Seven years ago the RVC appointed Henny Martineau as Head of Forensic Pathology, to lead the discipline at the RVC. The team has worked on a number of prominent cases in recent years. The so-called ‘Croydon cat killer’ was one such case.
The RVC Veterinary Forensic Pathology Service receives most suspected non-accidental death and injury cases from the RSPCA (which are often initiated by vets) and around 10% from the police. Cases can culminate in the veterinary forensic pathologist delivering evidence in court as a professional witness. The team has received court room skills training to ensure written reports are suitable for use in court, and to provide them with the necessary skills to present evidence in court and be prepared for cross-questioning.
In addition to investigating such cases as diagnosticians, the team is actively involved in research and teaching. There are five residents involved in forensic pathology training and seven faculty members. Some of the team’s recent research has focused on diagnosing drowning with post mortem findings.
Croydon ‘cat killer’ investigation and Brighton
Following a spate of mutilated cats found dead in London between 2014 and 2018, the story of the ‘Croydon cat killer’ caught the media’s attention and the public’s imagination. Articles using the term ‘Croydon cat killer’ appeared repeatedly in the press, with each new dead cat discovered reinforcing the narrative of an individual mutilating and beheading them.
Following the mutilation of more than 400 cats across various locations in London over the four-year period, media speculation grew – and it began to appear as though the ‘killer’ could be at large within the M25 and, later, across the whole of England.
The speculation led the Metropolitan Police to launch an investigation, named ‘Operation Takahe’. A team of researchers led by Dr Martineau, alongside the Metropolitan Police and the Hertfordshire Police, examined the bodies of 32 mutilated cats.
Dr Martineau and her team took swabs to analyse carcasses for the presence of fox, dog and badger DNA, and performed full post mortem examinations. The results found that the mutilations had occurred after death. There was a clear link between cat carcass mutilation and the presence of fox DNA, and puncture wounds found on deceased cats were consistent with what would be expected from scavenging by carnivores. Through a close examination of the carcasses, the team established that the mutilation pattern of the cats examined was similar to the scavenging pattern of foxes on lambs. There was no evidence supporting human involvement in the feline mutilation.
For carcasses not associated with predation, other probable causes of death were also identified, ranging from road traffic accidents to liver failure, to the ingestion of antifreeze. Eight of the cats were found to have suffered from cardiorespiratory disease.
After the experience of working on and helping to debunk the ‘Croydon cat killer’ case, the RVC veterinary forensic pathology expertise was applied to cases in Brighton, where several cats had gone missing or were found dead or wounded. Dr Martineau was able to differentiate cases that had been subject to deliberate injuries and those that had been scavenged. The cats that were deliberately injured appeared to have been stabbed. A security guard subsequently received a five-year sentence for killing and harming several cats.
A key thing in forensic pathology contributions to veterinary education is raising awareness of non-accidental injuries as a differential to consider. Third year RVC veterinary students have a day where the RSPCA and Dog’s Trust talk about non-accidental injuries and Dr Martineau talks to them about forensics pathology work. Similar events also take place at each of the UK veterinary schools, with pathologists from each school discussing forensic pathology.
Dr Martineau is module leader for the Applications of Pathology module on the BSc course, which veterinary students can take if they intercalate. The forensics unit within this includes a court room scene drama where students get to present their evidence and cross-question each other to simulate a court environment.
The Links Group raises awareness of the relationship between the abuse of humans and animals, through support, training and inter-agency working.
Image used first appeared in the article 'Fox (Vulpes vulpes) involvement identified in a series of cat carcass mutilations', in Veterinary Pathology (2022).