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ANIMAL MUTILATIONS: WHAT WE KNOW
George E. Onet, D.V.M., Ph. D.
Animal mutilation cases have been reported worldwide since the early
1960s. They have been accompanied by all kinds of speculations regarding
their nature. Journalists focused on these cases with great deal of
sensationalism that sometimes distorted realities
(1,3,5,7,9,13). Their circumstantial association with unusual
lights, unidentified helicopters, and other sightings conferred such
events with an aura of mystery, which had a negative impact on further
scientific study by veterinary diagnostic specialists.
Some veterinary practitioners have decided not to discuss the
mutilations publicly. This is because the subject seemed to be too
controversial and predisposed to subjective interpretations.
Veterinarians were also afraid of being ridiculed by their peers, in
case they had reported unusual findings.
The incidence of animal mutilation cases is variable. They have been
reported in different parts of the world, such as: Mexico, Panama,
Puerto Rico, Brazil, England, France, Germany, Sweden, Australia, Japan,
the Canary Islands, Canada, and the United States
In the U.S., animal mutilations have been mentioned in most of the
states (see Chart No. 1), with different occurrences (2,10,11,12,
13,14, 5,17,18,20, 23). In 1967, mutilation waves were reported in
Pennsylvania and Kansas and were followed by a Midwest wave in 1975-76,
with cases occurring in 15 states, from South Dakota and Montana to New
Mexico and Texas (4). In a two-year period, (1975-77) in two
Colorado counties alone, there were nearly two hundred reports
(17). It is estimated that nationwide, there are at least two
thousand a year (18).
Many animal mutilations seem to remain unreported because of the
direct financial costs induced by necropsies and laboratory
examinations, the financial repercussions from bankers who have
outstanding loans against the herd, the ranchers' fear about being
ridiculed by the community, and the ranchers basic nature of being
self-reliant and independent. Many others simply want to avoid the
attention and publicity.
Endeavors to explain the cause of animal mutilations displaying
strikingly similar patterns led to a variety of theories, but few
pertinent answers (24). Among such assumptions was also the
involvement of satanic cults. However, despite the large numbers of
cases and the participation of official investigators, no person has
ever been arrested for crimes related to such deaths.
In the late 1970s, the economic impact and public fear triggered an
FBI investigation resulting in an almost 300-page report, published in
1979, which concluded that animal predators were responsible for all the
mutilations. This official explanation did not satisfy the ranchers and
some investigators. One New Mexico senator complained that the entire
study was nothing more than a whitewash (4). Others who
approached this subject remained skeptical about any anomalous
participation in such events (21,22).
Chart No. 1: Incidence of animal mutilations in the U. S.
Due to their special pathology patterns, mutilation cases are often
dismissed as the work of predators and scavengers, without being closely
examined by veterinarians or diagnostic pathologists, and without
samples having been collected for further laboratory tests, aiming to
establish the real cause of death.
Among the most frequently reported facts, in connection with
suspected mutilations are:
Sudden death. Animals are usually found dead, with no
obvious cause of death. Often they have been observed just hours or a
short time before, in good health. Especially when more than one
animal is discovered dead in similar circumstances, this calls the
attention of the owners.
Missing parts of the body. In most of cases these are soft
tissues, such as lips, tongue, skin and muscles of the lower jaw,
rectum and/or genitalia (vulva, vagina, sometimes the entire uterus,
even in pregnancy stage), penis, scrotum (with or without testicles),
eyeball (with or without eyelids; usually only one, on the upper side,
when the animal is laying on lateral decubitus), tail, mammary gland
(the whole udder or teats only), and ears. Due to their nature,
location and accessibility, the removal of these tissues is attributed
in most of cases to scavengers or predators.
In many cases it was reported that missing tissues had been
removed by surgical precision, leaving relatively regular wounds
(circular or oval). In other cases the edges of the skin appeared
uniformly serrated (16). Dr. John Altshuler, a Colorado MD
pathologist, has examined over thirty mutilation cases since 1989 and
found in skin tissues from the excision lines, lesions consistent with
overheated collagen and hemoglobin or with sharp dissection
(17). The Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory at Corvallis
(Oregon State University) established in a 1991 case that skin
sections from a suspect mutilated steer showed lesions consistent with
electro-surgical excision. While numerous bacteria could be found on
the surface of the skin, the areas of coagulation necrosis did not
show any bacterial load. Such microscopic tissue and cell alterations
correlate with macroscopic observation of hardened dark wound edges
(19). But these latter changes could be attributed to
progressive desiccation of tissues exposed to evaporation and
oxidation of hemoglobin.
