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The Headless Goats of the Chattahoochee

Donate The carcasses of headless goats are floating in the Chattahoochee River; too many for a prosaic explanation.  

by Brian Dunning

Filed under Religion, Urban Legends

Skeptoid Podcast #920
January 23, 2024
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The Headless Goats of the Chattahoochee

The peaceful Chattahoochee River flows through Atlanta Georgia, a lovely and winding stripe of nature through the urban landscape. But for more than a decade it has been plagued by about the least likely blight you can imagine: the carcasses of headless goats, hundreds of them month after month, sometimes enough to congregate into jams. Where are they coming from? Who is doing this? Is it Satan worshippers, is it aliens, is it something we haven't imagined? Today we're going to find out.

A 2022 article in The New Yorker famously drew attention to this, and asked:

Hundreds of decapitated goat carcasses have turned up in the river that runs through metro Atlanta. Are they evidence of animal sacrifice? Drug smuggling? Both?

And sure enough, the article, and many others like it, paint a shocking picture: this beautiful river setting juxtaposed with the incongruous and horrifying image of bloated goat carcasses — decapitated, many covered with maggots — and found in such numbers that it's hard to think of any prosaic explanation for them. If it was a single sadistic animal torturer, he'd not only have to be busy night and day, but goats are not free; he'd have to have a crazy goat buying budget of thousands of dollars a day. Where could these goats be coming from?

Many of the articles about the Chattahoochee goats — the New Yorker's included — interview Jason Ulseth, who holds the title of riverkeeper, working for a nonprofit called the Waterkeeper Alliance. He boats up and down the river, and so has probably seen more of these goat carcasses than anyone else. On one day alone he counted 30. It's no mystery how they get into the river. People have caught cellphone video of drivers stopping on bridges over the river and dumping them, often several at a time. Over email I asked Ulseth what happens to the heads, and he says they get dumped too; but since they sink, they're not found as often as the bodies.

So who is doing this? One theory comes from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, to whom Ulseth reports the goats he finds. Lots of illegal drugs come through Atlanta, much of it via Mexican drug cartels. Sometimes drug busts include not only vast amounts of drugs and cash, but sometimes Catholic paraphernalia — as if someone's hoping for the Pope's protection from the police — and also items associated with Santería, a Caribbean religion. If there is some connection between goats in the Chattahoochee and the local drug smuggling trade, that ought to give investigators a good place to start.

But unfortunately, it's not as simple as that. Instead of one starting place, it turns out that we have many. Although most of the major reporting of this phenomenon has focused on goats in the Chattahoochee flowing through Atlanta, similar reports can be found from all over the country — and these reports go back many years, it's not even just a recent thing. So whatever the cause, it's not an isolated phenomenon, and there are a lot more people into it than you might think. The theory of drug smugglers making their way to Atlanta under religious protection turns out to make less and less sense. Let's look at just a few examples. Here's a 2015 headline in New York Magazine:

Why Do Severed Goat Heads Keep Turning Up in Brooklyn?

And from NBC Channel 6 in South Florida, from 2013:

Headless Goat, Roosters Found Floating in South Beach

From AL.com (Alabama) in 2014:

Headless animal carcasses found on Tybee Island, Ga. beach

Or how about this one, from 2022 from WSB-TV Atlanta:

20+ bags of decapitated animals found in woods near Athens apartment complex

The widespread nature of this phenomenon of decapitated animals gives us our second big clue. The first was something law enforcement alluded to, the practice of Santería — and although they seem to be discussing it only as an adjunct to their hypothesis that drug smuggling cartels using black magic are behind the goats — the practice itself is widespread, coincidentally, just about as widespread as these reports of scattered animal remains. Perhaps it's worth a closer look.

Santería, which means "way of the saints," is a religion that traces its roots back to the 1500s, when Spanish conquistadors brought African slaves to Cuba. The Africans practiced a family of related polytheistic religions called Yoruba, widespread at the time over much of Western Africa. Catholicism was the law of the land in Cuba, so what arose was a hybrid of Yoruba and Christianity, heavily colored with a sort of spiritualism in which all living beings share a life force along with the Earth, the gods (called orishas), and ancestors. Although it's usually called Santería today, many practitioners prefer its formal name, Regla de Ocha, meaning "rule of the gods." It's also called Lucumí or Regla Lucumí, the Spanish colonial term for the Yoruba. Santería has no central authority, and so its practices vary from place to place.

There are many reasons for animal sacrifice under Santería tradition. These can include healings, initiations, celebrations of significant life events, building or restoring wellness to a community, and strengthening the relationship to ancestors, orishas, and the Earth. Different animals are often preferred, and the choice may depend on which orisha is being honored or appealed to, and what the purpose of the sacrifice is. Chickens are used most often due to their availability and the belief that most orishas find them acceptable. Goats are often used for more significant ceremonies. Sheep, doves, and turtles are also commonly used, again depending on the orisha and the purpose. The animal should be healthy; it's disrespectful to offer a sick or dying animal to an orisha. Once the animal is killed — specified as always in a fast and humane way — what happens to it also depends on a combination of these same factors. Sometimes the animal is cooked and eaten. Sometimes its blood or organs are offered to the orisha on an altar or other sacred place. Sometimes the carcass is placed in a certain type of location: a street, railroad tracks, or intersection. And, in some rituals, the animal's body should be returned to nature, thus returning its spiritual energy to the natural world; and placing its carcass into a body of water (like the Chattahoochee) is one way this is often done.

