get with the programme. Can the same instinct that makes us love a cat suddenly make us furious about their vulnerability, their essential neediness?

Can you be jealous of a creature who – in a loving, domestic environment – has all its needs met? If perhaps you, an adult, don't. I can hardly bear to think about it. But I suspect we need to. If we're to understand the psychological triggers for cruelty.

Mary Bale is an unusual villain. An unmarried bank worker, she sings in the church choir, lives with elderly parents. In the CCTV footage she looks older than 45. I'm fighting not to make assumptions here, but maybe her life is not as fulfilled as it could be?

A photograph of her in 2007 has emerged from a church choir dinner (presumably one of her few outings). The sequinned blouse, salt-and-pepper hair and awkward dash of lipstick don't scream animal-abuser. According to her mother, she was under strain because her father is critically ill in hospital. Maybe the very moment that she met the cat she needed something to feel powerful over. Yesterday she apologised for her actions, citing "a split-second of misjudgement that has got completely out of control".

The semiotics of Mary Bale are endlessly fascinating. Her age. The class she comes from. Certainly the story would never have had the same resonance if the perpetrator had been a teenage boy. But you know who she reminds me of? Gillian Duffy, the woman who tackled Gordon Brown during the election. Both are women we don't often see on the front pages of newspapers – older, unadorned, ordinary women caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

Mrs Duffy was of course fêted as the emblem of good sense, her wardrobe and brusque diction celebrated. Columnists queued up to claim her as The Great British Aunt or Grandmother. Mary Bale is another rabbit caught in the headlights. She's not media-sophisticated. She's only just grasping the magnitude of her actions. And her life is unravelling.

Can't we try and understand a little more? Or at least take our collective anger, that great palpable force, and use it to campaign against animal cruelty. And – just as importantly – to campaign against child cruelty in this country. Outrage is a worthy instinct. But let's switch off Facebook and do something different.

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