One of the nation’s top forensic pet veterinarians believes she has cracked the case of northwest Spokane’s frightening string of cat mutilations.
Coyotes, or perhaps foxes, are the likely culprit, said Dr. Melinda Merck, who based her conclusion on an examination of a mysteriously halved carcass shipped to her offices in Roswell, Ga., by Spokane animal control officers. Spokane police say they will leave a detective assigned to the investigation a bit longer in case Merck is wrong.
Authorities believed a person was responsible because the cats were cleanly halved and found with little blood in the area – an indication that the animals were killed in one location, then moved.
Merck, however, said a canine tooth puncture on one leg and irregular edges of the cut that severed the front torso of the tabby she examined are consistent with an animal attack. Predators’ sharp molars are capable of producing clean cuts, and cats bleed much less than humans, signals that can confuse animal handlers and law enforcement, she said.
“Sometimes they will take the whole body,” she said. “Sometimes they bite down and take the half they grabbed.”
She also collected hair samples from under the claws of the cat – found Tuesday at the 5600 block of North Elgin Street – indicating that it scratched its attacker. The predator might have flung the carcass or dragged it to where it was found, she said.
One of her colleagues, psychologist Randall Lockwood, concurred after viewing pictures of the carcass.
“When we see human cruelty to cats, it almost never takes the form that we’re seeing in these cases,” said Lockwood, senior vice president for the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. People typically throw, kick, bludgeon or poison cats as acts of domestic violence, he said.
“In seeing the pictures, they were most consistent with what I had seen with foxes or coyotes or both,” he said.
The feline was the seventh of eight mutilated cats reported to SpokAnimal C.A.R.E. within three miles of 5600 Elgin since July 4.
Pet owners should keep their cats and small dogs indoors for safety and avoid feeding animals outside, Merck said.
The Spokane Police Department assigned a detective to the case this week. The detective will continue working with SpokAnimal to make sure the animal-mauled cat isn’t a fluke, said police spokesman Cpl. Tom Lee. He said coyotes were seen in west and downtown Spokane last summer.
“It’s not common, but it’s certainly not unusual for a coyote to come into the city,” Lee said.
Ken Trambitas, an animal control officer investigating the cases for SpokAnimal, said the organization will take any future halved cats to a local vet. That veterinarian will do a conference call with Merck to learn how the animal was killed, he said.
Lockwood said photos from the Spokane cases resembled those from a rash of incidents in Denver two years ago. In that case, investigators determined animals were responsible for killing and halving about 20 cats.
“Everyone suddenly thinks they have a psychopath running loose,” he said. “What always strikes me is a little strange is some people would rather think they have a psycho on the loose than acknowledge that we live in a world that we share with predators, and let’s talk about the appropriate steps to safeguard our animals.”
Merck said the animal that attacked the cat she examined – the only one intact from the middle forward – might have been a juvenile that missed its target as it lunged. Typically, predators aim for the neck, she said.
Domestic dogs will typically kill smaller animals but not eat them, she said.
Pet dogs also lack the sharp teeth needed to cleanly sever the cat.
Raccoons, owls, crows and ravens can also kill small pets, Lockwood said.
Merck is one of a handful of CSI veterinarians nationwide who investigate the deaths of pets.
She and Lockwood plan to release what they said is the first textbook on the emerging field.
Anyone with information about unreported cases should call the Spokane Crime Reporting Center at (509) 532-9266, Lee said.