On Tuesday 22 September 2015, Penny Beeson fed her family’s “timid, gorgeous” ragdoll cross and watched him stroll through the catflap.
It was the last time she saw four-year-old Ukiyo alive.
The next morning a neighbour a little further along Dalmally Road found Ukiyo’s corpse deposited on her doorstep.
Ukiyo had been hideously mutilated. He had been cut open from his throat to his belly. His intestines were missing.
“When I found out what had happened to him,” said Ms Beeson, “I shook for the whole day.”
Shortly afterwards, a cat was found in nearby Thornton Heath with one leg and its tail removed.
Then a cat was found decapitated with its tail removed in Halfpenny Woods, Shirley. A few weeks later a second decapitated, tail-less cat was found, this time in West Norwood.
Days after that, the severed tail of another cat was found a few streets away in Robson Road, West Norwood.
By now, reports of the incidents were being collected and investigated by a couple of animal-lovers turned amateur pet detectives: Boudicca Rising and her partner Tony Jenkins, the founders of South Norwood Animal Rescue and Liberty (Snarl).
At first, they wondered whether it might be the work of gangs making “crush videos” for denizens of the dark web who liked seeing videos of animals being crushed to death.
Then they became convinced a serial cat killer was on the loose.
The first reports of the “Croydon Cat Ripper” began to circulate, in the press, online and on social media.
“There is a lunatic out there with a knife,” declared civil servant Nadine Dutton when The Independent visited the area in December 2015.
And when The Independent asked, Ms Rising insisted the cat mutilation couldn’t be the work of scavenging animals like foxes.
“The wounds are not bite wounds,” she said. “There are no chew marks. They are very clean, and obviously knife wounds. And besides, foxes don’t routinely attack cats – it’s the other way round.”
A horrifying modus operandi came to be identified.
The cat killer seemed to strike at night, luring his victims in with pet food, crab sticks or raw chicken.
He was thought to kill them with a blunt object, and then wait for the blood to coagulate before beginning the mutilation.
It seemed he would cut off heads, tails, or paws. Often, as in the case of Ukiyo, the cat would be found with its belly slit open and its entrails removed.
It was as if the corpses were deliberately left on display in places where they would easily be found: on doorsteps, in playgrounds.
That December Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) offered a £2,000 reward for information leading to the capture of the Croydon cat killer.
People in Dalmally Road and elsewhere in Croydon began locking their catflaps at night, to stop pets roaming streets that seemed to be stalked by the ripper.
Then, as news of the Croydon cat killer spread, so did his apparent area of operations.
By June 2016 Boudicca Rising and Tony Jenkins of Snarl were urging the press to drop the term “Croydon cat killer” in favour of “M25 animal killer” because reports were now coming in from all over Greater London. The ripper was no longer confining himself to cats.
“We have cats and foxes as confirmed victims and cats, foxes and rabbits as suspected victims,” said Snarl.
By that point, the extent of alarm was such that Ms Rising and Mr Jenkins admitted they were being “deluged” by people contacting them to report “what feels like every stray, injured and dead cat across the South East”.
And yet the killer’s “hunting ground” would come to be seen as even wider than that, stretching – according to some media accounts – far beyond the M25 to Birmingham, to the Wirral, to Sheffield, South Yorkshire, and across the sea to the Isle of Wight.
Ms Rising and Mr Jenkins promised they would be available “no matter what time of day or night” to receive reports of mutilated bodies which seemed to fit with the ripper’s apparent MO. They supplied updates of suspected incidents on their Facebook page.
The apparent death toll crept up and up – from 32 in January 2016, to more than 370 by October 2017.
The reward money went up from £2,000, to £5,000 and then to £10,000.
By December 2017 the death toll was being reported as “more than 400 grisly mutilation murders” by media as far away as Australia. And the list of species targeted had now lengthened to include cats, foxes, rabbits, swans and “possibly a wild baby owl”.
It now seemed only a matter of time before human beings would be added to the ripper’s species list.
In October 2017, in a message that was repeated by other outlets and on social media, detective sergeant Andy Collin, of the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Takahe was told the BBC: “Cats are targeted because they are associated with the feminine. The killer can’t deal with a woman or women who are troubling him.
“The concern we have is that if it isn’t a particular person – who will be at some risk eventually – then at some stage he’ll escalate or feel brave enough to move on to vulnerable women and girls, either elderly or very young women.”
