MIAMI – The black cat's body was found in the grass, just feet from the hedges where she slept each day.
Miss Kitty was still warm to the touch when the South Florida couple who cared for her found her in the yard next door. Her head was smashed and her back legs skinned, like pieces of chicken in a grocer's freezer. And she was not the only one to suffer such a fate.
Horrified owners have been finding their cats killed and mutilated for the past month in two south Miami-Dade County communities. Many of the cats were missing fur and appeared to have been cut with a sharp, straight instrument, police said.
In all, investigators are looking into about two dozen deaths, with enough evidence to try to prosecute at least 15 of the cases.
"Every time I hear about someone else, I'm in their shoes and I see my cat again," said Mary Lou Shad, who fed and cared for Miss Kitty with her husband for the past year. Although the cat was feral, they considered her their pet.
"I feel terrorized to the point where everywhere I go, I'm looking for dead cats on the side of the road," Shad said.
Investigators don't yet know who or what is behind the gruesome cat deaths in Cutler Bay and Palmetto Bay, but owners are keeping their pets inside, raising reward money and warily eyeing strangers.
Police spokeswoman Rebeca Perez said the manner of death indicates a person killed the animals, and that the deaths could be linked. So far, there's no indication the killer or killers plan to attack people.
Whoever's responsible "hasn't given any indication that this is some sort of a threat where this person's going to commit these crimes against a human being," Perez said.
The Shads' canary-colored home sits in a calm suburban neighborhood of small one-story houses, neat lawns and caring neighbors. There is a school nearby and a park with swings and playground equipment. An ice cream truck rumbles through, its tune echoing down the streets.
But the apparent tranquility belies residents' anger and fear.
"Be aware that there is a psychopathic coward, killing cats," reads one poster taped to a neighborhood street sign.
The sign is not far from the home of 68-year-old Barbara Wiesinger, whose cat, Cami, was found in a neighbor's yard this month. Wiesinger said she saw the calico's fur poking up in a patch of grass. She immediately knew her pet was dead.
"This is not an accident. This is somebody sick," she said.
Allison Smith, who watched her 4-year-old son and her 6-year-old nephew play barefoot in the local park on a muggy afternoon this week, said she recently called the police to her Palmetto Bay home after she found bowls in her front yard. She worried someone might be trying to lure out her two cats, Marvin and Molly, but the bowls simply belonged to a neighbor. Still, she is keeping the cats inside.
"They were inside-outside," Smith said. "But not anymore."
Louis B. Schlesinger, a professor of forensic psychology at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, said residents should be cautious, even if initial signs don't indicate humans are in danger. He said the man believed to the "Boston Strangler" also shot cats with arrows.
"This should be taken as seriously as could possibly be," he said.
Local authorities are urging pet owners to keep their animals indoors. A tip line has also been established, and local organizations have contributed thousands in reward money for information would helps lead to the arrest of the culprit.
A month ago, 42-year-old Alicia Glatzer's husband found their cat, Sarah, outside their Palmetto Bay home. The cat had been skinned and half of her face was missing. The family initially thought that the cat had been hit by a car, but a week later learned of the other killings.
These days, Glatzer looks at people's hands and arms for scratch marks. She hopes for a stronger police presence in their neighborhood after what happened to Sarah, a pretty white cat with a black and tan tail that adopted the family about three years ago.
"I'm afraid that we are going to be prey," Glatzer said. "Our cats have fallen to prey. Who's to say that we are not next?"