Warning: This story contains descriptions of violence that may upset some readers.
The first grim discovery came when a woman found the severed head and paws of a brown spotted cat while walking along the banks of the Arakawa River in Saitama City. Japan. A few days later, according to the police, the rest of the body was found on the grounds of an elementary school.
Within 10 days, towards the end of February, members of the public discovered two more mutilated cat carcasses, one in a field and one on the side of a small city road.
These horrific acts may not have resulted in loss of life, but they have left this city in the Greater Tokyo area in suspense nonetheless.
Local schools ask teachers to walk children home and advise to go in large groups; Police have stepped up patrols, according to Japanese public broadcaster NHK.
The murders sparked bad memories in Saitama, where a cat killer was imprisoned in recent years for torturing several animals and posting videos of his actions online. They also raised the specter of the Kobe City child murders in the 1990s, when a 14-year-old boy with a history of animal cruelty killed two children aged 10 and 11 and injured three more.
The killings also come at an embarrassing time for schools in the area. Earlier this week, a high school teacher in Toda was reportedly stabbed by a student, prompting an evacuation.
A Saitama police spokesperson told CNN they have launched an animal cruelty investigation and are looking into whether the various cat murders are connected. Killing or harming animals in Japan is a crime and is punishable by up to five years in prison or a fine of around 5 million yen ($36,600).
One woman in her 80s told NHK she was “horrified and uncomfortable” when she heard the news of the cat killings, but her concerns go beyond those expressed about animal welfare.
In the aftermath of the killings, various experts warned that, in some minds, animal cruelty could be a gateway to even more heinous crimes.
“Usually criminal acts and cruelty are hidden, but showing them can be a form of self-expression,” Kenji Omata, a professor of psychology at Surugadai University, told NHK.
Omata referred to the case of an earlier cat killer in Saitama Prefecture and noted that “in the Kobe City Child Serial Murder Case, there was also animal cruelty.”
“I am very concerned about how long these incidents will continue and whether people will get hurt,” Omata said.
Kim J. McCoy, the lawyer who founded the Hong Kong Animal Law and Welfare Organization, warned that some cases of animal cruelty have “turned into more serious crimes against humans.”
“There is empirical evidence that supports a direct link between those who commit animal cruelty and those who commit other, more violent crimes against humans,” McCoy said.
McCoy added that even when violence is limited to animals, action is needed.
“Animals are vulnerable,” McCoy said. “They deserve and require proper protection from harm.”