And as if that wasn’t bad enough, there was another fear: was all the publicity encouraging at least one other copycat cat killer to start slaying animals?
In July 2016 Snarl had reported that a fox cub found dead in Elmers End, Bromley, had been mutilated by a different killer, with a new MO.
“The cub had been mutilated by a human being with a long-bladed instrument,” Snarl announced. “This is a different weapon and method. We need to be very clear at this point that this is the first body we have had examined that shows a different killer. We are not sure whether this is a one-off or another serial [killer].”
Amid the fear, there was public grief. The BBC reported on the ceremony held inside a Croydon Quaker meeting hall in June 2017: “As the traffic hummed and beeped outside, the group listened to a harpist and lit candles on a table adorned with a large photograph of a tabby cat with a white tummy.
“They were there to commemorate the animal victims – joining together to sing the hymn ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’ and to recite poems about grief.”
By February the Met had funded 10 postmortems on cats at a cost of £7,500. Its Operation Takahe team had come to comprise one detective sergeant, four detective constables and 10 police constables.
The force said that these officers worked on a large number of other cases simultaneously, but when some online commentators demanded to know why the police had been unable to catch such a seemingly prolific animal killer, Ms Rising and Mr Jenkins leapt to their defence.
“They are attending alongside us, despite stabbings, rapes, murders, serious road traffic accidents, human murders and everything else that goes into their frantic schedule,” the couple said. “Just because they aren’t putting out statements, doesn’t mean the work isn’t being done.”
In fact, in August last year, police did put out a description of a “person of interest”, seeking help in tracing a mystery man who was chased after being seen near the site of a suspected attack in Caterham, Surrey.
He was described as in his forties, with short brown hair, dark clothing and possible acne scars.
Now, of course, the police say the real culprits did not match that description. Instead they were of indeterminate age, with ginger fur, four legs and bushy tails: foxes.
Despite Ms Rising having ruled them out as suspects three years ago, the police now think it was probably scavenging foxes all along.
The police suggested that foxes and possibly other wildlife were eating the remains of animals already killed by collisions with vehicles. They cited expert scientific opinion and three incidents where CCTV footage showed foxes carrying cat bodyparts.
Though the police didn’t mention it, the conclusion that humans weren’t responsible also matches the views of some who have investigated suspected “ripper attacks” on other animals.
In the 1980s and 1990s fears of “horse rippers” was so great that in some places, owners slept in stables to protect their animals. Parents were warned not to let their children check on their ponies at night.
The attacks, which drew comparisons with the 1973 play Equus, were variously ascribed to sadistic sexual deviants, weird fertility cults, and even the jealousy of rival horse owners.
But in 2001, Ted Barnes, a field officer for the International League for the Protection of Horses who had spent 15 years investigating these disturbing incidents, declared that in all but a tiny minority of cases, horse ripper attacks were a myth.
He explained that livestock could die of other causes and then be eaten by scavenging animals, which might well start by consuming the genitals because such soft body parts were easier to bite into. Horses could also inflict the injuries upon themselves.
Mr Barnes, the former head of the Metropolitan Police’s equine crime unit, told The Guardian: “When a mare is in season she will do the most ridiculous things. She will rub her back end on a gatepost. She might start by nicking herself on a sharp object.
“She will try to relieve that by continuing the rubbing and inflict the most horrendous injuries on herself. She would not stop because she sees blood.
“Very alarming-looking injuries can be caused. Because it involves genitalia, people assume it is done by a pervert.”
There were horse lovers who challenged such explanations then, and now there are those who do not accept the police’s scavenging wildlife explanation, which was challenged almost as soon as it was made.
Among those using social media to offer an opposing view were Ms Rising and Mr Jenkins of Snarl.
On Snarl’s Facebook page they wrote: “We consider the evidence we have gathered over the last three years does indicate human involvement and there is expert opinion to back this up.”
They made clear that rather than having uncritically blamed a ripper for every reported animal mutilation, “We have discounted over 1,500 incidents as non-human related”.
And, perhaps pointedly, they added: “The police have said that they will continue to investigate incidents where there is clear evidence of human involvement. We will release a further statement in due course.”
For some, it seems, the hunt for the Croydon cat killer is not over.
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