“I want to know the best way to kill next door neighbors Â cat, with out them suspecting anything. Its her closest pet and I need it to be gone. It kills bird and it comes in my back yard. Is there any way to poision it or dart it?
I copied the question above (typos and all) from a 2002 message thread on the revenge-obsessed website Bombshock titled “How to Kill a Cat.” You may wonder what brought me to this decade old discussion of killing small animals. Why I’d want to be there at all. And why I continued perusing it through responses that ranged from the practical – Antifreeze. Mix it with meat – to the rather, um, hostile – The very best way is to give me your address. I can come to your house, and cut your fucking nuts off. Then, I will feed them to the cat & maybe it will choke and back to – sugar and bleach, stirred into milk - the practical again.
I was looking for an answer to something that had been bothering, okay, haunting me for months: why do so many people poison their neighbor’s pets? Why? Why? “They’re very unhappy people,” my husband replied when I first raised the issue at home. “They’re assholes,” said my son. To tell you the truth, these both seemed like pretty charitable answers to me. And I might have let it go at that if I hadn’t read another news article on the subject on the very next day, and the next, and the next again.
The problem, my problem in this case, is that I run daily Google alerts for poisoning events, a habit I developed while working my recent book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I usually laugh when I tell people about it; yeah, I say, maybe it makes me sound a little twisted. But I sift through the alerts for interesting stories and for patterns, repeated poisonous events. And over the last year, I started to develop an uneasy awareness that hardly a week passed without a pet poisoning story. Hardly a day, in fact. Last year, I tallied up more than almost 300 stories (171 concerning dogs, 123 about cats). I briefly cited both that pattern and my reluctance to write about it in a post this fall called The Poisoner’s Calendar, which I mostly focused on the simpler subject of carbon monoxide.
But this year, the first dog poisoning story came on January 2, from a small town in western Canada. It was followed on Saturday by a query to Canada’s Calgary Herald, a letter titled “What Kind of Twisted Person Would Poison a Dog?” Since this was pretty much my ongoing question, I hoped it would tell me. But the author had not answer. She was writing because her dogs had also been poisoned with strychnine and one was in critical condition: We also cannot imagine why anyone would want to put the dogs through so much suffering; it is a terrible thing to see.
So the stories nagged me, they bugged me, and the question kept following me.
Why do we do this? Why? My personal archive of news stories represents, I know, just a sliver of the whole sorry picture. I’ve looked for a really solid statistical analysis but with mixed success, finding mostly a patchwork of information. The website Pet-Abuse.com, maintains a “cruelty database” which, as of today, lists 351 criminal pet poisoning cases, the most recent being a dog poisoning case from November and a cat poisoning case in October, both from Florida.
Neither turned up in my alerts, which tells me that this also under-represents the numbers. Of course, one of the problems – and, frankly, poisoners count on this – is that animals can encounter toxic substances on their own, making it sometimes difficult to determine a criminal case. A cat poisoning story (antifreeze) that posted January 1, from Nailsea, England, is a good example of this, the grief, the uncertainty and the suspicion of strangers and of neighbors.
“I’m thinking of writing a piece about pet poisoning,” I say to a forensic detective I know in my hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. She answers: “Have you looked up Myrtle Maly’s case from 2005, Spaight St.? Check her out on CCAP.”
If you don’t know it, CCAP is shorthand for a very useful website, more formally known as the Wisconsin Circuit Court Access Program, which provides a public record of criminal and civil cases in the state. You can search it by name, date, location and case number. When I type in Myrtle Maly, Dane County, I find this, which tells me that Ms. Maly was found guilty of two misdemeanor cases of intentionally poisoning an animal.
Further research tells me that in June 2005, she killed two of her neighbor’s cats by mixing the rodent poison, d-Con, into a can of cat food and dolloping it out in the yard. In case you wondered, d-Con’s active ingredient is brodifacoum, a notably lethal anticoagulant, sometimes referred to as a “superwarfarin.” Maly, who was then 76, ended up as a case study in The Smoking Gun, largely because she was so unremorseful: ‘When I find these little feathers, I’ve had it. I love animals, but he drove me to it,’ she told a detective. ‘I have a good feeling because the birds are happy now.
There’s no doubt that cats pose a terrible problem for wild birds. A study of the gray catbird in Washington D.C. found that domestic cats were the number one cause of bird mortality in the area. It’s a situation that can, and does, put bird and cat lovers at extreme odds.
