Moral Panic and The Raglan Cat Killer
Fear and loathing in small town New Zealand.
Posted July 16, 2022 | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
- The Raglan Cat Killer Scare in New Zealand has all the hallmarks of a moral panic.
- Fears of a serial cat killer coincide with calls by environmentalists to eradicate felines.
- During the calls to eradicate felines, owners began paying closer attention to cats going missing in their neighborhood and feared the worst.
One feature of human psychology is that people tend to see what they expect to see. As meaning-oriented beings, we are wired to interpret information patterns that reflect our expectations and beliefs. A prominent example is a face on Mars–which turned out to be a mound of shifting soil.
Another illustration is the curious case of Maria Rubio of Port Arthur, New Mexico, who, in 1977, became convinced she saw the face of Jesus in her tortilla. This process also aids in the creation of moral panics–exaggerated threats to the social order by a malevolent actor. Moral panics are heavy on rumors and hearsay and light on facts.
Take the case of New Zealand’s Raglan Cat Killer. For a decade, citizens have read stories and watched TV reports of a serial cat killer on the loose in the rural town of Raglan. A group, Stop the Cat Killer, was even formed, and a blog was created under the heading The Raglan Ripper. In 2014 near the height of the panic, residents began flying flags with a cat and crossbones symbol and the words "Stop Raglan Cat Killer" (Harry, 2014).
A conspicuous aspect of this case has stood out over the years: no culprit has ever been identified despite living in an age of phone cameras and surveillance video. Furthermore, police have found no evidence of a cat killer.
New Zealand TV personality Guy Williams recently spent several weeks trying to get to the bottom of the mystery, which included going to Raglan and interviewing locals. In the end, he reached a similar conclusion–that there is no serial cat killer. This would not be the first cat killer moral panic.
A similar scare in Slovenia in 2000 became the focus of a study by sociologist Gregor Bule who found that the panic was triggered by sensational media reports, interest groups whipping up fear, and concern over juvenile crime (Bule, 2002).
The Croydon Cat Killer
In 2014, Croydon in South London was the scene of another serial cat-killer scare after the decapitated bodies of local felines began to appear around town. The perpetrator seemed to taunt their victims’ owners by placing body parts in carefully selected locations such as doorsteps and playgrounds.
An animal rights group speculated that there was a psychopath on the loose. Fearful that they may begin targeting humans, the group looked into reports of disappearing cats across the country and discovered hundreds of similar cases.
Then Scotland Yard got involved. After studying CCTV footage, postmortems on dead cats, forensic exams, and DNA tests, they concluded there was no serial cat killer. According to their investigation, there was “No evidence of human involvement was found in any of the reported cases. There were no witnesses, no identifiable patterns, and no forensic leads that pointed to human involvement.”
But what about the mutilated cat bodies and body parts placed around town? They concluded that many of the felines had died, and their body parts had been torn apart and left in various places by scavengers (Thompson, 2018; Dodd, 2018).
Why Good Cats Stray
It is important to remember that cats go missing all the time. Ordinarily, we don’t pay much attention to reports of missing cats unless they are our own. However, once stories begin to circulate about the possibility of foul play, we begin to see evidence of the cat killer’s work everywhere. It is also important to look at the baseline: how many cats go missing each year in any given community? I suspect it is a lot.
Heck, just about everyone I know has lost a pet at some point. Why? Because cats get hit by cars, get beaten up by other cats, eat rat bait, fall sick, become lost, and occasionally, like their human counterparts–drop dead.
The Meaning Behind the Panic
What is the deeper psychological significance of the Croydon and Raglan Cat Killer scares? Social panics typically reflect prevailing fears. What was going on when these episodes began to take root?
They exploded around the time environmentalist Gareth Morgan made global headlines by calling for the eradication of cats in New Zealand as they threatened many native species of birds (Wade, 2013). The story led to a surge of online chatter–pro and con–about getting rid of cats as pets. Rumors began to circulate that a nefarious bird lover was targeting local cats. As a result, owners began paying closer attention to cats going missing in their neighborhood and feared the worst.
Bule, Gregor (2002). Kill the Cat Killers: Moral Panic and Juvenile Crime in Slovenia. Journal of Communication Inquiry 26(3):300-325.
Campbell, Brett (2017). Fears grow of a cat killer on loose as toll of missing pets rises to 242. The Belfast Telegram, November 3.
Dodd, Vikram (2018). 'Croydon cat killer' hunt ends after three-year investigation. The Guardian, September 20.
Harry, Pearl (2014). Neighbours getting ratty at cat killer. Waikato Times, December 19, 2013.
Hindmarsh, Gerard (2022). Cat Killer Search Resembles Witch Hunt. The Nelson Mail (New Zealand), July 16.
O'Donoghue, Dan (2017). Serial cat killer strikes AGAIN as more tortured felines found. Daily Star (UK), August 13.
Preston, Nikki (2014). Police search property after dead cats discovered in rubbish bags. New Zealand Herald, May 28.
Smallman, Elson (2013). Raglan cat-lover wants out as killings continue. Waikato Times, September 9.
The Raglan Cat Killer. Renews, accessed at: https://www.renews.co.nz/the-raglan-cat-killer/
Thompson, Karl (2018). The Croydon Cat Killer: The Perfect Moral Panic for our Age?” Revise Sociology, October 1, accessed at: https://revisesociology.com/2018/10/01/the-croydon-cat-killer-the-perfe…
Wade, Amelia (2013). “Morgan Calls for Cats to be Wiped Out.” New Zealand Herald, January 22, 2013.
Williams, Guy (2022). New Zealand Today, Season 3 Episode 6, July 14, accessed at: https://www.threenow.co.nz/shows/new-zealand-today/season-3-ep-6/S2065-….
Williams, Guy (2022). Guy Williams: Why I believe the Raglan cat killer does not exist. Newshub, July 14.