“You have to look!” Johnnie Walker commanded. “Closing your eyes isn’t going to change anything. Nothing’s going to disappear just because you can’t see what going on. In fact, things will be even worse the next time you open your eyes.”
—Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
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.
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.
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.
Jenkins and Rising turned to the law for help. They met with officers in Croydon’s branch of the Metropolitan Police Service, who claimed not to have any cat killings on record. Rising referred the officers to reports the police had in fact handed to owners, and the vet records that had been filed in some of those cases. “They seemed clueless,” Rising said of the police. “Outside on the steps we realized: It’s going to be down to us.”
SNARL’s founders decided to muster evidence to present to the RSPCA and the Met. They arranged for a vet in Addiscombe, Deane Braid-Lewis, to conduct postmortems on ten cat corpses, including Amber’s. It cost £5,000—nearly $7,000—all of it raised on GoFundMe. Braid-Lewis concluded that only a “large sharp blade” could have made such clean incisions. He found no sign of bite marks that would suggest predation or scavenging by other animals. He couldn’t state with certainty that the same hand had wielded the knife in all ten cases, but he believed that the perpetrator’s skill level had improved over time. Amber had a fractured spine and generalized bleeding in the thoracic cavity, both signs of blunt-force trauma that he found in many of the other animals he examined. SNARL believed this meant that the killer was bludgeoning the pets to death, maybe after luring them with food. Braid-Lewis also found an unknown substance under Amber’s claws: Had she scratched the killer? Might it contain DNA?
According to Rising, Andy Tarrant, the borough commander for the Croydon police, initially refused to test the sample. He told her that Amber’s body had been handled by too many people to produce a conclusive result. When eventually it was tested, the material proved to be carpet fibers. (The Met wouldn’t let individual officers comment for this story.)
Skeptical cops like Tarrant might have been reliving memories of Operation Obelisk, a four-month Met investigation in 1999 focused on a run of cat killings—it produced a frenzy of media speculation about satanic rituals, only to end with an announcement that, indeed, foxes had been scavenging roadkill. But even if the authorities got on board with SNARL’s hypothesis, the law didn’t exactly guarantee a harsh outcome if the killer was found. It’s not illegal to kill an animal; without carefully worded language, such a statute would have the awkward side effect of making every slaughterhouse the site of mass murder. Despite the UK having some of the strictest animal welfare protections in the world, the maximum sentence for cruelty is still only 51 weeks behind bars, a fine of £20,000 (about $27,000), or both. In practice, any sentence is usually six months or less, because crimes involving animal cruelty tend to be treated as minor offenses. The killer, if he existed, might be sued for criminal damages, as pets are property. From a police perspective, the prosecution options, let alone the evidence, didn’t merit the time or money that a serious investigation would require.
But members of the British public wouldn’t let the cat deaths go quietly. On SNARL’s Facebook page, people commiserated and provided comfort.
“Poor baby, and their fur parents!”
“Furbabies need a human voice sometimes—no more than now.”
“Run free at Rainbow Bridge poor puss” (a reference to “crossing the rainbow bridge,” a description among animal lovers of what happens when a pet dies).
Some of the bereaved cat owners accompanied Jenkins, Rising, and a number of SNARL volunteers to an open Q&A with the Met at Croydon College on the evening of Wednesday, December 2. Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, commissioner for the whole of London, fielded questions on community matters as Tarrant moderated. When Tarrant announced that he was about to take the last question, someone pointed out that SNARL’s founders and supporters had had their hands up the whole time. Tarrant called on one of them. “Are you aware that someone is going around London killing cats, decapitating them, and leaving their remains to be found?” asked a SNARL volunteer. Horrified, Hogan-Howe said that he knew nothing about it and, according to Jenkins, shot an admonishing look at Tarrant. “Of course we need to take this seriously,” Hogan-Howe said, adding that someone who harmed animals might very well move on to humans.
He was referring to a corner of what criminologists call the MacDonald triad. In a 1963 article entitled “The Threat to Kill,” New Zealand–born psychiatrist John Marshall MacDonald suggested that extreme animal cruelty is one of three adolescent behaviors that increase the risk of homicidal tendencies later in life. (The other two are obsessively setting fires and persistent bedwetting.) The FBI claimed to corroborate the triad with case studies of serial killers, including Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer, who, among other malicious deeds, tortured animals as youths. Some criminologists now question the theory.
Ten days after the Q&A, a few dozen SNARL supporters and worried pet owners presented Tarrant with a petition signed by some 45,000 people. It called for a formal investigation of the cat killings. Tarrant informed the group that, as it happened, Met officers were now on the case. Operation Takahe, a name randomly generated by a computer program, had begun. Jenkins and Rising were invited to participate; the pet detectives were deputized.
Animals didn’t rule his life when Tony Jenkins first met Boudicca Rising. He’d had a fairly average pet quotient—two cats—when he was married and living in Stoke Newington, on the other side of London. Then his marriage fell apart, and he spent five years living in the spare room of his own home. He would leave the window open at night and wake up with “his cat”—Mabel—on his chest, after she’d returned from her nightly adventures.
“Morose and pissed” one night on Facebook, as Jenkins later recalled, he friended Rising—under her real name, not the nom de guerre she later adopted while battling animal abusers, in order to shield her from harassment and threats. With one marriage behind her and fresh out of another relationship, Rising was sick of “creeps” hounding her on social media. Based on Jenkins’s profile picture, she wrote him off. But the pair started chatting, and it became a regular thing. They had a natural affinity—“anti-racist, anti-fascist, kind of unconventional,” as Rising put it. She found his attitude refreshing. “He never tried it on, never showed any dick pics,” she said. They refrained from meeting in person—she wasn’t sure he was her type. Jenkins had his reservations, too. “You’re not going to turn me into some crazy animal-rights person, are you?” he once asked her.
When they finally did meet, Rising consigned Jenkins to friends-with-benefits status, but by August 2012, she had to acknowledge that they were in a relationship. Finally divorced, Jenkins was looking for a house of his own. With London in its post-Olympics property boom, he realized that he would struggle to buy anything in the city’s north big enough to put up his two teenage sons when it was his turn with them. Down south, near Rising, houses were still affordable. The couple agreed that living in separate places worked best. “If we had an argument, I could just fuck off home, or she could. Job done,” Jenkins said.
So Jenkins moved to south London—“the badlands,” as he called it—on December 21, 2012, the final day of a 5,126-year cosmological cycle in the Mayan calendar. The world’s gonna end, of course it is, Jenkins remembered telling himself. And I’m moving to fucking Croydon.
Rising lived in the South Norwood neighborhood, and she was a regular in the pubs and shops of Portland Road, which is more lively and multicultural than the sedate streets of Addiscombe to the south. She had lived in the area since 1996, and one reason she had a big social network was that she’d been rehousing animals “for donkey’s years,” she said. “I never felt the need to call myself a rescue. It was just something I did.”
Rising found her way into activism in what was then a world capital of injustice: her birthplace, South Africa. Her father worked in the oil industry and tried to use his power to help others—he once shielded a white employee who was threatened with blackmail after marrying a mixed-race woman. Rising’s father also worked with rescue dogs and occasionally brought them home, including Pingo, a Keeshond mix who walked in circles. Pingo joined a couple of other dogs, plus Suzy, a cat, in the family’s brood of pets.
