Cow mutilation may have a simpler explanation than alien experimentation.
by Alison Hudson
March 3, 2015
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It's three in the morning on a cattle ranch somewhere in Texas. Bessie the cow is half-asleep, mindlessly chewing cud. her ears twitching at flies as she dozes. Suddenly, she is bathed in a cold, bright light from above. She finds her hooves dangling beneath her as she's hoisted from the ground by an unknown force. She lets out a plaintive moo as she disappears into the strange, alien craft that had been hovering above her. A week later, Rancher Bob stumbles upon the remains of poor Bessie. His prize cow has been skinned, her organs absconded with and her remains discarded in the very pasture where she once grazed.
For many, the above scenario is all too believable. They fear that extraterrestrial spaceships are kidnapping unsuspecting ungulates, conducting horrid vivisections, and then dumping the bodies. The phenomenon is called cattle mutilation, and it is a common part of the modern paranormal lore.
A typical cattle mutilation story begins when the remains of a victim animal have been discovered. Most commonly, these remains have been found in some open field by a rancher, farmer, or other unlucky individual. The animal in question is commonly reported to have been in good health just days prior to the discovery, so the death is unexpected and "natural causes" seems unlikely.
The body itself appears to have been mutilated after death. Oftentimes, external body parts are missing, such as the ears, the eyes, the sex organs, or the tongue; in some cases flesh even appears to have been stripped off of the skull. Witnesses insist that the edges of the wounds are smooth and clean, as though done with a surgeon's scalpel. A scalpel also appears to have split open the stomach of many animals, and internal organs have been removed. A conspicuous absence of blood is another common feature. Always, the witnesses claim that there are no footprints, tire tracks, or scavenger prints leading either towards or away from the body. The death is a mystery, and foul play of some kind is assumed.
The phenomenon does happen; a simple Google Image search for "cattle mutilation" will bring up endless gruesome images of cattle, sheep, and other victim animals with their lips stripped from their teeth, their eye sockets staring out from circles of excised flesh, their bellies open. The question is, how does it happen, and who — or what — is responsible for the condition of the remains?
If you are one of many true believers in UFOs and alien encounters, then you're likely to point the fingers at these extraterrestrial visitors. And the reasons you may offer as to why aliens have this continuing need to strip cattle and sheep of their sex organs and innards? Those vary, but they usually involve some sort of medical experimentation or even attempts to make some sort of cattle hybrid. As no one has ever actually been able to ask the aliens about it on the record, these explanations are all just conjecture.
Belief in extraterrestrials as the cause of mutilations goes back to the 1960s, though true believers will often claim that the phenomenon has been going on for longer than that. As evidence, they may cite a widely circulated story reported in April 1897, where a strange flying object was caught in the act of cattle-napping in Kansas. The witness to the incident, one Alexander Hamilton, described a cigar-shaped craft with a carriage underneath with "six of the strangest beings I ever saw" inside. As he watched,
It seemed to pause and hover directly over a two-year old heifer, which was bawling and jumping, apparently fast in the fence. Going to her, we found a cable about a half-inch in thickness made of some red material, fastened in a slip knot around her neck, one end passing up to the vessel, and the heifer tangled in the wire fence. We tried to get it off but could not, so we cut the wire loose and stood in amazement to see the ship, heifer and all, rise, slowly, disappearing in the northwest. Neighbor Thomas Link (four miles away) found the hide, legs, and head in his field the next day and no tracks in the soft ground.
Some of the less fact-checking websites actually attribute this story to the Founding Father Alexander Hamilton, but that Hamilton died in 1804. This story was told by another Alexander Hamilton, who was a farmer, a businessman ... and also a liar. The entire cow-napping story was an admitted hoax, part of the 1897 Mystery Airship flap, probably itself worthy of a future Skeptoid episode. The important point here is that Hamilton's story is part of a made-up series of newsworthy events perpetuated by inventive reporters at a time when journalism standards were not what they are today. Only its superficial resemblance to modern cattle mutilation tales keep it alive in believer circles.
Researcher Bill Ellis places the first occurrence of "modern" cattle mutilation in England in the early 20th century, where mutilated cattle led to fears that a wolf was on the prowl. Over the course of the century, mutilations were attributed to various evil agents, including Satanists, hippies, and lunatics, before becoming attached to extraterrestrials in the 1960s.
The scare reached its height in the 1970s and 1980s, when several law enforcement and scientific investigations were launched to determine the cause of the phenomenon. The FBI was even compelled to investigate. Their investigation amounted to little more than collections of newspaper clippings because of jurisdictional issues, but they concluded that nothing seemed to be amiss in the deaths other than natural causes. This was a conclusion shared by other investigations.
In 1979, Sheriff Herb Marshall of Washington County, Arkansas, took a different approach when dealing with a flap of cattle mutilation reports in his jurisdiction. He obtained a fresh cow corpse and put it out in a field in conditions like the ones so-called mutilations were being found in. The corpse was watched for 48 hours straight. No aliens came for the corpse, nor did big predators; instead, the sheriff and his officers observed as a combination of bloating and blowflies went to work. Expanding gases split the stomach and exposed the internal organs; blowflies feasted on the organs and laid eggs in the soft-exposed tissues of eyes, lips, and anuses; and the resulting maggots devoured the soft tissues down to the bone. These flies can hatch in as little as ten hours, and the larvae can mature in as little as two days. The result was a caracas that matched the common mutilation story, all from natural causes. For Sheriff Marshall, that was case-closed on the mutilations in his area.
