In the US Midwest in the 1970s, and briefly again in Oregon in 2019, thousands of cattle were found dead in mysterious circumstances.
The animals, numbering into the thousands, showed signs of mutilation, including having their organs and sexual organs removed, often with incisions described as "surgical". Some, including five animals found in 2019, were found drained of their blood.
"Ranchers across the country reported similar findings among their mutilated livestock," a report into the 1970s mutilations explains. "Ears, eyes, udders, anus, and sex organs excised or 'cored' with 'surgical-like precision'. The areas around mutilated animals were often devoid of footprints or tire tracks".
In addition to the mystery itself, the story got weirder, with claims of strange lights hovering around the sites in the days leading up to the mutilations. UFO enthusiasts of course claimed that the mutilations were performed by aliens, who had perhaps traveled many light-years across the galaxy only to arrive and sample the lesser-used cuts of beef. Other outlandish theories included a 1970s staple – Satanists – while another focused on supposed sightings of unmarked helicopters around mutilation sites, as panic about the situation spread.
Local law enforcement and the FBI struggled to come up with an explanation for the mutilations, which seemed to be increasing (likely due to the focus of ranchers on the killings and mutilations, and their willingness to attribute deaths of animals to the mysterious mutilator). In 1975, for instance, over 200 mutilations were recorded in Colorado alone.
While ranchers, UFOlogists and the press talked aliens and government conspiracies, there were investigators who looked at the situation more logically. The lack of human or tire tracks to the corpses, for instance, could be because no human approached the animal in the first place.
One Washington County sheriff decided to investigate by leaving a dead cow out in an open field, to see what happened to a carcass left in similar conditions. Sheriff Herb Marshall and his team kept watch on the animal day and night, observing the decomposition and keeping a lookout for any scavengers.
Though they had suspected buzzards could be responsible for the missing organs and innards, they soon found a likely culprit for much of the damage caused to the animals: blowflies. A lot of them.
"Once the animal had bloated and the gases had forced a lot of the organs and things from the inside out then the blowflies clean that up very, very quickly," Marshall explained to the National Geographic show Is It Real?
The flies laid eggs in softer tissues, like the eyes, ears and anus, and soon the maggots ate away at these parts, creating wounds that looked like surgical cuts.
"In just a matter of hours they would create a condition where it looked just exactly like what we would see in our investigation," Marshall added.
Veterinarians at the time pointed out that other scavengers – including foxes, bobcats, coyotes, and magpies – often go for these softer tissues, and can create cuts that look surgical while doing so. Meanwhile, a lack of blood in the animals can be explained by blood pooling to the bottom of the carcass during natural decomposition. The FBI, though they did not complete a full investigation as it was out of their jurisdiction, also put the mutilations down to scavengers.
Though some investigations by law enforcement claimed that there were humans involved in a small number of mutilations (evidence on this front is sketchy too, and led to no convictions), the vast majority were likely scavengers that were mistaken for human activity during the general panic, fueled by the media of the time. Once the panic died down, mutilation reports did too.
In 2019, five bulls were found dead at the same time in Salem, Oregon, with no obvious cause such as poisoning, prompting further speculation about the cause.
“To lose a completely healthy animal would be an oddity,” ranch co-owner Colby Marshall told AP at the time. “To lose five young, very healthy, in great shape, perfect bulls that are all basically the same age ... that is so outside the bounds of normal activity.”
What people would want from the organs is unclear, given that the missing organs could easily be bought from a slaughterhouse, or even given away for free.
“Personally, I would lean more toward the occult, where people for whatever reason – whether it’s a phase of the moon or whatever rituals they’re going to do with their beliefs – are coming to different areas and doing that,” Marshall added.
Just like in the 70s, the most likely explanation put forward by the authorities for the mutilations seen was scavenger action, though the cause of death of the animals remains unclear. With less coverage of the case than happened 50 years earlier, no further cases were noted by ranchers in the area, looking for signs of nefarious activities. Or perhaps the team of aliens and chupacabra merely grew bored after coming together for one final cow organ heist.