Rising’s mother was an organizer for the apartheid opposition, the Progressive Federal Party. She also worked with the party’s Unrest Monitoring Action Group, which compiled statistics on state-sponsored violence in townships. Rising got a job with the group at 17, helping people escape the country and sheltering victims of police brutality. “It was really dangerous,” she said. “The only reason we didn’t die is because we were white and well-known.” After Nelson Mandela was elected, Rising moved to London for six months, hoping to take a break. She never left.
And now she was dating Jenkins, who one night walked tipsily to her house after a night at the pub with a friend. A kitten had followed him.
“What’s that?” Rising asked when she opened the door.
“It’s a cat.”
“I bloody well know it’s a cat. But what’s it doing here?”
It was an odd question coming from a woman who had nine of them. Despite their efforts to keep the kitten in the garden, it slipped past them into the house, hissed at the felines in residence, and made itself at home on Rising’s bed. Discussing the interloper the next morning, the couple noticed that it had no collar and hadn’t been microchipped. Rising speculated that it had escaped from a nearby cat breeder who refused to have her animals chipped—“in which case, fuck her.” If no one claimed the kitten, they decided that Jenkins would.
Jenkins named her Daisy. He felt guilty about leaving her alone in his house while he was working, so she was soon joined by Ozzy, a black rescue cat from east London. “I called him that because I liked rock music. The Prince of Darkness!” Jenkins said.
Rising was well on her way to making Jenkins a “crazy animal-rights person.” The next step was transforming him into a saboteur. Animal rights activists meet regularly in the winter months to disrupt countryside fox hunts, which still occur in the UK, despite having been banned in 2005. Some “hunt sabs,” as they’re called, sport a tattoo of a running fox. One of Rising’s friends asked if Jenkins would like to come along on a sabotage mission. After that, Jenkins spent many weekends in a Land Rover ferrying protesters around. They used horns and citronella spray to distract packs of hunting dogs. On occasion things became confrontational with the landed-gentry types who ran the hunts.
The adventures were a break from the growing cat menagerie in Jenkins’s house. He and Rising took in strays and rehoused many more. “We got to the point where we’d run out of friends and family to foist cats onto,” he said. The mission creep toward Dr. Dolittle territory was documented on ASBOCats, a combination blog and exercise in avant-garde anthropomorphism written by Rising in the voice of her pets. “I kept on pesticatting and pesticatting and by mistayke jumped on Daddi’s fayse and made him yell and sware,” one post reads. “Almost as much as Mommi, who ebentually tucked me under the cubbers and sed go to sleep.”
In the autumn of 2014, Jenkins and Rising put an official name on their shared, consuming passion. The acronym SNARL was Jenkins’s idea—“I thought it was catchy”—but Rising suggested the L stand for “liberty,” not “liberation,” as Jenkins originally suggested. The latter was too militant sounding, she thought. The couple couldn’t have guessed that, a year into SNARL’s existence, they’d be distributing leaflets about cat murders, or that just a few months later, they’d be working with the police on the first UK investigation in which the authorities clearly stated that they were pursuing a serial killer who targeted pets.
Detective Sergeant Andy Collin stood in front of a BBC camera crew and stated categorically that a human killer was responsible for the animal deaths reported up to that point. It was 2016, and the toll now included other fauna—foxes and rabbits, for instance. “Whoever’s doing this is good, seemingly, at what they do,” Collin said. “There is planning and thought involved.”
Working out of Croydon Police Station, Collin had been appointed by the Met to lead Operation Takahe. His team would eventually include four detective constables and ten officers. In his early forties, with a small, gnomish face and a bluff air, Collin was a local boy who had worked street-gang and organized-crime cases. That didn’t stop him from taking this oddball assignment seriously. Rising told me that she was sold on Collin from the beginning. “Andy was really special in that he really cared,” she said. “Cops who really care have this kind of lazy charm about them. They don’t take themselves seriously, but they take cases seriously. It’s a hard thing to describe, but when you see it in a copper, you know they’re actually half-decent.”
Collin set about ordering the investigation—pinpointing which reports of dead animals strongly suggested human involvement and then trying to discover which human. Rising admitted that, as the death toll rose beyond 50 animals in the early months of 2016, it was hard to find a consistent modus operandi: “Some were heads cut off. Some were tails. Some were heads and tails. Some were a back leg and a tail.” With such a variety of injuries, SNARL and the police weren’t sure if they were dealing with one killer or a group. “We were really working blind,” Rising said.
The investigation’s first port of call was a forensics lab. Twenty-two animal cadavers, including four of the ten already autopsied by Braid-Lewis, were delivered to the Royal Veterinary College for examination. The Met shared the expenses with the RSPCA, which had come around and now wanted to resolve the mystery of the dead pets once and for all.
A young veterinary pathologist named Alex Stoll was assigned to look at the cadavers. A high-achieving postgraduate, Stoll had performed his first piano concert at age six, held a pilot’s license, claimed to be learning nearly a dozen languages, and had appeared as an extra in several Harry Potter films. Still he found time to probe around inside dead animals. A paper Stoll coauthored for The Journal of Animal Welfare Law argued in favor of systematic use of forensic expertise in the investigation of crimes involving animals, for which there was little protocol.
Stoll’s verdict on the 22 dead pets was that they’d all succumbed to blunt-force trauma, and that the decapitations and other mutilations had been performed with a sharp knife or, in some cases, a hinged instrument like garden shears. He admitted that he was uncertain about the kind of blunt force that took the creatures’ lives—it could have been, say, a collision with a car. Stoll didn’t test for human DNA, because he believed the corpses had been handled by too many people for that evidence to be useful. He swapped notes with Braid-Lewis, whose conclusions he broadly corroborated. Stoll even went a step further. “I’d be fairly confident in saying it’s the same person performing these mutilations across these animals,” he later told the BBC.
So police, pathologist, and SNARL were united in their opinion about the killings. With the investigation gaining steam, Takahe meetings were convivial and productive. Collin, Jenkins, Rising, and RSPCA chief inspector Mike Butcher met monthly to review recent incidents. Jenkins was amused to suddenly find himself a collaborator with the authorities. “First time I’ve been in a police station without handcuffs,” he joked. His hyperactive rescue dog, Toffee, mauled rugs during meetings and once snuck off to have a stealth poo during a lecture SNARL’s founders were asked to give at the Royal Veterinary College. Meanwhile, a network of volunteers and animal rescue groups were on high alert for reports of pet deaths, and PETA offered a reward of £5,000 (nearly $7,000) for information leading to a conviction.
SNARL was soon swamped with reports about new killings, including ones outside London. The police logged them all, but officers could only be present on the ground according to their priorities on a given day—crimes involving humans took precedence. For their part, SNARL’s founders attempted to visit every reported crime scene. Jenkins and Rising often spent three or four hours comforting traumatized families and doing forensic work. (Jenkins admitted most of his knowledge came from watching episodes of CSI.) They only had the capacity for about two calls per day.
A surge of attacks around Addiscombe Railway Park in autumn 2016—after the area had gone quiet for most of the previous year—suggested that the killer might have a thing for anniversaries. Other times the perpetrator appeared to go on what SNARL called an anger spree, hitting two or three animals in a single day. The fear that the killer might escalate to targeting people lent the hunt an undeniable urgency. “If this fellow started going out and doing the same thing to humans, I’d get kicked from here to Chelsea,” Collin told the BBC. “It’ll be: ‘Why didn’t you deal with it while it was at a low level?’”
By Christmas 2016, a year after Operation Takahe began, SNARL and the police had a general grasp of how and where this predator killed. But they were nowhere near having a description of their nemesis, let alone a name. So Rising and Jenkins coined their own. Bedwetter and Turdburger were two early attempts before they nailed the moniker, which Rising shared in a Facebook post over the holidays: “Christmas brings those losses into sharp relief and tonight we can’t help but think of all of the people and animals we have met over the past 15 months who are still processing and coming to terms with the loss of their companion animals due to Pooboy.”