Granted some of these conflicts involve feral cats, such as the most recent high profile case, again from the D.C. area. A National Zoo employee was caught on surveillance video poisoning food left out for cats living near a city park. The accused, Nico Dauphine, was a zoo researcher with a doctorate in bird conservation and had published articles on the threat posed by urban cats. She received a one-year suspended sentence, 120 hours of community service, and a court order to stay away from cats. Dauphine also lost her job, which the judge noted in handing down the sentence. The Washington Humane Society which investigated the poisonings and which took the uncompromising position that even stray cats deserve a poison free life issued a terse statement after the conviction: “We are delighted that justice was served today.”
But most people aren’t attempting to protect other animals when they poison. There’s a winding path of other justifications and excuses. In December, a woman in Washington state poisoned her neighbors’ cats (boric acid) because they kept getting too close to her car. Last month also, a Kansas man pleaded guilty to killing kittens, living in a shop near his rental, with antifreeze because they were messy. In October, a Tampa, Florida man poisoned six cats – putting out bowls of antifreeze-laced milk – because he said they’d gotten into his strawberry plants. In case you’re wondering, antifreeze contains the compound ethylene glycol, notable for its sweet taste and tendency to form razor-sharp crystals in the kidneys.
Police investigating the poisoning of seven cats near Worcester, England, said neighbors had been reportedly unhappy with the owner allowing her animals to get into rubbish bins. In the case of dogs, the usual justification is that they’re noisy. They bark; they don’t shut up. When two Virginia dogs died after someone tossed antifreeze-laced cheese cubes into their yard, neighbors both expressed shock and commented on how noisy the dogs had been. It’s the first answer I get when I ask friends and acquaintances why someone would do this – oh, well, you know, if the dog was really noisy… So I also asked a couple of friends who write books for pet owners, full of affection for animals and ideas about how to care for them. “I’m thinking about writing a story about pet poisoning.” Oh, yes, they both said. We hear about it all the time, and one added: I’ve often wondered about that. If I were you, I’d interview a psychiatrist. My guesses are that either they hate the neighbors, hate animals. or are somehow jealous. I just don’t know.
Because for most of us, this just doesn’t make sense, the idea that someone in the family next door is stirring poison into a lethal meal for your animals. We can’t imagine being the family in Colorado who settled in with their two dogs, “our children” they said, only to have them both killed by a neighbor, charged in December with feeding the animals strychnine-laced meatballs. Strychnine, in case you wonder, is a poison that directly targets the nervous system, causing such violent convulsions that exhaustion is considered a contributing factor in death.
So consider this headline: “Someone is poisoning dogs in Green Country neighborhood” from Tulsa, Oklahoma in December, the story telling of someone putting out strychnine-laced meat, poisoning ten dogs, killing seven. “This headline from California: “Three Dogs Poisoned in Encino; One Dead”, in which police warn residents to keep a close watch on their pets. Or this story from Lebanon, Pennsylvania in October of two dogs dead from meat mixed with rat poison: Absolutely, the sergeant said when asked if the act appeared deliberate. Someone placed it out there where they knew the dogs would be.
This is the pattern that haunts me the most, the someone sneaking through the night, the person who kills in a kind of game. There are plenty of studies to show that animal abusers – your neighborhood pet poisoners, say – find it easy enough to turn their attention, their anger, their unhappiness to their human neighbors as well. We might even ask ourselves whether tougher laws regarding animal abuse might end up protecting people better as well. A recent case in Houston, Texas, clearly involved harming animals – one dog poisoned, another shot, a horse slashed to death – to terrorize their human owners. If [the suspect] would do this to all these animals, we don’t know what they would do to people, said the investigating officer.
But most pet poisoners, I think, stop before they cross that line. You’ll remember that Myrtle Maly, who poisoned her neighbor’s cats, blamed the neighbor for letting the animals outside. He drove me to it, she said, and she meant killing the cats only. And it’s the only that I want to emphasize here, because I believe that underlies all of this. There are, as you see, countless individual reasons for pet poisoning, countless justification. And yes, I still agree that we can sum up many of these people as very unhappy assholes.
But we should also acknowledge the bigger point. It’s a hallmark, a measure of our civilized species that we care for, protect, domesticate, shelter members of other species. More than that, we love them, we consider them members of our family, as I do with our joyful Laborador, Bongo, as this wonderful piece by the wonderful science writer John Rennie illustrates so eloquently. But we’re also careless with them – Bongo is a rescue dog, found abandoned in downtown Milwaukee. There’s that only a dog, only a cat, only a lesser species mentality and it’s that, I think, is the fundamental why of this tale, the tacit permission to those of us who think it’s all right to poison away an annoying neighboring animal. When we truly respect life on this planet, in as Charles Darwin once said, all its “endless forms, most beautiful” then, indeed, we may attain that ever elusive goal, of being a fully civilized species.