No relevant tracks around the dead animals. Usually, during
the agony, animals pedal and have contractions of different other body
parts, which cause characteristic tracks on the soil or grass. In some
instances, three or more animals were found dead in a straight row on
the ground, in a similar position, as if they walked one after the
other in the same direction, when sudden death occurred. Weather
conditions and the lack of electrocution signs excluded, however, the
possibility of a lightning strike cause.
No signs of ante-mortem struggle. When predators attack
domestic animals they usually go for the rear quarters and nose.
Around the hocks and the nose a great deal of tooth marks can be
found. Because the tissue tearing arteries and veins are open and,
more or less important bleeding takes place, which is easy to be seen,
especially on a snow-covered ground. They are accompanied by struggle
marks on the soil and surrounding vegetation.
The skin or soil in the vicinity of the wounds do not indicate
traces of blood. The first observers at the site, in most cases
the animal owners, presumably expect to see a lot of blood around the
animal or remaining tissues. The lack of blood could be explained, in
normal conditions, by the early intra-vitam coagulation of the blood,
so that by the time the post-mortem scavenge takes place, no blood
flows from the tissues. More difficult to explain are the findings
according to which the blood is missing from the circulatory system.
In 1971, an Idaho veterinarian, who necropsied an allegedly mutilated
horse, found that all internal organs, including the heart and the
lungs had been completely desiccated. Parenchymal organs do not
usually express blood at compression when the animal died because of
an internal or external massive bleeding, mostly caused by accidents
followed by intense hemorrhage. If no sign of such a situation was
present, then the finding is peculiar.
During the investigation of mutilation cases farmers or other
observers noted strange behavior of other animals in the herd or of
wild animals in the proximity. Domestic animals seemed to be
visibly agitated, fearful, and avoided getting close to the dead
animal. If there was wooded areas around, they tended to hide. Wild
animals, especially scavengers, such as coyotes, wolves, foxes, dogs,
skunks, badgers, and bobcats, were reported to keep their distance for
days, without touching the carcasses. If the reluctance of domestic
animals to get close is easy to explain, that of scavengers is
difficult to understand.
It would be interesting to know how many of the thousands of
reportedly mutilated animals have been examined by veterinarians
�allegedly very few�and when they were, how many times were samples
collected for laboratory examinations? If tissues were indeed removed
by "surgical precision" as claimed, were samples taken for histology?
Even if skin and other tissues macroscopically look precisely cut,
only microscopic examination can prove that no destruction through
tearing or chewing was present. To be credible, an assumption needs to
be confirmed by acceptable scientific research. If repeated
scientifically sound examinations prove the same pattern, the results
Positive results in explaining and studying animal mutilations can
be obtained only through cooperation between animal owners,
veterinarians, official authorities, and laboratory diagnostic
specialists. Getting to the bottom of such questions is not an easy
task and requires both thorough and complex investigations. But it is
worth the time and resources in order to shed some light on this
If veterinarians are not asked by animal owners to clarify the
nature of suspicious lesions considered to be responsible for the
death of animals it can be assumed that an educational problem is
involved. Ranchers are members of several organizations that could
have a major impact on encouraging them to rely on veterinarians as
the best source of professional assistance. It is in the ranchers'
best economic interest to have competent answers to their questions
from the best source: the veterinarian. He is the most qualified
person to offer proper services in animal health and well being. As
long as some animal owners do not understand that pertinent answers to
such questions can be offered only by persons with adequate knowledge
and training, it is difficult to expect to have investigations on
animal mutilations properly conducted. Unfortunately for
veterinarians, many ranchers continue to ask for veterinary expertise
only when there is no other possibility.
Some veterinarians find it much easier and convenient during their
necropsy work to come up with diagnostics based on best probability,
even if no sufficient evidence is present. They know that any death
has a cause. If it is sudden death, the best of several possibilities
are bloat, poison, natural toxins, accidental internal hemorrhages,
electrocution, acute or supra-acute infections, etc. It is well known
that necropsies do not always provide sufficient data for a definitive
diagnosis. In some cases significant lesions simply do not have enough
time to install or they are so discrete that they remain unnoticed. In
such situations the diagnostic is presumptive or based on second
guess. As a result, confirmation laboratory tests are necessary, even
if they only help rule out certain possibilities.
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