Queens' Richmond Hill was a cat's paradise.  Then the mutilations began.

Something was happening to the stray cats in Richmond Hill, Queens — disappearing at first, then returning days later with mutilated paws.

But after months of questions and multiple investigations from police and vigilantes alike, the local cat community’s human minders have yet to unearth why this was happening.

Deepa Persaud, a nurse at nearby Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, spends her time outside shifts and school feeding the stray cats in her backyard, a sliver of concrete and grass.

She is not alone. While many neighborhoods boast an occasional cat-friendly home, this section of Richmond Hill near 102nd Avenue and 129th Street is lined with more than a few feline havens.

So this winter, when multiple cats began showing up with grotesque limb injuries and eerily similar disfigurements, it cast a pall on the neighborhood.

One stray, named Ruby, suffered the worst injuries. Her front limbs were blackened, furless and miniaturized, like “shrunken, little raisins,” according to one rescuer, Amy No. Another cat Persaud found had one paw that had been stripped down to the bone.

“There was a little smell, as well — rotting flesh,” Persaud said. “I mean, I know that smell. You know?”

What happened to the Richmond Hill strays remains a mystery. Some have floated the idea of possible animal abuse. But Persaud and No say there’s more to the story.

An NYPD spokesperson told Gothamist that investigators determined no crimes had been committed involving the Richmond Hill cats. The Queens district attorney’s office confirmed it was investigating, but did not respond to later inquiries on the status of its probe. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals is not involved.


There was a little smell, as well — rotting flesh … I mean, I know that smell. You know?

Cat caregiver, Deepa Persaud

To investigate what happened to the cats, Gothamist spoke to residents, animal rescuers and medical and legal experts. For a variety of reasons, many of them found the abuse theory to be unlikely. Gothamist also asked veterinarians to review photographs of the animals’ injuries, and looked at 311 records, construction filings,and environmental factors in the neighborhood, including potential exposure to toxins and chemicals. No answers came of it.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said No. What — or who — is doing this, and do they have it out for Richmond Hill’s cats?

Victims without a voice

Meagan Licari put out a call for donations in late February. Her rescue organization Puppy Kitty NY City had taken on medical arrangements for Juliette, one of the first three cats found on Persaud’s block with mangled paws. At the time, Juliette had already racked up a veterinary bill of about $7,000.

Then two more strays came along.

“We have a huge problem on our hands,” Licari wrote on Instagram. “When we rescued Juliette we just assumed she was injured and didn’t think someone may have done it to her. Last night two more cats with similar injuries were found. It’s very suspicious. We need your help.”

The two others were Ruby and another cat who rescuers named Claire, with flesh exposed to the bone. Licari said it was hard for her to believe this was an accident.

“I just don’t see them going into the same situation that their sibling or littermate went into and got severely injured,” she said. “ It just really doesn’t add up.”

The prospect of an abuser captured the public imagination. A popular thread on Reddit — “Someone in Richmond Hill is torturing cats” — garnered over a thousand upvotes and downvotes.

Several news sites covered a separate incident in Howard Beach in early March, over 3 miles away, where 14 cats were found dead in a manner that teased a possible connection to Richmond Hill and fanned fears of a serial cat killer.

The NYPD said it closed its own investigation into the Howard Beach cats with no arrests, claiming it had exhausted all leads. None of the cats Licari saw at Howard Beach had injured paws.

Curtis Sliwa, the Republican candidate for mayor in 2021 and an avid cat enthusiast, said he and his vigilante organization, the Guardian Angels, tried to get to the bottom of the mystery in Richmond Hill. They couldn’t.

“It’s like the Wizard of Oz — we know it’s there, but we have no idea who it is behind the curtain,” Sliwa said.

The Queens DA’s office did not make the head of its Animal Cruelty Prosecutions Unit available for an interview, despite multiple requests.

“The police, they’ve taken over the responsibility of enforcement when it comes to animal abuse, but I don’t see them use the same techniques that they would use in researching an accusation that a human being had been violated,” Sliwa said.


