Mysterious mutilations: Who or what is killing these cattle?

It was the mid-1990s when Eli Hronich of Raton, New Mexico, first stumbled upon a dead calf, with its tongue, eyes and reproductive organs removed—and completely devoid of blood. This haunting scene would become one he would discover another 40 times over the next 30 years, with the most recent death occurring in 2022. He is now in his 70s and has been ranching his entire life, and says these cattle mutilations are unlike any other deaths he has seen.

“When you find one, you know what it is immediately,” Hronich said. “People will try to play it down as a natural death or coyotes, but it’s completely different.”

Hronich’s experience with these unexplained deaths is not unlike the thousands of other reports made by ranchers over the last 50 years. Mutilated cattle are often found missing body parts of no commercial value, such as ears, tongues, udders, brains, eyes or reproductive organs—and there are no teeth marks, these animals have been sliced with what some call surgical precision.

Sometimes their bodies are drained of blood, bones are broken, scavengers avoid the carcasses and a medicinal smell is reported at some kill sites. Additionally, some animals have been found to have strange substances in their blood, such as barbiturates, mescaline, anti-coagulates and potassium cyanide.

Often times there are no tracks around the animals even from the bovine itself and strange lights or helicopters are frequently reported by witnesses. It sounds like an episode of “The X-Files,” but for the ranchers and investigators who experience these scenes, it is all too real. Chris O’Brien, noted cattle mutilation investigator and author of several books on the topic, said cattle mutilations hit a peak in the 1970s.

“At its height in October 1975, there were eight different states that reported mutilations in the same time frame,” O’Brien explained. “In Colorado, Gov. Richard Lamm called it the greatest outrage in the history of western cattle raising.”

Mutilations have been reported across the U.S. and the world for decades, but O’Brien said the Rocky Mountain States—including Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico—have seen the highest number of cases. Other states with numerous reports include Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah and Texas, but now the epicenter seems to be migrating to Oregon where 21 cases have been reported in the last six years.

O’Brien estimates 10,000 mutilations have been reported in total, but he believes that figure is conservative in comparison to the number of actual mutilations. He ventures a guess that only about one in 10 are actually reported. He believes the stranger the case, the less likely it is to be reported.

Perplexing doesn’t cover it

O’Brien became fascinated with these mutilation cases in the early 1990s when he was living in Colorado’s San Luis Valley—a hot spot for mutilation cases. He said he has been involved in the investigation of 200 cases, working closely with the police.

“I was very intrigued by it because these are the only blood-based, mysterious serial events and they leave behind thousands of pounds of physical evidence,” he said. “The more I started researching and digging into it, the more I was compelled to try to figure it out. But, the more you know about this stuff, the less sense it makes and the more confusing it becomes.”

One case that sticks out to O’Brien as particularly bizarre was a mutilation he investigated in March 1998 in Colorado. A rancher found a young calf that was missing its right front leg, its spine was removed from the neck to the hips and the brain was removed with no break into the cranium. It also had a slight medicinal odor. O’Brien said two separate witnesses made reports of strange lights in the area on the night the animal was killed. He even consulted a veterinarian, who said he could not explain what happened to the calf.

“There was absolutely no blood and the heart and liver were expertly excised, but left in the body cavity,” O’Brien said. “That’s the first thing scavengers would go after, but no birds or animals would go near it. We noticed the spine had been taken out in an upwards manner and because of the way the cut was performed on the front leg, it would have been impossible to remove the spine that way. To me that was a truly paranormal case.”

David Perkins, a reporter and author stumbled upon these mysterious mutilations in the mid-1970s when he became a suspect in a case in Colorado’s Huerfano Valley. Perkins was new to the area and called the sheriff when he found a dead cow with its rectum carved out in a perfect circle, udders cut off, the bottom part of the jaw missing and one eye and ear removed. Eventually the sheriff cleared Perkins as a suspect and the two developed a partnership in investigating mutilations. He has examined 60 mutilations in various stages of decomposition over the last 50 years.

“In the beginning I said I’m not going to give up on solving this because I know there is something really important behind this,” Perkins said. “That’s my intuition, gut feeling and every cell in my body tells me that.”

Perkins said the strangest case he has examined happened near Dulce, New Mexico, in 1978. He said both he and the police agreed it looked like this cow had been dropped from a great height.

“It was basically splattered and splayed out,” Perkins said. “It appeared its back leg was broken and it looked like it had fallen on its side and one horn was sort of driven back into its skull like it fell with great force. There were little specks of blood on its hooves like it had fallen through a mist of blood and it had clamp marks on the backs of its ankles like it had been held up by something.”

But what do the veterinarians have to say about these events? Perkins said veterinarians are in a complicated position when it comes to these cases.

“There’s a certain stigma associated with this stuff,” he explained. “The vets have tried to stay away from it because this is a lose-lose for them. They can’t really come up with an answer and if they verify it, they’re suspect. They don’t really have a lot to gain by going out and identifying a true mutilation.”

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Perkins has been working with O’Brien to collect reports that are extremely thorough and verified by ranchers, law enforcement and veterinarians and demonstrate cases that are not natural predations.

Who or what is the culprit?

Possible explanations for these mutilations fall into several categories. Many believe they are either due to predators, government experiments, satanic cults or extraterrestrials. Now putting those four in the same sentence is shocking, but so are the nature of these deaths.

