VANCOUVER - As concerns rise about a serial cat killer in a Vancouver suburb, Florida’s experience with a string of cat deaths provides a cautionary tale: it can be extremely easy to confuse the actions of a natural predator with those of a human killer.
After 19 cats were killed and mutilated in a wealthy Miami suburb in 2009, police received an anonymous tip and arrested Tyler Weinman, an 18-year-old student.
A few of the dead cats had been found on their owners’ decks and others had been sliced from head to tail — the same conditions that cats in Maple Ridge, B.C., have been found in over the past year.
But at Weinman’s trial, an expert hired by the defence counsel determined that at least eight of the cats had actually been killed by dogs.
The charges were dropped by prosecutors, and Weinman — who had been labelled in the media as a sociopath and budding human serial killer — filed a lawsuit in January 2012 for malicious prosecution against everyone involved in building the case against him.
Forensic test results are still being processed in the Maple Ridge investigation at the Animal Health Centre in Abbotsford, B.C.
The Miami fiasco gives reason for being patient until all the evidence is in, says Melinda Merck, who helped review evidence in that case and is named in the Miami lawsuit.
“I was brought into that case really late,” Merck says. “There was a lot of pressure on the detectives, so the investigation was cut short. They needed to do more investigation before taking further action.”
Merck is a world renowned specialist in animal forensics, and has worked on cases such as the Whistler sled dog killings and the Michael Vick dog-fighting scandal.
She is now helping the SPCA with their investigation in Maple Ridge, where nine mutilated cats have been discovered in the last three weeks alone, making 24 over the past year.
The SPCA believes that many of the cats were sliced in half by a knife or saw and then placed where their owners would find them.
But until investigators receive forensic evidence from a provincial lab examining the bodies, Merck cautions against drawing conclusions.
“When it could be both (human or predator), those are really hard to determine,” says Merck.
“It’s not easy to tell, in looking at the bodies. It can be difficult even for pathologists, depending on their expertise and their backgrounds, to discern these subtle signs.”
Merck says she has reviewed cases where a predator attacked a cat right on the owner’s deck, leaving half the cat behind and making it seem as though the body was placed there.
Adrian Walton, a veterinarian at the Dewdney Animal Hospital who has examined some of the Maple Ridge cat bodies for suspicious signs, also cautions the public to wait on the forensic evidence.
“It gets very difficult, and that’s part of the reason why you need to have a specialist,” says Walton. A coyote’s bite can often look like it was made by a tool.
“Coyotes will go to one area, wipe out all the cats they can find, and then they’ll go to another area,” says Walton.
Yet some of the Maple Ridge killings cited by the SPCA do seem to exclude the possibility of natural predators.
“One was found in a trash bag and put onto the owner’s porch,” SPCA spokesperson Lorie Chortyk said last week. Another cat’s parts were found underneath the “lost” poster for that cat.
According to Stephen Porter, a forensic psychologist at UBC, the number of killings done by a human could make a big difference in the psychological profile of the perpetrator.
“The literature shows that most people who engage in animal abuse are male youths who do so once or twice out of curiosity, and do not re-offend, particularly when they are caught and sanctioned for the offence,” Porter said in an email.
“This is different from those who engage in repeated animal abuse. Such individuals are not acting out of curiosity but for a more deep-seated purpose.”
Porter said that repeated animal abuse can sometimes, but not always, lead to violence toward human beings.
For now, Merck encourages Maple Ridge residents to keep a very careful eye on their pets and call in tips to the police — but not to panic.
“I dealt with a case in Texas where everyone was upset, and they believed someone was killing these cats,” Merck says.
“It was scary because they thought they had all been placed on their driveway, on their front porch. And it turned out to all be predator.”
As B.C.’s police officers, SPCA investigators, and animal pathologists--which Merck says are some of the best she’s ever worked with — sort through the evidence, a clearer picture of what’s been happening to Maple Ridge’s cats should emerge.
“The bottom line,” says Merck, “is that we don’t have all the answers yet.”