The SNARL founders weren’t the only ones with a nickname for the killer. “Jack the Rippurr” was dreamed up by Britain’s leading tabloid, The Sun. By early 2017, the idea of a prolific pet murderer was piquing media interest worldwide. Most British newspapers and the BBC followed the case, and it was eventually covered in The New York Times, Vanity Fair, BuzzFeed News, and several French outlets. Vice would release To Catch a Killer, a noirish half-hour documentary, in 2018.
The case also attracted celebrity attention. Martin Clunes, an actor who went to school in Croydon and who is best known for starring in the 1990s sitcom Men Behaving Badly, wrote to the Met early in the investigation. He begged the police to catch the “sick individual” who was responsible and end a spree that was the “stuff of nightmares.” The lead guitarist of boy band the Vamps offered free tickets to anyone who helped catch the killer. Even loudmouthed Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson—a man not exactly noted for his sensitivity—lent support in the pages of The Sun, albeit begrudgingly. “I’m not a cat fan by any means—they give me asthma—and I can’t think of anything worse than spending time in the company of an animal-rights person called Boudicca Rising,” he said. “The case makes my blood boil because I am a dog fan. And if someone poisoned mine, I’d capture him and force him to live for a year with Boudicca Rising.”
There were those who accused SNARL’s founders of trying to get famous or rich. But Jenkins and Rising didn’t ask for a fee when they were called to handle dead pets. The only payment Jenkins received for his media appearances was a per diem when he went on This Morning, a daytime TV program. His severance had run out, and he was financially dependent on Rising and public donations to the SNARL website. Money was tight. “The public don’t cover stuff like clothes. Which is why he looks like shit!” Rising once joked. “We get stuff from charity shops. Neither of us is particularly materialistic.”
Jenkins worried that, too often, the media furor minimized the impact of the killings on pet owners. “I had one police officer who went, ‘Waste of my time—it’s only a cat.’ I said, ‘Excuse me? It’s only a cat?’” Jenkins told me. “Imagine you get married, and your wife gets a cat. You then have a child, and your child at the age of six has grown up with it, adores it, sleeps with it. And one morning your wife gets up, opens the curtains, and there’s your cat with no head, and no fucking tail, and your daughter’s about to go out and play. And you tell me it’s just a fucking cat.”
The investigation created a community of grieving pet owners and sympathetic animal lovers. On June 3, 2017, around 25 of them walked under the steeply gabled roof of the Croydon Quaker Meeting House, across the street from the police station. They were greeted by a table with a picture of a tabby and a white cat emblazoned with the words “My Little Angel,” flanked with two trays of glimmering tea lights. A service card explained the reason for the occasion: celebrating the lives of Pooboy’s many victims.
A harpist played, and the group sang the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful.” Because the killer had hit what seemed like every cultural demographic, Rising didn’t want to alienate anyone in the audience. She opted to speak on a universal theme, telling the crowd, “Love will solve this.” Then she opened the floor to anyone who wished to talk about their pet. “Some owners want to shut the door and move on,” Rising told me. “But I have owners who still do memorial posts to their cats on the Facebook pages years later. The mourning process is different for everybody.”
By August 2017, SNARL had identified around 350 cases it thought could be attributed to Pooboy. To narrow down the scope of inquiry, Rising put her business-consultant cap on. She compiled a list of a dozen criteria, eventually expanded to 26, to determine which cases Operation Takahe should investigate. Incidents featuring blatant mutilations—missing heads, tails, or limbs, or body parts deposited at the scene—were given three points. Most other criteria—little visible blood, signs of the animal having been asphyxiated, the corpse being displayed near the pet owner’s home or in a public place—got one point. Negatively weighted factors were signs of contact with other animals, including bite marks or scratches (minus five) and scuff marks on claws (minus two; cats hit by cars tend to extend their claws in panic). SNARL attended any incident that scored five or more. Cases that seemed suspicious to Stoll or another vet were ultimately counted as the work of the serial killer.
SNARL presumed that Pooboy displayed the corpses and body parts out of enjoyment for the emotional distress it caused pet owners. The scenes sometimes seemed staged with a morbid playfulness—head, body, and tail lined up in a bloody ellipsis, for instance, or in the shape of a triangle. One local man emerged into his garden one day to find his cat set upright, apparently half-buried in a hole. When he picked it up, however, the animal had no bottom half. Sometimes remains were discovered weeks after a pet disappeared from home with few signs of decomposition, suggesting the animal had been kept in cold storage.
Forensics, though, offered few leads as to who the perpetrator might be. There was little to no blood at any of the crime scenes, a fact crucial to the hypothesis that a human and not another animal was inflicting mutilations after death. But nor were there fingerprints or DNA. A suspect had never been captured on CCTV, despite most of the killings taking place in one of the most surveilled cities in the world. The perpetrator’s skill at avoiding cameras was enough to make members of Operation Takahe’s task force wonder if their man was an installer of CCTV, burglar alarms, or some other security technology.
Outside London, there seemed to be runs of cases along travel routes, not quiet suburban areas like those the killer favored in the capital. For example, on a single night, killings occurred in Bedfordshire, Liverpool, and Sheffield—all locations to the north of London and within a few hours’ drive of one another. Curiously, no killings were reported in London that evening. It was as if Pooboy had gone on a little journey. SNARL speculated that the killer could be a delivery driver of some kind. Jenkins and Rising circulated maps showing the far-flung incidents on Facebook, in the hope that a visitor might identify somebody who had recently taken a trip along the routes. Nothing came of it.
As it searched in vain for answers, SNARL saw patterns where arguably there were none. A significant proportion of the owners whose pets were killed were blond women or police officers. Many of the dead cats had been autism companion animals. Several incidents coincided with classic-car exhibitions held nearby. There were a large number of killings that occurred in places with cat in the name, such as Catford and Caterham.
A town of 20,000 on a railway terminus, Caterham is a mix of black-beamed Tudor Revival architecture and modern buildings. Huff and puff some 20 minutes up a steep slope, and you’ll find Caterham on the Hill, a serene collection of low-rise residential houses wedged between patches of greenbelt and protected by a 25 kph (15 mph) speed limit. Not quite London, not quite countryside, this is liminal land. Cats scrabble over thin-paneled garden fences that back onto long alleys. When Rising showed me the incident map for the area, it was peppered with stars.
SNARL believed that because the streetlights went out at 1 a.m., Pooboy was given the cover needed to operate without detection. The Caterham police gave Jenkins and Rising the go-ahead to organize a night watch, roping in residents to keep an eye out for strange goings-on after dark. (When it first began investigating Pooboy, SNARL had similarly monitored the streets in Addiscombe, hoping to catch the killer in the act.) Close to 10 p.m. on August 22, 2017, a patroller was walking up the area’s main northbound road. He noticed a man leaning over a wall into a garden, making smoochy, here-kitty-kitty noises. A cat bell tingled nearby. When the stranger realized he was being watched, he hurried off, a dull light casting long shadows as he went—a headlamp, perhaps? The patroller immediately phoned Rising, who told him to follow the suspect, but the stranger vanished.
