Over the past few days, a story has circulated around the Internet claiming that the police in Waco arrested an 85-year-old woman who had been kidnapping her neighbor’s cats and turning them into coats. I was relieved and completely unsurprised to read this morning that the story’s a fake.

My relief is not only for the sake of the fictional cats. I’m glad that people’s pets aren’t being turned into fashionable winterwear, but I’m even happier that I don’t have to go around with the knowledge that some people watch 101 Dalmations and think of it as a how-to guide. Using Disney movies as inspiration for either your ethics or your fashion is almost always a disaster. (I do know some drag queens who can pull off the latter, but they tend to use fake fur for these kinds of projects.)

However, it’s also depressing as hell to look at just how transparent the fakery was, and how quickly it got passed around as a real thing. The CBS affiliate in Texas was able to peg it as a fake by doing a web search on the photo of the woman that was included in the original article. It turns out that the picture is actually Norma Cheren, a 79-year-old Atlanta woman who was arrested on suspicion of possessing nine pounds of marijuana and $130,000 in cash. In my eyes, at least, that’s a much lesser crime than doing a Cruella DeVil routine with the neighborhood felines.

The other photograph in the article was shot in 1982 by Jerome Liebling. It shows an elderly woman from Brighton Beach wearing a fur coat. It’s been displayed in galleries and museums for years.

That’s just what you can get from using Google. CBS also checked with the Waco police, who said unambiguously that they had made no such arrest. To avoid any confusion, the Waco PD addressed the issue head-on by putting a Grumpy Cat meme on its Facebook page.

Even without going to Google, there’s the source to be considered; the story originated on World News Daily Report, a site that resembles journalism in the same way that Daffy Duck resembles waterfowl. As of this writing, headlines of their recent articles include:

  • Missouri Pig Brothel Dismantled During FBI Raid
  • Mexico: 49 Goats Dead in Latest Chupacabra Attack
  • Louisiana ‘Devil Child’ Burns Down 4th House in a Row
  • Ghost Ship Filled With Ebola-Ridden Rats Heading for Florida

If it weren’t for the fact that people are passing stories like this as genuine, I’d probably applaud the editors for their absurdist sense of humor. Back when it was still being printed on paper, I used to read The Weekly World News because the bizarreness of the headlines approached something like a Dada art project. But the humor starts to feel a little bit subdued when you realize just how easy it is to get people to believe this stuff.

So considering how easy it is to figure out that there isn’t really any woman stalking kitty-cats for her winter wardrobe (at least, that we know of), why did the story gain credibility so quickly?

A lot of it seems to be simple laziness on the part of writers who should at least be able to do a little web searching. Writers for some sites, such as Inquisitr, just repeated the story almost verbatim, as if they’d watched the imaginary woman stand before the judge with their own eyes. In a way, I can understand that impulse. I go through the stress of trying to write a story, crop and upload pictures, properly format links, and come up with a snappy headline and summary every morning. Deadline stress does weird things to your mind, and sometimes not all the double-checking that should be done gets done. But even so, I can’t imagine just passing on a story so full of red flags. (For instance, it contains absolutely no names or other identifying information.)

On the other end of the media system, the Internet makes it easy for a lot of people to glance at headlines and maybe a couple of sentences from a story, then pass it on to all their social networks. And finally, maybe a lot of people wanted it to be true. I’m not saying that the Internet is swarming with cat-haters, but stories like this do awaken that thrill of the forbidden in us, the part that’s horrified yet also fascinated at the same time.

Those aren’t very strong answers, nor are they complete. It’s almost better to just say “People are weird,” and leave it at that without any intellectual pretensions. For now, I advise you to take comfort in the fact that the little old lady down the street is not in fact stalking your kitty because she thinks that the cat fur would look darling on that project she’s stitching up to sell on Etsy.

Last but not least, bookmark Snopes and make a habit of checking it before passing on the more outrageous stories to your friends. To its credit, the Mikkelsons put up a piece debunking this story almost as soon as it went viral.

Via CBS and Snopes

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