A Richmond Hill cat lounges atop a trash can

Deepa Persaud

A rare bacterial disease

Agent Smith, a part-time stray, part-time domestic cat who was among the first to be discovered with injuries, had disappeared for a few days before returning to a cat who lived with Persaud’s next-door neighbor.

The stray tested positive for Streptococci, a common bacteria found on the skin of animals and humans that doesn’t always result in illness. But No, who took the lead on caring for Agent Smith and another cat he was found with, said the veterinarian who treated him believed his injuries may have come from a flesh-eating disease caused by the bacteria.

Cases of flesh-eating disease, known as necrotizing fasciitis, are exceptionally rare in cats, said Dr. Bruce Kornreich, a veterinary cardiologist and director of Cornell University’s Feline Health Center. Only four prior cases had been published in the Journal of Small Animal Practice, in 2015. Most of them died shortly after.

Kornreich said all the affected animals would first have to have open wounds on their paws — and nowhere else — for the bacteria to enter and manifest as a rare illness present in multiple animals not belonging to the same household.

“The question is, could somebody deliberately be going around and wounding the feet of these cats?” Kornreich asked. “Sure. In the real world, in my experience — if people wanted to harm cats, I don’t know that they would do it this way.”

“But could people be putting things out that irritate the cats’ feet or that are causing burns on the cats’ feet? I guess that’s possible, but I really can’t speculate there. Anything is possible,” he continued. “The question is, what’s more likely?

Some of the other injured strays tested positive for various kinds of bacteria including the same kind found on Agent Smith, who has made a near-full recovery.

Ruby, a regular visitor to Persaud’s yard, was euthanized because of the severity of her injuries. All four of her limbs would’ve had to be amputated to live.

Other cats have gone missing from Persaud’s yard since. Only one regular has returned since the mutilations, seemingly unharmed. Claire only recently left the hospital in late April after nearly two months of medical care.

Licari said Claire and Juliette will probably always walk with a limp.


Who would hurt this noble beast?

Deepa Persaud

Common ground

The pathologist who wrote the report following Ruby’s necropsy listed “gangrenous necrosis of the distal fore and hind limbs” as the final diagnosis.

“The lesion on all limbs is peculiar and suggestive of a physical or chemical injury,” the report reads. The comments were consistent with how Licari’s veterinarian characterized the strays’ injuries.

But how the strays came in contact with the same chemical that may have potentially caused their injuries is unclear. Certain everyday chemicals can cause burns, such as drain cleaners, paint thinner and gasoline. Wet cement is also a common culprit in workplace injury lawsuits from construction workers who’ve experienced chemical burns.

Some have pointed to active construction in the neighborhood, which has 23 active building permits within a five-block radius of Persaud and her neighbors.

In the three-month period including the week the strays were found, no 311 calls were recorded nearby regarding the safety of cats from neighborhood construction.

The closest large construction site — located around the corner from Persaud’s home — has a raft of safety violations with the New York City Department of Buildings, though none involve animals. None of the 311 complaints about the site mention cats or cement.

A specific address a five-minute walk from Persaud was reported over multiple 311 calls in late January and early February, claiming an oil spill on the street, records show. Two callers described the spill as “large” in size but one other deemed it “small.”

A spokesperson for the city’s Department of Environmental Conservation said the calls regarded someone who was working on their personal vehicle in the street, but no spills, oil or otherwise, were found.

Persaud has sifted through the possibilities in her mind. She has fallen short of an explanation.

Off the top of her head, Persaud can think of at least seven people, including herself, who feed the strays on her block and nearby streets. “Not everybody feeds them,” she said, “but I doubt that anybody would purposely try to hurt them.”

On a chilly March evening, Persaud traced the perimeter of her immediate neighborhood. She could be wrong to doubt the abuse theory, she admitted — despite her convictions that no one in her neighborhood could do it.

“If you’re doing stuff to animals, who knows what you’re going to escalate to, right?” she said. “I feel like it starts out with animals.”