The following morning, a van driver made a grisly discovery on Addison Road, a few hundred yards to the west of where the shadowy figure had been spotted: a cat’s headless, tailless, eviscerated body. Its intestines had been draped over the shingle of a front garden. Nibbles had belonged to a woman named Debbie Dyer Spencer-Hughes. She came to a familiar conclusion: “There’s no way a fox could’ve inflicted those injuries.” (Another of Spencer-Hughes’s cats was killed the following April.)
Caterham went on high alert. In the early hours of August 24, one of Spencer-Hughes’s neighbors spotted someone with a headlamp peering into gardens on Addison Road. “He wasn’t casing properties. It looked like he was searching for something,” the woman later told Rising. When confronted, the man ran off. The woman cried out for help, and the neighborhood erupted into what Rising described as “pitchfork time.” Wielding a garden rake, the woman pursued the man up the street, where he managed to give her the slip somewhere near a connecting alley—but not before being seen by several other people.
Two days later, 11 miles to the northeast in Orpington, a resident saw a man on her street trying to lure her cat with biscuits. When she confronted him, he said he had mistaken her pet for his own, which had gone missing.
“What does it look like?”
“It’s a silver tabby,” the man replied.
“Well, my cat doesn’t really look like that. What else does yours look like?”
“It’s a silver tabby with white paws.”
“Which house do you live in?”
Number 32, he said. But the woman knew the people who lived there—he was lying. After the man went on his way, she rang SNARL. The man’s description of the silver tabby with white paws matched one that had been killed just a few hours before, less than half a mile away.
The man broadly matched the one seen by 15 or so witnesses during the pitchfork chase. SNARL, along with local police, released the case’s first suspect description: “If you see a man in his 40s, white, with short brown hair, between 5’8” and 5’11”, average build, possibly with some acne scarring to his face, dressed in dark clothing, with or without a torch, trying to coax cats with a toy or feed them or looking or entering gardens, please dial 999 quoting Operation Takahe.”
At last, a picture of the killer seemed to be coalescing in the suburban gloom.
Tony Jenkins stood in a tight alley skirting a redbrick Baptist church, looking down in consternation at a dead fox. Buses gusted past within earshot on the A216, a single-lane highway. There was a gamy tang in the air. Dressed in a Black Sabbath T-shirt, Jenkins hunched to examine the animal. The fox had been completely bisected across the torso, like a magician’s trick gone wrong. The head and front legs were nowhere to be seen. A small brown organ peeked out from the edge of the cut. It didn’t seem possible that another animal could inflict such exacting damage, much less one of the same species.
Jenkins took a few photographs. There were no maggots yet. The corpse was fresh. Judging by its size, it wasn’t quite fully grown. Jenkins thought the fox was an early-born cub. “Poor thing,” he said.
It was June 2018, and the Croydon Cat Killer had long since outgrown that nickname, both geographically and zoologically. Besides Pooboy, another moniker making the rounds—the M25 Cat Killer, a reference to London’s ring road—didn’t fit, either. Jenkins mentioned to me a killing that had happened two days earlier in Southampton, more than 80 miles south of London—one of the many deaths that had been documented outside the capital. Only one descriptor fit the scale of what SNARL had seen thus far: the UK Animal Killer.
Jenkins continued to search the alley, but nothing stood out apart from a few tufts of fur. If the animal had been hit by a car, there were no signs of it dragging itself behind the church. There was, as ever, no blood at the scene. Jenkins was about to pocket a five-pence piece he found near the corpse when I suggested it could have a fingerprint on it. “It’s very unlikely,” he said. Eager to help, I also excitedly pointed out some dollops of excrement on the pavement around a drab community garden behind the church. “It’s not human shit though, is it?” Jenkins retorted. “I don’t think he takes a dump after he’s killed.”
The church had a security camera. Perhaps the killer had messed up this time and passed in front of it. Then again, the camera could be a dummy. Jenkins noted the church’s phone number.
He knocked on the front door of a neighboring house. Harriet Jarvis-Campbell, a slender twentysomething in a tracksuit, answered. She was the one who’d messaged SNARL first thing in the morning after spying the fox from her bedroom window. Now she and her mother, Catherine, leaning in the doorway, said that they were worried about the safety of their two dogs and cats. “Has he ever been known to come back?” Harriet asked, referring to the killer. Jenkins paused before answering. “I’ll have to tell you the truth,” he said. “We’ve got six or seven cases where he’s come back and killed a second cat.”
Harriet swallowed hard. Jenkins told the women to keep their pets indoors for the time being. He wasn’t sure the police would come, but the women should stow the fox in a cardboard box, he said, just in case. Jenkins offered his goodbyes and strolled back to his battered Ford Focus, scoping all the while for anyone loitering in the vicinity, part of his crime-scene routine. There was only the ceaseless passage of London traffic.
Months had passed since the suspect’s description was released to the public. There had been more killings but no viable leads—not until June 16, 2018, two days after Jenkins responded to the report about the dead fox. Around 5 a.m., the first rays of sun were catching the River Nene, thick with pondweed, in Northampton, 60 miles north of London. In a meadow overlooking the river, a young man was stretched out on the grass. He was watching a white tugboat-style barge that had been converted into a vegan restaurant called the Ark Café. Two of its windows were smashed; the wall and ceiling adjacent to one of the openings were blackened with thick soot.
The man, Brendan Gaughan, rolled over to find someone standing over him—a police officer. “The defendant wasn’t asleep, and the officer formed the view that he was hiding,” a subsequent court transcript reads. “Fire engines attending The Ark were still present and visible from the defendant’s location. The officer formed the view that the defendant was likely positioned there so he could watch the consequences of the fire. The defendant couldn’t explain his presence. He said he was relaxing as he had nowhere to live, and he was arrested on suspicion of arson.”
Under questioning, Gaughan confessed not only to setting seven fires in the area the previous night—including three at the Ark Café—but also to killing and dismembering seven cats in Northampton in recent months. His involvement was beyond doubt: Most of those animals, or what was left of them, had been returned to their home addresses in plastic bags. Fingerprints were found on one bag that matched Gaughan’s. His DNA was identified on another.
SNARL had looked into several of the incidents alongside the Northamptonshire police, and it had logged other killings in the city—a total of 13. Was Gaughan responsible for them all? Even more tantalizing was the notion that his hunting ground was wider than Northampton.
It soon became clear, however, that Gaughan almost certainly wasn’t Pooboy. His tidy plastic-bag presentation hadn’t been seen in any of the London cases, and Operation Takahe logged incidents in the capital on at least three of the seven days Gaughan had confessed to killing cats in Northampton. The 32-year-old seemed to operate only locally—indeed, apart from two killings on the other side of town, he committed all his butchery on or adjacent to his own street. Moreover, unlike Pooboy, Gaughan was careless. The night of his June arrest on the green, he was captured on CCTV. Earlier in the year, Northamptonshire police had arrested and questioned him when a witness followed him home after Gaughan committed arson. (It isn’t clear why he was subsequently released; the police wouldn’t comment on the case.)
Still, SNARL wondered, could Gaughan have been an apprentice of their serial killer? “We have speculated about the possibility of a joint venture,” Jenkins told me. “Unfortunately, we can’t interrogate him ourselves, but I’d certainly be interested.”
After Gaughan’s arrest, according to SNARL’s founders, Operation Takahe stalled. The Met announced that Collin would be taken off the operation, and he stopped taking calls from Rising and Jenkins. SNARL said it was never given an explanation—the group was only told that new officers were being assigned to the case. Rising dismissively called Collin’s replacements “career cops,” with no real interest in getting into the field. In retrospect, it seems likely that Collin’s transfer signaled the Met’s growing disillusionment with the operation.
