Warning: This story contains descriptions of violence that some readers may find disturbing.
The first grim discovery came when a woman found the severed head and paws of a brown-speckled cat while walking on the banks of the Arakawa River in Saitama City, Japan. Days later, police said, the rest of the body turned up on the grounds of an elementary school.
Within 10 days, through late February, the public discovered two more mutilated cat carcasses, one in a field and one by the side of a small town road.
While these gruesome acts did not involve any human casualties, they still made this Tokyo-area city nervous.
Local schools ask teachers to escort children home and advise them to go in large groups; According to the Japanese public broadcaster NHK, the police have increased patrols.
The killings have stirred up uncomfortable memories for Saitama, which for the past few years has jailed a cat killer, tortured multiple animals and posted videos of his exploits online. They also raised the specter of child murders in the city of Kobe in the 1990s, when a 14-year-old boy with a history of animal cruelty killed two children, ages 10 and 11, and injured three others.
The killings also come at a worrying time for schools in the area. Earlier this week, a teacher at a junior high school in Toda was reportedly stabbed by a student, prompting an evacuation.
A Saitama Police spokesman told CNN that they had launched an investigation into animal cruelty and were looking into whether the various cat killings were linked. Killing or harming animals is a crime in Japan — it carries a penalty of up to five years in prison or a fine of around 5 million yen ($36,600).
A woman in her 80s told NHK she felt “terrified and uneasy” when she heard the news about the cat killings – but the concerns go beyond those raised about animal welfare.
In the wake of the killings, various experts have warned that in some minds, animal cruelty may serve as a gateway to even more heinous crimes.
“Usually, criminal acts and atrocities are hidden, but daring to show them can be a form of self-expression,” Kenji Omata, a psychology professor at Surugadai University, told NHK.
Omata referred both to the case of the former cat killer in Saitama Prefecture and that “animal cruelty was also present in the case of the serial killing of children in Kobe City.”
“I am very concerned about how long similar incidents will continue and whether people will be harmed,” Omata said.
Kim J. McCoy, a lawyer who founded the Hong Kong Animal Law and Protection Organization, warned that some cases of animal cruelty “have escalated into more serious crimes against people.”
“There is empirical evidence of the direct correlation between those who commit animal cruelty and those who commit other, more violent crimes against people,” McCoy said.
Even though the violence is limited to animals, there is still a need for action, McCoy added.
“Animals are vulnerable,” McCoy said. “You deserve and need proper protection from harm.”