'Great British Baking Show' Judge Prue Leith Addresses Backlash to Kitten Drowning Confession

The Great British Baking Show judge Prue Leith's recently published memoir included a shocking story about her drowning kittens as a child while growing up in South Africa. The anecdote resulted in immediate backlash online. In her response, Leith accused her critics of calling her out without reading the full story.

In October, The Huffington Post U.K. published excerpts from Leith's memoir I'll Try Anything Once, which detailed the traumatic experience. When she was 11 years old, Leith's mother told her to drown kittens just hours after they were born. She protested, but her mother was unable to find homes for the newborn cats.

"My mother and I, then 11, had just drowned some kittens... and for weeks I imagined those poor dead creatures," Leith, 82, wrote. "Too many kittens was a frequent occurrence and there had come a day when my mother, unable to find homes for yet another litter, decided to drown the latest batch."

When Leith asked her mother to keep the kittens alive, her mother insisted, allegedly telling her they "will hardly know it's happening" because the cats were only a few hours old. However, the kittens "fought like the devil for life," Leith wrote. "I held the bag under the water until the last kitten had stopped mewing."

Leith later told HuffPost that she included the memory in her book because it was a traumatic experience she could never forget. As a result, it inspired her advocacy for spaying and neutering pets. "Thankfully today in the UK we have the choice of neutering our cats and have more options to home kittens, although sadly in some parts of the world it is still an issue," she said.

Although Leith was clearly not advocating for what her mother had her do at a young age, there was still an instant social media backlash. "I became public enemy No. 1," she told PEOPLE. "They don't read the story and they feed off each other. Somebody says, 'My God! That woman drowns kittens!' And it just spiraled from there."

Leith said she saw "awful" social media posts about her story. She believed much of the criticism was tied to The Great British Baking Show, which she found upsetting. "It was so awful because people were saying things like, 'I'll never watch Bake-Off again,'" she said, referring to the show's U.K. title. "I mean, what's it got to do with Bake-Off? Bake-Off is the kindest, most inclusive, most friendly show in the world. They wouldn't have me on if they thought I was a kitten drowner."

The cookbook author added that she did not know why her mother made her watch the cats be drowned. She said this was a common practice in South Africa during the 1940s to keep the kitten population down. "It was the most traumatic, awful, horrible experience," Leith said.

Leith, who was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire at Queen Elizabeth II's 2021 Birthday Honors, joined The Great British Baking Show in 2017. The show is released on Netflix in the U.S. New episodes are released on Fridays.