SNARL had grown to 11 members by then, volunteers who gave their time to distribute leaflets, take calls, and attend crime scenes and stakeouts. Beyond that there were thousands of people who followed SNARL on Facebook—a horde of pet owners, vets, animal lovers, and internet sleuths who frequently supplied tips. But there were many critics, too, and they had mounting questions, namely about the total tally of probable killings. The figure was now approaching 500. Could that possibly be accurate? What were the odds that a person could get away with that many killings, especially with all the press the case had received?
Mike Butcher was a member of Operation Takahe and the RSPCA’s longest-serving frontline officer—he had nearly 50 years’ experience when he retired in 2020. Butcher believed there was enough evidence from the original south London incidents to suggest a single person at work. “And then it got a bit out of hand,” he said. “It became a media-hype thing. Every single cat that turned up dead was a potential victim.”
The plug was officially pulled in September 2018. The Met released a press statement with the headline, “Scavenging by wildlife established as likely cause of reported cat mutilations.” The police claimed that “hundreds of reported cat mutilations in Croydon and elsewhere were not carried out by a human and are likely to be the result of predation or scavenging by wildlife of cats killed in vehicle collisions.” In short: A fox did it. The Met had spent 2,250 police hours and the resource equivalent of some $180,000—roughly as much as it had sunk into investigating a recent series of armed robberies—to announce that the culprit was orange, whiskered, and crafty.
Rising was sure she knew what happened. Like all British public services, the Met had been whittled down by Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity-obsessed government—its budget had been reduced by 20 percent since 2010. “When they realized it cost hundreds of thousands, they killed it,” Rising said, “and they killed it by trying to discredit us.”
The Met’s press release didn’t explicitly say that SNARL was wrong, but it did aim a broadside at the thesis of a human serial killer. The police’s verdict rested on four categories of evidence. First were six cat cadavers reexamined by Alex Stoll in August 2018, at which time he found puncture wounds he had previously missed and concluded that some of the animals might have been scavenged. Second was five cases—three cats and two rabbits—in which postmortems had recently been conducted by the head of forensic pathology at the Royal Veterinary College. She too found scavenging or predation-related mutilations and fox DNA on the wound sites. Third was three pieces of security footage that showed foxes carrying cat corpses or body parts onto two private properties and a school playground in Catford. Lastly, the Met’s press release cited “expert opinion,” namely a recent article in the New Scientist by world-leading fox behaviorist Stephen Harris. In the piece, Harris made reference to foxes’ “carnassials”—shearing molars they use to cut up prey—which leave clean-edged wounds that could be mistaken for knife work.
SNARL claimed that there were holes in the police’s reasoning, chiefly that the cases cited represented too small a sample size. Jenkins and Rising insisted the incidents had been cherry-picked to support the fox hypothesis and close the investigation. They pointed out that the presence of fox DNA did not preclude the possibility that a pet was killed by a human and scavenged later. The same went for the security footage of foxes moving body parts—SNARL argued that it was circumstantial, and that it didn’t eliminate the prospect of a human killer.
What’s more, Jenkins and Rising had reason to believe that Stoll’s U-turn wasn’t as clear-cut as the press release made it sound. This was thanks to Butcher, who despite his doubts about the death tally felt that SNARL was getting a raw deal. Stoll wouldn’t comment for this story, but Butcher said he was present at a meeting in which the veterinary pathologist avoided making a full retraction of his initial findings: “I was there, he said it: ‘In my view, those early cats were killed by a knife.’” Harris, the fox behaviorist, also declined to comment, but according to SNARL his research couldn’t account for suspicious circumstances in many of the incidents reported to Operation Takahe, such as the seemingly deliberate arrangement of dead animals’ body parts.
Then there was the matter of what Jenkins described to me as “signature injuries.” SNARL had never described them publicly. Wary of copycats who might further complicate the investigation, Jenkins and Rising were prepared to reveal details about only one of the injuries for this story: Many cats were found with their intestines pulled out through their anus, a circle of fur shaved off around the orifice, and the entrails displayed near the corpses. Jenkins estimated that around 5 percent of cases featured this mutilation. He was sure it was important. “The vets who’ve seen it have said, ‘Blimey, that’s actually quite surgically skilled,’” he said. “‘I can’t see a fox doing that, or any other animal.’”
Adele Brand, another fox behaviorist who has supported Harris’s conclusions in the New Scientist, said she wasn’t convinced. Corvids, such as crows and magpies, might scavenge through the anus as a means of accessing and consuming soft tissues. “Bear in mind that in nature, they have larger animals to open up the carcass for them,” Brand said. “But if the body was intact, I can imagine a corvid displaying that kind of behavior.”
If SNARL had indeed overcondensed a bloody morass of incidents from three years into the work of a single killer, perhaps it was because Rising and Jenkins were fully alert to the scale of abuse inflicted upon animals. In the United States, the Humane Society estimates that a million animals are abused or killed every year as bystanders to human-on-human domestic violence. (In fact, police reports about such incidents are the primary verifiable source of animal abuse statistics.) The RSPCA received 1.2 million calls about animal cruelty in 2019. Experts believe far more abuse goes unreported.
Rising and Jenkins are plugged into networks that know animal abuse isn’t just a series of one-off acts. Consider the “animal crush” video trend, in which small animals are tortured on camera for sexual gratification. Luka Magnotta, of Don’t F**ck with Cats infamy, was one high-profile example of someone interested in such videos. Or take the so-called “horse ripping” mutilations—slashings of a horse’s neck and flanks—seen in England in the 1980s, Germany in the 1990s, and as recently as 2020 in France. Most of those crimes were never solved, but possible motives pondered in the press ranged from jealous farmers to satanic cultists to collective hysteria. And while SNARL searched in vain for Pooboy, there were many concurrent cases in the UK of individuals known to have killed multiple animals; Gaughan was one, and there were others in Brighton and Norwich. Similar sprees have been reported in France, Canada, and Washington State.
Cats seem to be especially prone to abuse. A 2005 paper by Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of the ASPCA, noted that because of felines’ association with female sexuality, they attract a certain kind of aggressor. “It is not surprising that both historically and epidemiologically, the principal abusers of cats have been young males, particularly those seeking to assert their authority,” the paper reads.
The kind of person who would torture or kill cats lurks at our cultural periphery too. Recovering addict Randy Lenz in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest offers a close psychological examination of a perpetrator. Lenz seeks “closure” for his emotional torment by bludgeoning cats on his nightly constitutionals in the neighborhood surrounding his halfway house. “He becomes a connoisseur of cats,” the book reads, “the same way a deep-sea sportsman knows the fish species that fight most fiercely and excitingly for their marine lives.” More cryptic is Johnnie Walker in Haruki Murakami’s 2002 novel Kafka on the Shore. A cipher who dresses in the silk top hat and red tails of the iconic whisky brand logo, Walker says he is harvesting cats’ souls to create a mystic flute that will allow him to do the same to men. He seems to stand for the principle of savagery and naked power waging war for the fate of the world.
Pay close enough attention, as SNARL did, and animal abuse seems omnipresent. Perhaps Jenkins and Rising walked away angry from too many tearful families, took their awareness of animal suffering, and conjured up their own Johnnie Walker.
Or perhaps he was real.
On top of the grotesque, seemingly deliberate injuries and the reported glimpses of a suspect in Caterham and Orpington, two cases stood out to the SNARL team as reason enough to keep the investigation running after the Met called it off. Both happened in December 2017. Jenkins and Rising claimed that, following the discovery of a cat corpse at Lucas Vale Primary School, Andy Collin told them that security footage showed a human arm placing the animal’s decapitated head in the frame. (The Met disputed this, saying it didn’t even collect footage that covered the school grounds.)
