To be clear, the bodies were there for this purpose. Both were donated to Colorado Mesa University’s Forensic Investigation Research Station, the kind of facility commonly known as a “body farm.” At any given time, a few dozen corpses are decomposing on its two acres of saltbush-dotted desert. Scientists and students document what happens, and their findings help law enforcement, coroners and medical examiners determine “what is natural that happens to a body and what is not natural,” said Melissa Connor, a forensic anthropology professor who is director of the station.
The station is surrounded by a 10-foot-high, wire-topped fence that extends two feet underground to keep out large animals and most burrowing ones. But it is not impervious: Connor said prairie dogs frequently pop up but pay no attention to the bodies, while cats, skunks and snakes slip in through gaps in and under a front gate.
Remote cameras at the facility, which is far from houses but close to a landfill where feral cats live, had previously captured cats wandering among the grasses inside the gates. But during a routine scan of images, student Sara Garcia gasped at the sight of one feline that turned up in late 2017 and at another a few months later. These cats — one black, one striped — weren’t wandering. They were eating.
This was interesting in part because domestic cats are known as predators, not scavengers. Both started eating when the bodies were in early stages of decomposition and ended at the onset of “moist decomposition,” when fluids begin leeching. Both ate all the way to the bone.
And although the cats had a buffet of more than 40 bodies from which to choose, each one returned to the corpse it had selected again and again — one almost nightly for 35 nights straight.
“The main theory is that cats are, like, picky eaters. Once they find a food that they like, they’ll stick with it,” said Garcia, the lead author on the paper, which was published in the Journal of Forensic Sciences.
The photos, as well as the claw marks the cats left behind, were scientifically valuable because this sort of activity is rarely documented. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it is rare. “Any coroner or medical examiner will tell you of cases where a body was shut up with a pet that scavenged the owner eventually,” Connor said.
Mikel Delgado, a cat behavior researcher at the University of California at Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, said she wasn’t surprised by this particular cat behavior. She used to work at an animal shelter, and “we had a cat that came in when her owner had died, and the report said that she’d eaten the person’s nose,” said Delgado, who wrote on her blog about the Colorado scavenging. “It’s not a behavior problem. It’s just a fact of life.”
Even so, Delgado said people occasionally ask her whether their cats might take a nibble should they keel over.
“I think it’s two things: We project certain morals onto our pets, and we expect them to follow that moral code,” she said. “And then I think there’s the morbid curiosity.”
Lest dog owners feel smug, it is important to note that previous research has described pet canines, as well as a hamster and a bird, that ate part of their deceased masters. In the case of one Alsatian dog in Germany, it wasn’t even out of Donner-party style desperation: The dog was healthy, had a full bowl of food and still consumed some of its owner within 45 minutes of the person’s death. (The researchers surmised that the dog had tried to revive the man and began biting out of distress.)
None of this means that kitty is actively considering which parts of you might be tastiest. This seems to happen most often to pet owners who have medical conditions that cause sudden death and who are socially isolated, which means their bodies are less likely to be found quickly, researchers have said.
Connor and her co-authors, for their part, said their findings didn’t change how they felt about cats, which wasn’t much to begin with.
“They’re looking for a food source, and they’ve found a food source that is human remains,” said Alexander Smith, the research station’s laboratory manager.
“They make me sneeze,” Connor said of cats. But, she said about the bodies, “If you were hungry, wouldn’t you eat them?”