Feral Cats Break Into Body Farm to Eat Decomposing Human Corpses

Feral cats have been recorded eating human corpses at a research facility that studies how our bodies decompose.

The cats were seen scavenging from dead bodies at the site in Whitewater, Colorado, with two separate incidents recorded.

The cats tended to eat the soft tissues found on the shoulder and arm, researchers reported in the Journal of Forensic Science in November. The team, led by Sara Garcia, from the Forensic Investigation Research Station, Colorado Mesa University, say finding cases of cats scavenging is rare as they tend to prefer hunting.

In recent decades, more and more "body farms" have been established. At these sites, scientists leave dead bodies out in order to record how they decompose over time. There are seven of these facilities in the U.S., with the biggest in Texas. This area of research has wide-ranging applications, from aiding in police investigations to archaeology and anthropology.

Body farms, like the one in Colorado, are protected from larger scavengers by a fence above and below ground. Donor bodies are placed unclothed, lying face upwards about three meters apart and they are checked for decomposition weekly, the researchers write.

Several smaller species are known to scavenge on the bodies, and their activity is monitored with infrared cameras. As and when this happens, the species involved is recorded, the team notes. Previously, bobcats have been documented scavenging the dead bodies at the Southeast Texas Applied Forensic Science facility.

In the latest study, the team reports how two bodies, that of a man and woman who died at the ages of 70 and 79 respectively, were scavenged by cats. Both had been placed outside about two weeks after death. The cats started eating the bodies about five or six days after they had been placed in the facility.

"Both cats showed preference for bodies in relatively early decomposition," they wrote. "Scavenging began when the bodies showed early signs of decomposition and ended at the onset of moist decomposition." This suggests, they say, that the cats preferred eating tissue that was in earlier stages of decomposition.

The team also notes that the pattern of scavenging observed was closer to what is reported in bobcats compared to domestic cats. In the few cases where house cats have been reported eating human bodies, they tend to go for facial tissue, such as the nose and mouth. Bobcats appear to target the arms, hips and thighs, the researchers say.

Understanding how feral cats scavenge could be important to the studies of human decomposition, they say. "Due to the prevalence of feral cats throughout the United States and the world, understanding the patterns and behaviors of these scavengers can assist in distinguishing between perimortem and postmortem tissue damage," they say.

Concluding, the team notes that their research is only based on two reports so this behavior cannot be extrapolated to all feral cats. However, it should be considered when thinking about tissue damage to corpses. Tissue damage from scavenging could appear as trauma before death, for example.

"Scavenging may also conceal soft tissue trauma that has the potential to inform cause and manner of death," the scientists add. "Recognizing the scavenging patterns of a variety of animals is important for investigators to determine the origin of the damage and separate postmortem from perimortem damage."

cat silhouette
Representative image showing a cat. Researchers recorded feral cats eating two human bodies at a research facility in Colorado. iStock