The other killing was of a rabbit named Clive, found decapitated and dismembered in his owner’s garden on England’s southern coast. Clive’s liver was found by the garden shed. Police asked the owner to keep it underneath a flower pot until SNARL arrived. The next morning, the organ was gone. In its place was the rabbit’s collar.
Without support from the police, SNARL decided it was time to shake up the investigation. “Is the logging of bodies and evidence actually helping catch him? Probably not. We need a different approach,” Rising said. The group brought on a geographic profiler from University College London’s Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science, who attempted to map the deaths and draw up a profile of where thee killer might live or work. He was hindered by the massive quantity of data and SNARL’s diffuse criteria for counting cases. Early mapping efforts led to the theory that the killer was from South Norwood, Bromley Common, or Catford—which amounted to half of southeast London.
SNARL also connected with Super Recognisers International, which employed people with heightened powers of recognition in order to identify potential suspects who made fleeting appearances on blurred security footage. The company was founded by Mike Neville, a former Met detective chief inspector who had established a world-class image-recognition unit for the police. After leaving the Met under a cloud following anti-LGBTQ and anti-immigrant comments he made on Facebook, Neville offered his company’s services to SNARL for free. The few images Super Recognisers managed to find, however, were too grainy to determine whether any of the figures in them matched the description of the suspect.
Jenkins and Rising were effectively back at square one. Rising wanted to begin nightly patrols to catch the killer in the act, but Jenkins thought that would be like looking for a needle in a haystack. He was also exhausted from constantly attending crime scenes, work he’d come to feel was being palmed off on him by the rest of SNARL. He felt sidelined. “My opinion didn’t seem to count anymore,” Jenkins said. “I was just the bodies guy.”
A struggle for control erupted within SNARL. On WhatsApp channels, Jenkins sometimes got abusive, using what the rest of the group said was misogynistic language. Matters came to a head on New Year’s Eve 2018. Jenkins and Rising attended a crime scene that morning in West Wickham. It was, according to Rising, “a nasty one. The cat was carved up, there was not much left of it.” Once it was handled, Jenkins hoped for a break from the horror—he wanted to see 2019 in properly. “Get some wine in, have a snuggle and, you know, shag maybe,” he said. In any case, he wanted an early night so he could get up at 4 a.m. to go hunt-sabbing with friends.
Jenkins expected Rising at his place around eight or nine. She arrived at 11:50. After a glass of wine and a kiss at midnight, she said she was leaving. The cat owner in West Wickham was distressed; a second feline of hers was now missing. Rising was convinced that Pooboy would return to the house with the cat’s remains, and when he did, she wanted to be there.
An argument ensued. Jenkins insisted that it wasn’t safe to go on a stakeout alone. If she needed help, Rising said, she would knock on the owner’s door or smash Pooboy over the head with her thermos of hot chocolate. She made her way back to West Wickham and stood in a freezing alley for several hours. No one showed. The cat turned up, dehydrated but unharmed, two days later.
For Jenkins, Rising’s obsession had gone too far. When she didn’t apologize, he’d had enough. “At some point, solving the case became more important than having a long-term boyfriend,” he said. By February, the founders of SNARL had decided to go their separate ways, with more than a little regret. “I said, ‘We’ve let him win,’” Jenkins recalled, referring to the killer. “Because if he knew he’d split us up, it’s like a victory for him.”
Four months later, in June 2019, Rising walked into a South Norwood shop one Sunday morning to buy cigarettes. SNARL was hanging by a thread, and she was feeling run down. She’d suffered from fibromyalgia since 2000, which made her prone to bouts of severe fatigue. Now she was oddly thirsty, as she had often been lately. She grabbed a Coke along with the cigarettes.
The shop assistant held out her change, but for some reason Rising’s hand wouldn’t grasp it. She tried with her other hand, but it didn’t play ball either. “I thought, that’s a bit bloody odd,” she recalled.
The assistant asked, “Are you tired?”
“I think so.”
She looked down. The contents of her handbag were dumped on the counter. I must have done that, she thought. The assistant replaced everything. A queue of people was building up.
“I’m worried about you,” the assistant said. “Where are you going now?”
To a friend’s, Rising assured him. Over the road, that friend, Marion didn’t answer the door immediately, so Rising sparked up a cigarette on the stoop. “I didn’t feel ill, I didn’t feel uncomfortable, I just felt something was not quite right with me,” she recalled. She banged on the door again, and Marion’s husband answered. She walked straight into the living room, “and in my hand was a lit cigarette.” She hadn’t smoked in her friend’s house for 15 years, because Marion was a cancer survivor. “There’s no way I’d smoke in her house,” Rising said. “It’s at that point I knew there was definitely something wrong.”
Her friends noted that her speech was impaired and called an ambulance. The paramedics gave her a rudimentary stroke test, to determine whether she smiled symmetrically and could lift both arms. Her natural tenacity wouldn’t let her fail—and she didn’t. The responders suspected she might be having a panic attack; considering the stress of the investigation, Rising thought they could be right.
More tests were run at the hospital, but they were inconclusive. Eventually, the doctor asked Rising which hand he was holding up. “That one,” was all she could tell him. She was given aspirin and sent home, and an MRI was scheduled for the following week.
The scan showed that a blood clot had hit her brain stem and split, causing a series of strokes affecting both sides of her brain. That made what happened more difficult to detect—Rising’s condition lacked the lopsided effect many strokes cause. Marion told her, “Only you could have a stroke and nobody realizes.”
Rising wasn’t invulnerable. The fact that this had happened to her at 48 proved it. And the Pooboy investigation was at least partly to blame. “I’m aware now that life is short. If I went back in time and someone were to say, ‘You can take this case on, but it’ll cost you all these things,’ I probably would not have done it,” Rising said. “In fact, I know I wouldn’t. Nobody in their right mind would.”
“What gets to me is the innocence,” lamented Rob. He was talking about dead pets. As someone who led a rescue team into the carnage of Russell Square station after London’s terrorist bombings in July 2005, Rob is unfazed by human bodies. But as part of the breakaway group Rising had founded—the South London Animal Investigative Network, or SLAIN—he’d only been able to attend three calls to assess dead cats before he had to forgo any more of them. “It does make me feel like a bit of a wimp,” Rob said in a Cockney rasp. “You shouldn’t!” cooed his SLAIN colleagues.
Rob, Rising, and three other volunteers were sitting around a table in Rob’s back garden on a surprisingly chilly summer afternoon. An orange tabby with a stubby tail weaved among the group’s legs. Abbie, a 30-year-old legal administrator, did research online of possible Pooboy suspects. Sarah was a 60-year-old retired librarian who indexed data on the cases. Amy, a 44-year-old childcare worker, was a designated driver on night patrols. All of the members declined to give me their surnames—they were worried about online trolls, and about Pooboy identifying who was after him.
Despite the stroke, Rising had splintered from SNARL to form SLAIN in July 2019, with Rob as a key collaborator. A 56-year-old former security consultant and SNARL volunteer, he had become more proactive after the Met withdrew from Operation Takahe. Rob’s growing involvement had unsettled Jenkins, so Rob and Rising started their own thing.
Rising, sitting in a low garden chair, seemed more redoubtable than ever. She wore purple lipstick, which riffed on a purple lace-fringed dress, a neat blue blazer, and four-inch transparent heels. Aside from a slight nose twitch and the odd moment of hesitation before responding to a question, there was no indication that she’d suffered a major neurological episode.
