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Owners wonder why their cats were slain

(ran SE edition)

Whatever it was, it was sure bigger and meaner than Blinks and Jimmy as they took their moonlit stroll a month ago.

Other cats in the neighborhood were no match, either. They, too, would die a mysterious death before dawn.

Most of the dead lay almost in rows, lined side by side. Only one had obvious signs of serious trauma; it was cut in half.

Suspecting animal cruelty, police canvassed the neighborhood after reports of six cats slain along red-bricked 12th Avenue N. Residents say as many as 10 cats actually were found Sept. 23. On lawns. In the street. Behind an apartment house.

Ever since the daybreak discovery of Blinks and Jimmy, their owners still wonder how the cats were killed. Even more, they wonder why.

"For two days, I cried, and I kept crying," says Sherry Zipp. "We just kept waiting for these vicious people or whatever to come back."

Sometime early Sept. 23, her husband, Alonzo, let Blinks and Jimmy out for their usual jaunt. "They weren't tomcats," Mrs. Zipp says. "They just went out to smell the fresh air."

By 7 a.m., the two cats lay dead about 6 feet apart. A neighbor saw them, then told the Zipps.

As the neighbor and Alonzo Zipp stood outside, another man walked by and overheard them. That's funny, he said. Three more cats are two houses down.

Eddie and Rose Lawn already had seen the three cats near their yard. Taffy, Whiskers and Miss Kitty had looked so cute, sort of napping there in a trio. "When they didn't move, Eddie didn't think anything about it," his wife says.

Then a neighbor phoned to tell them the news. The Lawns were waiting for police when Zipp stopped by.

"I feel they should have done it to me and not these defenseless cats," Mrs. Lawn says. "Nobody has bothered anybody on this street. Until now."

Police eventually came out to investigate, but clues were scarce. Little blood was found on the cats; no injuries appeared fatal. "All five of them looked the same," Zipp says.

That morning, Colleen Downs was walking to work from her apartment down the street when she saw police cars parked near the Zipps' house. "They had a tarp covering something so I just thought it was a body," she says.

That night after returning home from work, she headed toward her back yard when a family member told her to "watch out for the dead cat."

Her two daughters _ 9-year-old Leila and 6-year-old Katrina _ had been playing earlier when they found the corpse of a white cat outside their small apartment building. But it was missing its front half.

"It was a clean cut _ like a knife or a machete," Downs says.

Later, Downs passed by a neighbor's house when she overheard a discussion about the five other cats. She got to thinking, and she decided to tell police.

By then, the sun had set. So using their flashlights, officers examined the cat's remains. Nobody ever showed to pick up the corpse, and Downs' 8-year-old son and a neighbor buried the cat.

"I used to live in New York," Downs says, "and they used to kill cats for rituals. It's just strange how they target a certain area."

But police have no suspects and no witnesses, says Officer Terri Hubble, a department spokeswoman. Community officers can't even say for sure whether the cats were poisoned, beaten or strangled.

"They have no leads," except for two dogs loose in the neighborhood, Hubble says.

Somebody reported seeing two dogs to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of St. Petersburg, which performed necropsies on five of the dead cats. Beth Lockwood, the agency's shelter director, says the cats suffered internal injuries.

Their chest cavities and bodies had been crushed, apparently by the pressure of a dog's jowls, she says. "They were not torn to shreds."

In addition, she says, another neighborhood cat was brought to the SPCA. Although it was injured by a gash, it was still alive.

"They were beautiful cats, older cats. It's really a tragedy," Lockwood says. "The problem is, the cats were loose, and the dogs were loose."

Dogs and cats may tangle by nature, but the Zipps and their neighbors doubt the SPCA's findings. They question how two dogs could be serial cat killers without a stir or a flurry of fur.

"I have two dogs in the house. If an acorn falls, they're at the door," Zipp says. "And they never made a peep."

After finding Blinks and Jimmy, he spent three nights in a lawn chair on his driveway. "I was looking to see if anybody would come back," he says, "but nobody did."

The neighborhood, known as Uptown, has its share of minor crime, which spills onto 12th Avenue N from more-troubled streets. Plants sometimes get stolen, as do birdbaths and yard fixtures.

But the cat slayings have scared some residents. At least two have mentioned moving away, saying the cats were the last straw.

"You would have to see how these cats were arranged," says Lynn Gervais, a Times employee who has lived in the neighborhood for nine years. She, too, insists that dogs can't be blamed for the slayings.

"I think it's some type of gang activity," she says. "Is this some ritual or some initiation for something?"

Although police received reports of only six cats, Gervais and the Zipps say they have heard about 10, including one in nearby Crescent Lake Park. Officers do consider their investigation ongoing, but residents say they still fear a cat killer at large.

"I know the cops are busy with other things," Zipp says. "To me, it's a high priority because these cats were my babies."

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