A decade later, researchers in Alberta, Canada looking into the matter actually published a scientific study of such stories in their area. These researchers found that
The parts reported missing from mutilated cattle are the same as those known to be removed by scavengers, primarily coyotes and birds, in the early stages of scavenging a carcass.
the mutilations are the work of scavenger animals, mainly coyotes and birds; the mutilations occur after the animal has died; and any investigation of bizarre gross findings in dead cattle must rule out scavenging beyond any reasonable doubt before proceeding to investigation of other possibilities.
Not much actual scientific study of the mutilation phenomenon has been published since then, because science doesn't really have much more to say on the matter. The opinions of learned studies mean little to true believers, however, and today stories of new mutilations still make headlines on some news sites, though often relegated to sections for "weird news" or reader-submitted reports. Believers refuse to accept the scientific consensus, and persist in claims that these deaths are the result of nefarious alien activities.
Is there any reason at all to set aside the natural explanation for an unnatural one? This is a great time to once again sharpen Occam's Razor and apply it to the problem. Alien mutilations as an explanation requires a whole host of other unsupported assumptions — that there are aliens, that they have interstellar travel ability, that they use that ability to visit Earth, and that they choose, when they come here, to routinely abduct and vivisect herd animals. None of these assumptions can be even remotely proven.
Cut them away and we have a series of facts about the condition of found carcasses that can all be attributed to natural, terrestrial causes. These are odd but not at all unexplainable moments where scavenged and decomposed corpses are discovered by people who don't know what they're looking at and who are often primed to believe that cattle mutilations occur. The actual culprits are flies, coyotes, birds, and even just gas. Variances in the condition of carcasses across the globe can be easily explained by the different scavenger species and insects in a given area, as well as the health of the creature at the moment of death and the exact conditions where they fell. The similarities can be explained by the missing parts simply being the easiest to scavenge — rip off an ear, peck out an eye, nosh on the organs conveniently spilled out of the split belly by internal gasses, let maggots pick things clean, and voila! It's not pleasant to describe, but it's the way nature works.
At this point I'm sure someone out there is shouting "But what about Satanic cults / the black helicopters / the Chupacabra / a crazed Chris Cosentino / my pet theory of choice?" Again, Occam's Razor applies. You can suppose a list of culprits as long as your arm, but if we can ascribe the entire phenomenon to natural causes, then there's no reason to insert any cult, conspiracy, or celebrity chef into the mix. There's nothing to the cattle mutilation phenomena that requires it.
In fact, even using the term 'cattle mutilation' makes an unnecessary assumption that some agent deliberately acted to mutilate the corpse. It's really just cattle decomposition and scavenging in particular natural conditions as interpreted by those who don't understand what's going on. A dead cow that has had its face chewed off by maggots is really super creepy! People in modern times aren't used to seeing dead things. We don't know what they are supposed to look like; only what we think they are supposed to look like.
Like so many of these topics, it's easy to get caught up in the individual claims of individual cases — that this corpse had some unexplained markings or that case happened the day after black helicopters were spotted overhead. But so many of those individual claims fall under the realm of anecdotal evidence, anomaly hunting, misreporting, or just plain arguments from ignorance. Unless and until believers can point to some consistent and persistent pattern of evidence across a series of alleged mutilations that is unexplained except via their culprit of choice, there's no sound reason to accept their hypothesis.
And even if we allow that aliens or the Illuminati or whatever is actually out there doing this, we're faced with the question of why? The answers are as varied as the culprits. If you believe the culprit is aliens, you assume some bizarre alien experiment. If your culprit is a cult, you assume the purpose is ritual and likely Satanic. If you believe it's the government, then they must attempting to spread population-sickening prions. That every explanation fits equally well depending upon the assumption of the culprit suggests that none of the explanations is any better than the other.
Nothing about the cattle "mutilation" phenomenon requires us to suppose an actual act of mutilation. Cattle die of natural causes, they decompose by natural methods, and sometimes they are scavenged in such a way that they look, to those not used to seeing dead things, as though they had been vivisected. Continued belief in active mutilation says more about the believers than it does about the world.
By Alison Hudson
Please contact us with any corrections or feedback.
Cite this article:
Hudson, A. "Cattle Mutilation." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Mar 2015. Web.
25 Jun 2017. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4456>
References & Further Reading
Carroll, Robert. The Skeptic's Dictionary. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2003. 67-68.
Cohen, Daniel. The Great Airship Mystery: A UFO of the 1890s. New York, NY: Dodd, Mead, and Co., 1981.
Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satinism, New Religions, and the Media. Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2000.
Federal Bureau of Investigation. "Animal Mutilation." FBI Records: The Vault. FBI, 1 Jul. 1980. Web. 26 Feb. 2015. <http://vault.fbi.gov/Animal%20Mutilation>
Nation, P. N., & Williams, E. S. "Maggots, mutilations and myth: Patterns of postmortem scavenging of the bovine carcass
." The Canadian Veterinary Journal. 1 Sep. 1989, 30.9: 742-747.
National Geographic Channel. Is it Real? "Chupacabra". United States: National Geographic, 2005.
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