For SLAIN, patrolling the streets was central to the strategy for catching Pooboy. Rising became dead-set on this method through sheer pique at missing an attack at the end of September 2019. After half a cat was found on a council estate in the area, she chose to spend the evening visiting Marion in the hospital, and the killer struck again that same night. “I was so fucking cross. I should’ve been up there,” Rising said. The fact that it would have meant patrolling a notoriously rough area alone after midnight was irrelevant, just as it had been the night her relationship with Jenkins fell apart. “I just want him caught,” she said. “If I get stabbed in the arm, I don’t care.”
One could say there was a certain territoriality behind SLAIN’s patrol schedule, which focused on areas where the group’s members lived: Penge, Orpington, Caterham, Beckenham. All of those locales had high concentrations of animal deaths. SLAIN was on Facebook and Twitter, but it didn’t post as frequently as SNARL had when Rising was still part of the group. The whole point was to operate almost clandestinely, to catch Pooboy off guard. Recently, Rising had become concerned that there was a mole somewhere in her network. “We’ve had some weird things happen,” she said, “where we’d say within the team that we’re in one place and he’d always strike in another.”
It was Rob who set the patrolling protocol for SLAIN. People went out in pairs, one driving and the other observing. He taught the group surveillance techniques: watching for movements in one’s peripheral vision, for instance, and “the three-corner trick”—if you think a car is following you, take three turns in the same direction, since people don’t usually drive in circles. Most important was the golden rule: Patrollers were never to leave their vehicle in pursuit of a suspect.
“I’m thirsty as all fuck.” Two nights later, outside a Tesco supermarket on Portland Road in South Norwood, Rising was furiously decanting ice into a Coke-filled water bottle. Following her stroke, she suffered from chronic thirst. We were leaning against Amy’s lime-green Peugeot, waiting to head into a humid south London night. Rising, hair damp, in a ruched purple shirt and diamond-patterned skirt, had swapped heels for trainers—“in case I have to do anything semi-illegal.”
A few minutes later, back in the car, we were crawling slowly along a row of gently staggered, whitewashed houses on a residential street in Addiscombe. SLAIN wasn’t merely looking for suspicious behavior—it was actively staking out known suspects. By July 2020, the group’s list was a dozen names long. (By the time this story was published, it had increased to 14.) The names were compiled from tips about animal abusers, gleaned through Rising’s animal rights network and on social media, then cross-referenced with internet research about the individuals’ whereabouts at certain times and whether the police had properly investigated them. Did they have criminal records? Did their names come up in any of the 16,000 emails Rising had exchanged with the Operation Takahe team?
The Addiscombe street was home to one of SLAIN’s suspects. With a recent suspended sentence for possessing both child and animal pornography, and with records showing that he owned houses in two areas that SLAIN believed Pooboy favored, the man had been designated a top priority by Rising. It felt like she was trawling murky waters, however—the man’s name was given to her by another suspect on the list, and there wasn’t a shred of evidence linking him to any of the killings.
No lights were on at the man’s home. Rising craned her neck, looking up and down the street for a white van, which the suspect owned. By chronicling his movements and comparing them with the dates and times when animal killings occurred, SLAIN was hoping to firmly rule the man in or out as an investigative target. It had already done this with a few individuals; the group was steadily moving through its list. Rising said she was mindful of privacy issues when discussing suspects with the team. She never shared photographs with anyone, just names and general descriptions.
There was no sign of the van, and Rising wasn’t sure if the suspect had another vehicle. If she had been, she explained, “it’d already have a tracker on it.”
“Isn’t that illegal?” I asked.
We cruised to an auto repair shop nearby, apparently owned by the suspect’s brother. A walled compound, there was a light on in an outbuilding. Rising squirmed with impatience. “What we need is someone to break in—he’s hiding the bodies somewhere,” she said. That someone would be breaking the golden rule, I pointed out. Rising said theory is one thing, practice another—neither she nor Rob actually observed the rule. If they did get out of their vehicles, they livestreamed the sortie on a private SLAIN Facebook group. This was partly for their own safety and partly for legal reasons, should they end up in a confrontation. Rising had brought along a Kevlar vest, just in case.
It’s probably too much to say that a drift into vigilantism was inevitable for Rising, but staring out passively into London’s sodium gloom was never her style, either—she’s the kind of person who gets out of the car. And she wanted results. “I don’t want to still be working on this case in six months’, a year’s time,” she said. “I just want it to end. It’s wrecked all of our lives, and I just want it to fucking end.”
That night wouldn’t be the end, though. We eventually abandoned our surveillance and returned to normal patrolling—that is, driving around, looking for suspicious activity. Before we headed off into the direction of some estates, we made a stop at a grocer’s to pick up Turkish delight. Candy is a patrolling essential. If I hadn’t known it was a pet-protection outfit, I might have mistaken SLAIN for a confectionery addicts’ support group—one full of enablers. Amy opted for raspberry and pomegranate. “By the time this case ends, we’re going to have diabetes,” she said.
If anyone ever stole Tony Jenkins’s car, he’d have been able to trace it by smell alone. Its interior was an olfactory wormhole: clammy imitation leather and roll-up cigarettes, the ammoniac snap of urine, and an almost disturbing vulpine musk. The back seat of the silver Ford Focus—a former police car—held a cage for captured animals and a pole used to catch them. In the trunk were two 48-bag boxes of Sainsbury’s cat food, 12 cans of dog food, a sack of animal litter, and, in gleaming white-and-silver gift bags, the cremated remains of two cats. Jenkins was due to deliver these to their owners. He had been delayed by the pandemic.
Because I had begged for fresh air in the car, Jenkins was now leaning against the hood, a SNARL lanyard round his neck as he rolled a cigarette. It was a resplendent July afternoon, and he was responding to a call in Penge. In the back garden of a house, he had just wrapped a headless gray and white feline in a bath towel. She’d been found underneath a paper plant. Because she was microchipped, Jenkins had located the owner with the help of a contact with access to pet databases. They lived just a couple of doors down the road. Jenkins was about to do the dreaded door knock.
The number of deaths he believed were linked to Pooboy stood at more than 700. Jenkins’s hope was that the pandemic would reduce the killer’s movements to the point where he could zero in on the man’s whereabouts. But so far, there had been no eureka moment.
Where Rising was showing an unsettling determination, Jenkins had begun to sound desperate. He talked about the Operation Takahe shutdown being a cover-up of some kind. He wondered about how to get a message to Prime Minister Boris Johnson—he believed the former London mayor’s cat, supposedly mauled by a fox in 2013, might actually have been an early Pooboy victim. Jenkins was also considering releasing the full list of signature injuries, or even the security footage that Super Recognisers pored over, in a bid to open up new lines of inquiry.
Jenkins believed that a May 2020 case in a South Norwood cul-de-sac—involving both a decapitation and the signature anal evisceration—was a sign intended specifically for him, as it coincided with the second anniversary of the premiere of the short Vice documentary about the case. That sounded like confirmation bias, I suggested, but Jenkins doubled down with another example: A December 2016 case in Walthamstow, north London, the very first in the area, came just days after he had visited his two sons there. “The first possibility is that he followed me,” Jenkins said. “The second is that he could be tracing my phone, which is quite easy.”
