They Eat Their Owners

Diana Watters

PET THEM, SPOIL them, sleep with them, train them, knit sweaters for them, use them as child substitutes--cats and dogs will remain by nature anthropophagous. From the Greek: anthropos, "man," and phagein, "eat."

The man who probably knows more about anthropophagi than anyone else in the city of Minneapolis is the medical examiner, Dr. Gary Peterson. He probes through the bodies of people who die under suspicious circumstances: homicides, suicides, and especially men and women who are not found for days or weeks after death. These last, in Dr. Peterson's opinion, are most likely to suffer the effects of anthropophagi. In layman's terms, he explains, "It's kind of, the eating of--" he pauses, "--people. The pets that we usually encounter are cats and dogs and usually they don't do it until they run out of food."

In other words, since the deceased can no longer feed their pets, their pets feed on them. "The animal just gets desperate and the hunger drive and survival instinct takes over. The important thing, of course, is to recognize it and identify it so you don't misinterpret it as an injury that occurred before death," Peterson says. This is generally a simple task. Compared to, say, ballistics analysis, identifying an animal bite isn't tough. "It usually looks just like what it is: The dog has a larger mouth and larger teeth. If death has taken place, then bleeding doesn't occur." Unless the death occurs out of doors, "then there's a whole host of animals that could be involved."

It may be of some comfort to the owners of pets to know that this desperate act of feeding, when an animal trades its loyalty for hunger, is probably the most common type of anthropophagi. Dr. Scott Line, an animal behaviorist from the University of Minnesota and the Animal Humane Society, talks about a much rarer form. "I have heard of a few isolated cases where elderly people have been attacked by groups of dogs in their home and were consumed as part of a predatory sequence. They look at the people as being vulnerable and weak and go after them, biting at the neck." Dr. Line says, noting an article in The American Journal of Forensic Medicine and Pathology that detailed a case study.

The Journal is not a publication to be casually perused. It contains thousands of case studies, deaths rendered in no-nonsense prose and illustrated with copious black and white photographs. Some of the more interesting cases included a couple who electrocuted themselves with a homemade device designed to electronically stimulate their erotic pleasure, and a woman who ingested over 300 small metal objects, including some 25 antique keys. And there is the case Line cited, "Death Due to Attack From Chow Dog" by Robert C. Bux and John McDowell. It tells the story of a 71-year-old Texas woman and her dog. When her son couldn't reach her by phone, he called a neighbor. "The neighbor investigated the home," write the authors, "and saw extensive blood on the kitchen and utility-room floor and subsequently attempted to gain entry to the home. He opened a sliding patio glass door and was met by 'Blue,' a snarling 40 kg chow dog. The dog attacked and bit the neighbor.

"The woman was found dead on her back in the utility room, blocking the back door," the authors continue. This is illustrated by Fig. 1, "View of laundry room where victim found." On a table stands a family-sized box of Tide laundry detergent. At the lower edge of the frame, a pair of legs, an overturned laundry basket, and written in a pool of blood, Blue's excited tracks as he sought purchase on the slippery floor. "Large quantities of brown dog hair consistent with the chow was found adjacent to and on the body, and clutched in the hands of the victim (Fig. 3)."

"Fatal dog attacks are rare," Bux and McDowell are quick to point out. When they attack to kill, dogs usually, like Blue, pick someone very old or someone very young. And that's a revealing fact about dogs (and cats, though a fatal house cat attack didn't turn up in a search through the annals of the American Journal). Blue was a predator. Blue was an opportunist. You may understandably consider your pet the exception--loyal and steadfast to the death. You would, according to Dr. Line, be wrong. "The idea that cats and dogs would naturally be restrained from [eating you] is probably a human emotional interpretation of how they would respond to the situation." Your pet, deep in his genetic program, is just like Blue. He saw his opening, and he took it.

For cats, that opening is very, very small. Few people get a chance to see them take advantage of it. Unlike dogs, cats lack the physical strength to enact a "predatory sequence" on their owner's body. But when some other force intercedes--the blade of a knife, for example, or a bullet--cats will seize the day. There's a story that still makes the rounds among cops in Minneapolis. They speak of a killing on the North Side. A ton of blood. When officers arrived on the scene, they startled a small cat perched on the dead man's chest, lapping daintily at his blood. What happened to the cat? "I've never had to sit back," says a manager at Animal Control, "and evaluate the adoption of an animal based on that kind of behavior."

Somewhere in the city of Minneapolis, the kitty cat is stretching. He yawns, and lies down in a patch of sunlight. Beneath the heavy lid of one eye, he watches. And waits.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >