Playful and adorable they may be, but it seems some kitties just can’t keep their paws to themselves… Tibbs Jenkins reports on the rise of the real-life cat burglars
‘A demonic act by a poltergeist? No – as it transpired, by my neighbour’s cat. A genuine cat burglar.’
Three years ago, a pair of my slippers mysteriously disappeared. I searched high and low, but no joy. I bought more. These too vanished, as did the next pair. I thought I was going slowly mad. Then one night I found a slipper severed on my bedroom floor. A demonic act by a poltergeist? No – as it transpired, by my neighbour’s cat. A genuine cat burglar.
It turned out my neighbour had a cupboard full of the cat’s stolen booty. The cat moved last year, and I was free to open my bathroom window… until my new neighbour bought a cat. He’s broken in twice now and has already stolen a cuddly toy from number 64.
Cuddly toy aside, was my new neighbour aware of her cat’s intrusive ways? Of course not. It’s a bit like letting a teenager out on a Friday night. Which is why the international Cat Tracker project carried out a six-year study using GPS to record over 900 domesticated cats’ movements for seven days. While the study, which was published last year, discovered that pet cats don’t venture much further than 100 metres from their homes, we still don’t actually know what they get up to in that time. To know their actions would help researchers understand how house cats affect local wildlife numbers. Personally, I think it would also shed some light on a lot of unsolved crimes.
Because it turns out that kleptomaniac cats are quite a thing. I’ve heard of one street in South London that has a WhatsApp group purely so the owners of the cats can share and return whatever items they bring home. In Oregon, USA, there’s a cat called Esme with a thing for face masks and gloves who is currently living in shame after her owner publicly outed her – putting up a sign in her front yard that read, ‘MY CAT IS A THIEF. PLEASE TAKE THESE ITEMS IF THEY ARE YOURS,’ accompanied by a washing line full of gloves.
Esme the cat burglar was publicly shamed by her owner
She’s not the only kitty with a thing for gloves – there’s also Bella from Manchester, exposed on a Prestwich Facebook page, who in her time has brought home many a lone glove, as well as clothes, paintbrushes and even a pair of knickers.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles tortoiseshell China is up for anything: she’s taken darts, scissors, fireworks, a pack of cigarettes and light bulbs. All of her booty has been captured on her owner’s intercom camera and posted on Instagram under @songsofmyfelines, to the delight of some 12,000 followers. ‘China is a legend,’ they write, awarding her points for her steals as they await the next. ‘An Xmas ornament in June!!! 950!’
Maybe this behaviour shouldn’t surprise us: cats are inherently weird. After all, what’s with always wanting to climb into small boxes? Rosie Bescoby, from the Association of Pet Behaviour Counsellors, explains, ‘Hiding is a way for them to feel safe, and cats seem to think that if they can’t see out of somewhere then they also can’t be seen.’
And there’s their manic late-night outbursts (some call them the ‘zoomies’), when they hurtle around the house like a banshee. ‘Cats are crepuscular, which means they are most active when their prey would be,’ Rosie says. ‘If we don’t provide physical stimulation at dawn and dusk, cats will find their own fun at these times.’ But stealing? That remains a mystery. As Rosie says, ‘There is currently no scientific evidence behind it.’
There are various theories, though, being tossed around on cat forums and by pet behaviourists, from predatory instinct to straight-up boredom and attention-seeking. Stress has been cited, too. Certain textures can soothe our feline friends. Wool-sucking has been noted in some cats, though vets say the habit is usually harmless unless the cat is actually swallowing items. Research suggests it’s associated with early weaning, and that certain breeds, such as Siamese and Burmese, are inclined to develop the habit. My cat thief was a Burmese, so I guess that explains my sheepskin slippers. Less so all those gloves.
Snatching random accessories is not your neighbourhood cat’s only passion. They also have a habit of stealing people’s hearts. After all, there’s many a cat owner who has suspected their pet of having an affair – vanishing for the night, coming home smelling of someone else’s scent and slowly getting fatter.
Michael Hubank, head of clinical genomics at Surrey’s Royal Marsden Hospital, discovered his cat’s other life when having a snoop at his neighbour’s house online. There he spied his tabby Freddy lounging contentedly on his neighbour’s bed. ‘The neighbours had just put the house up for sale. Couldn’t resist checking it out on Zoopla. That’s our bloody cat,’ he wrote on Twitter.
Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised, as cats are inherently weird
Not all owners see the funny side in their cat’s cheating ways, nor do they hold their kitty accountable. In 2019, a legal battle was waged in Hammersmith between the Halls and their neighbour, Nicola Lesbirel, over Ozzy, a Maine coon. The row had been going on since 2015. Ozzy, it seems, had started something of a dalliance with Lesbirel, who – love-struck and overwhelmed by her affections – had replaced Ozzy’s collar with one featuring her own phone number, and, quite possessively, the words ‘My Home’. In fact, she replaced his collar a total of nine times. You can imagine how the Halls felt about this. Emails were fired off. But Lesbirel didn’t see the problem.
‘He is very loved and well cared for and he is very attached to his territory, and to me. Surely leaving him where he is determined to be and where you can be reassured he is settled and happy and healthy is the best thing for everyone involved.’
Not a chance, as Mrs Hall made very clear. ‘He is not your cat and we are not just giving him over to you.’ The Halls took the matter to court and won. Lesbirel had to legally promise to no longer feed the Maine coon and was hit with a £24,000 legal bill. Taking someone else’s cat is, after all, theft – but it’s hard to prove, especially if the cat is in fact going back and forth between two dwellings. In which case, it’s simply called ‘seduction’. The cat’s absence needs to be permanent to be classed as theft.
I was an accessory to a similar sort of theft myself. Growing up in Notting Hill, I remember our doorbell ringing repeatedly one day and my mother answering the intercom to a frantic Italian lady.
‘My cat is in your hallway,’ she wailed. Only it wasn’t technically her cat, it was Sphinx from the top floor, who had lived upstairs with our neighbour since he was a kitten. The poor woman wailed even harder as my mother told her the truth – that despite behaving like he was her cat, Sphinx already had an owner. ‘But we’re moving to Italy this week – he’s had his jabs,’ she yowled. In the end, my neighbour decided an Italian lifestyle might suit Sphinx, the lothario that he was, and allowed him to go with her. The Italian for meow is ‘miao’ by the way, so linguistically he’d hopefully be fine.
Not everyone appreciates cats and their mercurial personalities. When my brother bought kittens last year, his neighbour firmly told him that he’d spray them with water if they wandered into his garden.
A little more extreme is the story of one cat owner from Bridgend, who was given a shock when his beloved Bengal, Gandalf, returned home with a note attached to his collar. Threateningly it read, ‘Please keep your cat at home. Your cat comes to my house almost every day, takes food from the table, scratches my sofa, spreads fleas. I can’t leave the windows open. I’m honestly fed up. If I see your cat again at my house I promise I’ll take him far away.’
My neighbour’s cat doesn’t wear a collar, so attaching a note to it – asking them to please tell their cat to stop pooing on my thyme, staking out my house and trying to kill my birds – isn’t an option.
And besides, this behaviour is nothing new. Cats, after all, defy human law. Take, for example, the most famous feline felon there ever was – immortalised in T S Eliot’s often recited poem: ‘Macavity’s a Mystery Cat: he’s called the Hidden Paw – For he’s the master criminal who can defy the Law. He’s the bafflement of Scotland Yard, the Flying Squad’s despair: For when they reach the scene of crime – Macavity’s not there!’