Jenkins and Rising had initially agreed to share information about SNARL’s and SLAIN’s activities, but the arrangement quickly disintegrated. Jenkins complained that Rising was secretive. Now he was reciprocating, refusing to update Rising about the latest developments on SNARL’s end. Jenkins admitted that he was depressed and not sleeping well, dealing with the “psychological damage” of the investigation. More pressingly, he was nearly bankrupt. He could no longer make his mortgage payments, and reasoned the only reason his house hadn’t been repossessed was the pandemic. His mother and brother were supporting him financially, but it couldn’t last. (He eventually put out a call for support on SNARL’s Facebook page.)
I asked what his sons thought of the situation. “Kind of a mixture of they think it’s cool—it’s fun having their dad on telly and on Vice documentaries,” Jenkins said. “But at the same time, they’re like, ‘How long is it going to go on? You need to get a job, Dad.’” He had applied for one, driving an ambulance for a fox-rescue service. In the event that he landed it, he said that the “SNARL army” would step in to take over some of his work on the Pooboy case. “After five years of collecting bodies and gathering evidence and looking at patterns, none of us, including Boudicca, have…” His voice trailed off. “There are no patterns—it’s all completely random.”
Jenkins and Rising used to say that their story would make a great film. “I joked to Boudicca that I could play myself and Angelina Jolie could play her,” Jenkins said. He later downgraded that suggestion to Kathy Burke. Rising proposed Helena Bonham Carter. On a SLAIN patrol one night, she told me that she sees her part of the story, at least, as “Cagney and Lacey—the premenopausal years.”
There’s perhaps a more apt model for their saga. It’s the film Zodiac, directed by David Fincher, about the search for the infamous California serial killer that distends and finally wrecks the lives of everyone involved with the case. Physically battered, emotionally sapped by their obsession, they’re stripped to the raw sinew of who they really are.
That isn’t to say Jenkins and Rising haven’t done good with their investigation. Alastair Ulke, a journalist who covered Brendan Gaughan’s crimes for the Northampton Chronicle and Echo, said that the city’s police were suffering from general underfunding a few years ago and doubted that they were inclined to treat a series of mysterious cat killings with any great urgency. SNARL’s presence on the scene of various incidents, with the extra media attention that brought, may have persuaded the cops to take the cases more seriously and ultimately snag Gaughan. He pleaded guilty, and in December 2018, he was sentenced to 45 months for setting the fires, but no additional time for killing the cats.(Had the case gone to trial, however, Gaughan would have faced prosecution for them.)
A year later, Steven Bouquet, a 52-year-old security guard, was charged with killing nine cats and injuring seven more in a series of crimes that stretched from late 2018 to June 2019. (He pleaded not guilty.) SNARL didn’t investigate the incidents directly, because the rather frenzied attack style—some animals wandered home with their guts hanging out—didn’t fit with the clean killings it had seen elsewhere. But it may have helped the case that SNARL was involved on the periphery: It logged the incidents and stayed in regular communication with the pet owners. The Crown Prosecution Service is pursuing Bouquet not for animal cruelty but for criminal damage. The cumulative value of all the pets exceeds £32,000 (nearly $45,000), more than six times greater than the threshold at which a ten-year prison sentence can apply. “I’ve never heard of a case where they’ve attributed a cost to the life of a cat,” Jenkins said.
Rising, though, is ambivalent about their role in both cases. “Yes, it is a consolation, because we made a difference. However, there is an argument to say that both offenders might have been influenced by [the Pooboy] case and killed cats because they wanted to be noticed,” she said.
If nothing else, Jenkins and Rising are pioneers in deeming animals worthy of the sort of justice SNARL and SLAIN demand. That the Met got involved at all, if only for a while, was a victory. It was proof that crimes against animals could be addressed with a seriousness of purpose hitherto unseen in the UK, or anywhere else for that matter.
For the most devoted animal rights activists, there’s a long way to go. Laws tend to treat violence against animals, as well as animal smuggling and trafficking, as property crimes. Animals aren’t viewed as victims with defensible rights. The sticking point is that doing so would require recognizing them as sentient beings capable of perception and emotion. With sentience, of course, comes a whole host of legal and philosophical quandaries, not least whether modern society’s relationship with animals is entirely psychopathic. Still, animal sentience is slowly creeping into statutes worldwide. Article 13 of the Treaty of the Functioning of the European Union recognizes it in principle. In the United States, the recognition of animals as legal persons appears sporadically, with highly limited scope, in state legislation—though only Oregon explicitly recognizes sentience. A proposed bill in the UK Parliament would enshrine sentience in law and increase the maximum sentence for animal cruelty to five years. Meanwhile, organizations like the Nonhumanrights Project and the Animal Legal Defense Fund are working to establish the legal personhood of animals but have yet to gain a statutory foothold.
Many people have argued that these efforts are misguided because animals have no conception of morality, but even this anthropocentric monism is being chipped away. The philosopher Martha Nussbaum has argued for a different version of personhood, based on whether a sentient being has the freedom to be what it values in life. In the case of an animal, this could include the attainment of bodily health, the exercise of the senses, even the capacity to think. Meanwhile, one school of criminology offers a panacea. Non-speciesist criminologists believe that, as far as justice is concerned, there should be no distinctions between humans and animals. To borrow a dictum from the Smiths: Meat really is murder. Piers Beirne, professor emeritus of sociology and legal studies at the University of Southern Maine and a groundbreaking non-speciesist, has even proposed a new term for the killing of animals: theriocide, from the ancient Greek for “wild beast.”
Down among the hard-smoking theriocide investigators of Croydon, however, there is no naivety about whether a world where animals are treated as equals will ever exist. “We’ll never ever in a million years get that,” Rising said. “I personally view these deaths as murder. I would love to criminalize the killing of animals, but it won’t happen, because the meat industry would collapse overnight.”
The question remains: Is there a lone, implacable animal serial killer out there stalking the south of England? The early Croydon incidents remain intriguing, as does the spate of deaths around Caterham and Orpington, where a suspect was sighted. They suggest, at least, that there might be clusters of animal killings occurring, each perpetrated by an individual. And Jenkins and Rising still have supporters of their theory, including some in power. During a 2020 reading of the proposed animal cruelty bill, Parliament member Elliot Coburn asked for police to reopen the Takahe investigation, calling the Met’s fox theory “fanciful” and stating his belief that there existed a “systemic level of abuse.”
Man or fox, the resources required to answer that question once and for all will almost certainly never be available. Awkwardly, in November 2020, security footage captured what hadn’t once been glimpsed in the previous five years, and what SNARL insisted hadn’t happened: a fox decapitating a cat. “I have to admit, when I saw that footage, my first, overwhelming feeling was relief—that perhaps we did have it wrong after all and we could go back to living our lives,” Rising wrote to me in an email. But upon learning more about the cat’s injuries, and comparing them with the initial incidents in the Pooboy case, she noticed what she considered important differences.
Jenkins, for his part, said that the footage plunged him into a miniature breakdown. Upon closer examination, however, he came to believe that the animal’s head was partially severed at the start of the footage. Pooboy, he said, may have let a fox finish the job on camera to deflect suspicion.
The hunt, then, would continue.
On a SLAIN patrol one summer night, we crisscrossed suburban estates on London’s outer edge after midnight, sluicing our way down rain-slicked arterial roads. The city, only just emerging from its first pandemic lockdown, was too quiet. Sinuous feline shadows darted from beneath cars; rust-furred canines on the tarmac feigned indifference but kept their distance. Every so often, twin pinpricks of light answered the beams of our headlamps—the eyes of a fox.
The humans on patrol claimed to be watching, but animals were, and are, the true sentinels of the city. They are the witnesses of its unconscious side—the ungovernable moods, the secret behavior, everything that happens at the margins, in the dark.