The relationship between animal sacrifice and Santería is one you may have heard of before, even if you were unfamiliar with Santería. In 1987, a group of practitioners in Hialeah, Florida filed to open a church. Responding to public complaints from the community, the city passed ordinances banning animal sacrifice, defined as "to unnecessarily kill, torment, or mutilate an animal in a public or private ritual or ceremony not for the primary purpose of food consumption." As justification, the city cited animal cruelty as well as public health risks from the killing and disposing of animal carcasses.

To make a very long story short, the case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, as the Santeríans believed that the ban violated their free exercise of religious rights guaranteed in the First Amendment. The case was Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah, and that's the part you may have heard of before, even if you didn't have those names on the tip of your tongue. The Court agreed with the Santeríans, finding that the city's ordinances were not neutral or generally applicable. Specifically, the city did not prevent anyone else from doing those same things, e.g., fishermen catching fish, or exterminators killing rodents and other pests. The city also had no problem with any potential public health risks from restaurants disposing of uneaten meat. Even the animal cruelty justification did not hold up, as the city had no problem with kosher butchers, who kill the animals in exactly the same way as called for in Santería, which is a quick slice through the carotid arteries.

And so, ever since that Supreme Court ruling, animal sacrifice has been a protected religious practice in the United States — so if Santeríans are indeed the ones responsible for the headless goats of the Chattahoochee, authorities may find they have little legal recourse.

The suggestion made by some news outlets that the headless goats of the Chattahoochee may be the result of drug dealers seeking good luck and protection from the gods against the police doesn't really reflect an understanding of why the practice may be performed. The suggestion is also kind of a little bit bigoted, as it presumes that anyone practicing Santería must be a drug dealer. In fact, in my study of Santería for this episode, which included watching video interviews with practitioners and quite a few books and articles, I found no references at all to this being a tactic of drug dealers or other criminals — outside of the articles reporting on the mystery of the goat carcasses in the river.

Here's a discussion of that exact problem, from the About Santería website, written by Dr. Eñi Achó Iyá, a practicing Santera (or priestess) whose Ph.D is in Spanish and Latin American culture:

In the Lucumí religion, animal sacrifice does exist as a practice. And, we can't deny that it's an aspect of the religion that causes contention because it's so open to misunderstanding. A growing number of practitioners of the religion disregard protocol or lack proper training in this matter. And, there are other people who, for one reason or another, appropriate our belief system for their own ends and kill animals in ceremonies that have nothing to do with our religion. An untrained or self-proclaimed "santero" may throw a plastic bag full of decapitated chickens into the river, where other people, out on a walk, find it washed ashore. Or, he may mistreat or mishandle the animals to be sacrificed, drawing the attention of concerned neighbors. This kind of behavior naturally creates a public spectacle, and it results in bad press for us all. Thankfully, it's not the norm. Animal sacrifice is not done in the way that the media usually shows it, and it's not done as frequently as most people think.

Moreover, The New Yorker author interviewed a Santero who suggested how a drug dealer might use Santería to protect himself, and it would involve sacrificing a black dog and placing it by railroad tracks; or, alternately, a goat left beside a four-way street crossing. A goat in a river simply makes no sense for that application; rivers are associated with Oshun, an orisha representing love. If you're going to blame a practice on Santería, then you need to actually understand Santería.

I'm going to go out on a limb a bit, and declare the apparent crime of headless goats in the Chattahoochee as solved. The very existence of Santería makes it a certainty that some practitioners in the Atlanta area will have sacrificed goats, and the ethos of the practice makes it a certainty that some of the carcasses will have been returned to nature by placing them into the Chattahoochee. The logic of this solution follows the logic of solving many UFO cases that involved a bright light in the sky in the direction of Venus: Did they see one UFO, or two? Because if they only reported one, and it was in the known direction of Venus, then they saw Venus, and there was nothing else there, and there's no wiggle room for error with that identification. With the headless goats of the Chattahoochee, we know for a fact there are people putting goats into the river as an ordinary Santería practice… and there's really no compelling reason to look any deeper.


By Brian Dunning

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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "The Headless Goats of the Chattahoochee." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, 23 Jan 2024. Web. 28 May 2024. <https://skeptoid.com/episodes/4920>

 

References & Further Reading

Bethea, C. "The Mystery of the Headless Goats in the Chattahoochee." The New Yorker. Condé Nast, 29 Sep. 2022. Web. 17 Jan. 2024. <https://www.newyorker.com/news/letter-from-the-south/the-mystery-of-the-headless-goats-in-the-chattahoochee>

Clark, M. "Santería Sacrificial Rituals: A Reconsideration of Religious Violence." The Pomegranate: The International Journal of Pagan Studies. 9 Mar. 2007, Volume 8, Number 2: 133-145.

Iyá, E.A. "Animal Sacrifice in the News." AboutSanteria. Eñi Achó Iyá, 16 Apr. 2016. Web. 19 Jan. 2024. <http://www.aboutsanteria.com/blogs/animal-sacrifice-in-the-news>

Mason, M. Living Santería: Rituals and Experiences in an Afro-Cuban Religion. Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2002.

Ward, A. "Animal Sacrifice." Free Speech Center. Middle Tennessee State University, 19 Sep. 2023. Web. 18 Jan. 2024. <https://firstamendment.mtsu.edu/article/animal-sacrifice/>

White, M. "Uptick in animal sacrifices on Long Island may be part of larger, religious trend." Greater Long Island. Greater Long Island Media Group, Inc., 18 Dec. 2023. Web. 17 Jan. 2024. <https://greaterlongisland.com/uptick-in-animal-sacrifices-on-long-island-may-be-part-of-larger-religious-trend/>

 

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