They say when you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras, therefore many believe there is no conspiracy or culprit to pursue in these cases. Additionally, O’Brien, Perkins and other experts are quick to admit many cases are merely due to scavenger activity.

“Out of the 200 cases I’ve investigated, about 20% of them were highly unusual,” O’Brien said. “Of those, about eight or nine were unexplainable.”

Those in the non-conspiracy camp believe the missing body parts in these cases could be the result of dehydration or scavenger activity. After all, insects often target soft tissue. Another less macabre rationalization for the absence of blood in these deaths could be that the blood was either consumed by scavengers, absorbed into the ground or evaporated. Mutilation skeptics often point to bloating after death as an answer to the precise incisions. Bloating can cause skin to stretch and dehydration can result in cow hide shrinking and splitting.

One of the major reasons the government is often suggested as a responsible party for mutilations is that hundreds of helicopter sightings that have been reported around mutilation sites and the military claims they have no flight records for most of the reports.

“I estimate about 15% of the cases we have on record have helicopter involvement,” O’Brien said.

Some point to satanic cults as the guilty party in these mutilations, which is partly due to the satanic panic of the 1980s. Many crimes in the 80’s were blamed on satanic cults, but the majority of those accusations proved to be false. Another contributing factor was the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives’ report which surmised that devil worshipers were committing the mutilations although there has never been evidence to support that claim. It is also hard to imagine cultists wrangling 1,400-pound animals with no noise or foot prints left behind.

“It’s almost impossible for an amateur to be able to duplicate these cuts, especially the taking the tongue out from deep in the esophagus and the lymph system,” O’Brien said. “I just don’t think satanists have the knowledge, wherewithal and motivation to do these things. We’re not talking about kids going out cow tippin’.”

Another popular explanation often brought up is the possibility these mutilations could be done by extraterrestrials. Both O’Brien and Perkins believe this to be the least likely of the schools of thought.

“There are investigators who feel that’s the only answer that can explain all this, but it doesn’t make sense to me,” O’Brien said.

However, Perkins said since the answer to this mystery is not clear at this point, extraterrestrials cannot be ruled out.

“Probably 50% of the people I talk to in the areas where these mutilations have happened say it could be aliens,” Perkins said. “But from my point of view it’s a long shot.”

O’Brien believes the mutilations could have a connection to testing for mad cow disease, while Perkins brings up the possibility of testing for radiation. At the end of the day, no one theory is a perfect fit to explains these cases, and that is one of the most intriguing aspects of these happenings.

“I can win any debate about these mysterious cattle deaths if I’m playing the devil’s advocate,” O’Brien said. “No matter what you come up with as an answer, there are cases that don’t fit into that particular scenario.”

What do the officials say?

The federal government has conducted two independent investigations into cattle mutilations with totally different conclusions. The BATF began an investigation into the mutilations in the early 1970s to see if they could be connected to unidentified flying objects. BATF Agent Donald Flickinger headed up the investigation. The findings showed no connection to UFOs, but found some cattle had been tranquilized and showed signs of being given anti-coagulants prior to their deaths. The agency was unable to hold anyone responsible for the mutilations, but Flickinger later distributed a memo that has forever associated mutilations with satanic cults.

“The UFO enthusiasts convinced him to write a letter and send it to all the sheriffs in the country to be on the lookout for cultists or devil worshipers who were doing the mutilations,” O’Brien said. “The theory gained quite a bit of notoriety and still to this day, people are touting that as the potential cause of these cases.”

After a decade of a high concentration of mutilations and pressure to explain the events, the Federal Bureau of Investigation launched “Operation Animal Mutilation” in New Mexico in 1979. The investigation was headed by ex-FBI agent Kenneth Rommel and determined a majority of the mutilations were predator attacks, although certain cases could not be explained. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police also disagreed with the FBI’s explanation of the deaths after years of investigating mutilations in Canada.

“I find it difficult to understand how Rommel could make a statement such as this, without ever having personally witnessed a real mutilation firsthand,” said RCMP investigator Corp. Lyn Lauber. “I would like to see Rommel write off our confirmed cases as due to predators.”

At the same time, some of the FBI report pointed to the ranchers’ state of mind when attempting to explain the cases.

“Collective delusion has been the main go-to theory of the authorities,” Perkins said. “The Rommel report stated ranchers and were so economically stressed that they lost their minds and would go out and look at a natural death and suddenly say this one’s mutilated. To me that’s really insulting to the ranchers.”

Regardless of who or what is causing these deaths, the financial loss for producers like Hronich is palpable.

“You figure 2 to 3% natural death loss from calving to the time you sell, but when you start having phenomenal death loss, how do you manage taking 10% out for mutilations,” Hronich said.

While O’Brien believes at some point data will overwhelm the strange nature of the mutilations, Perkins is unsure if the mystery of these deaths will ever be resolved. Considering how long the mystery has lingered, fear of the unknown trumps all other concerns. If an unfamiliar noise awakens you in the night, it can be transformed into a million petrifying possibilities until the moment your cat reveals itself as the perpetrator. But without an answer, these mutilations are similar to a thief in the night—anonymous, confounding and frightening to those in their wake and they will remain that way until answers are uncovered.

Lacey Vilhauer can be reached at 620-227-1871 or [email protected].