What’s the story with cattle mutilations?

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Dear Cecil: The “whisperized” helicopter in the movie Blue Thunder called to mind reports of ranchers having seen silent aircraft over areas where mutilated cattle were subsequently found. Do the facts to date point to any conclusions on who could afford to do these strange mutilations for so many years and yet remain so close to committing the perfect crime? Is there any similar crime in history that appears to be so big, widespread, and yet so steadfastly ignored? (Ranchers seem to fall silent out of some feeling that “the walls have ears.”) Rob T., Baltimore


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

Whenever I start to fret that earthlings are becoming so intelligent and sophisticated that I will soon be out of a job, something like cattle mutilation comes along to convince me I’m going to be in business for the next two million years.

Every year thousands of cattle die on North American ranges, the victims of diseases, parasites, predators, accidents, weirdo pranksters, and Lord knows what else. In most cases the cause of death is obvious, but sometimes it’s not.

Since everybody loves a mystery, especially if it involves mysto paranormal conspiracies, an incredible legend has sprung up about a strange force that goes around cutting the gonads off the nation’s moo-cows. Cooler heads, it is safe to say, regard such talk as the nonsense it undoubtedly is.

Cattle mutilations — 8,000 to 10,000 have been reported to date — were first noted in Gallipolis, Ohio, in 1963. They have since been regularly reported in major cattle-raising regions throughout the U.S. and Canada.

In most cases the modus operandi is the same: the deed is done at night, the deceased bovine is drained of blood, and various body parts, frequently the eyes and sex organs, are missing, having been removed with what is invariably described as “surgical precision.” Generally there are no footprints or vehicle tracks to be found in the vicinity.

Innumerable evil agencies have been blamed for cattle mutilation. UFOs were a common target for a while, particularly since reports of mutilations often coincided with reports of unidentified aircraft.

Later it became popular to attribute the crimes to gangs of secret marauders in helicopters — maybe even U.S. government helicopters, since several outbreaks occurred near large military bases.

Other alleged perpetrators that have been fingered from time to time include: (a) Satanists, who use the cattle in some unspeakable ritual; (b) Big Oil, which uses the missing cattle organs to detect the telltale signs of nearby petroleum deposits (yeah, it doesn’t make sense to me either); and perhaps best of all (c) the unconscious manifestations of the Mass Mind.

This last theory is the invention of one Thomas Bearden, a retired army officer in Alabama, who believes as follows (I quote from Maclean’s magazine):

“The mutilations are the physical manifestation of the whole human unconsciousness which is somehow aware that the Soviets will, probably within three years, invade and destroy the Western world. … Cattle are female symbols representing the U.S., and the surgical precision of the mutilations indicates the precision of the military operations to come.

“The removal of genitals and organs signifies the end of children in the Western world and the cutting off of ears and tongues predicts the end of free speech.” You bet, Tom.

Sensible people, such as (one presumes) anyone reading this column, generally believe that the mutilations are the result of natural predators. A minority of cases are the work of brain-damaged farm boys who get ideas after reading about mutilations in the papers.

According to The People’s Almanac #3, a couple Arkansas state cops tried an experiment in which they left a dead cow in a field unattended. Within 33 hours, buzzards followed by blowflies had neatly disposed of the eyes, sex organs, and even the blood, leaving the appearance of “surgical precision” behind them.

Other studies have tended to support this scenario. In 1974, for instance, state veterinary labs investigating a rash of mutilation reports in Nebraska and South Dakota reported that every animal brought to them for examination had died of natural causes.

Typically, however, many people prefer to believe in the Great Conspiracy. Ain’t it tragic? You let your Straight Dope subscription lapse, and next thing you know you’re lining your hat with tinfoil to keep out the cosmic rays.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.