When large numbers of cattle were found dead on the Great Plains during the 1970s, many ranchers and law enforcement officials refused to believe that the deaths had come from natural causes. Alleging that the animals had been weirdly mutilated—their bodies drained of blood, and their sex organs removed with so-called surgical precision—conspiracy theorists attributed the actions to one of three outside forces.
Satanic cults were suspected of killing the cattle to obtain animal organs and blood for their devil-worship ceremonies; extraterrestrial aliens were suspected of killing the cattle to further their understanding of terrestrial mammals; and clandestine federal agencies were suspected of killing the cattle as part of top-secret experiments in chemical and/or biological warfare.
Although nearly every scientific report on this phenomenon has concluded that the deaths were perfectly natural, and that the animals’ postmortem condition could be attributed to the usual scavengers (e.g., coyotes, badgers, vultures, crows, and blowflies), conspiracy theorists have regarded these mundane explanations as clumsy attempts to cover up the much more ominous sources of the cattle mutilations.
Interestingly, one of the first such mutilations was not of a cow, but rather a horse named Lady (also known as Snippy), a three-year-old Appaloosa that was found dead on 9 September 1967 in southern Colorado. Its heart and other internal organs were missing, and its skin was stripped from the neck up; but no blood could be detected on the ground nearby, and neither footprints nor animal tracks were found near the body.
Local ranchers asked how the heart could be removed without leaving at least some trace of blood on the ground. If the culprits were predators, why were there no teeth marks or wounds with jagged edges? Just a few months earlier, there had been reports of strange lights in the night sky, leading Lady’s owners to suspect that aliens had been at work.
Over the next decade, reports of similar mutilations spread widely across the Great Plains, particularly in the states of Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. The total number of mutilations nationwide is unknown, though estimates have ranged from several hundred to ten thousand.
As a result, several states began their own investigations, and the U.S. Department of Justice provided funding for the most exhaustive report, Operation Animal Mutilation, conducted in 1979–1980 for the state of New Mexico by Kenneth Rommel, a retired agent from the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Uncovering no evidence that satanists, aliens, or covert federal agencies were at work, Rommel found only natural explanations. The cows had died from common viruses or other bovine diseases, from eating poisonous plants, or perhaps even from lightning. Because the dead animal might not be found for a day or two, gas would build up in their carcasses, causing not only the stretching of tissue, but also the explosion of soft internal organs.
The animals’ blood would coagulate at the bottom of the carcass, making it appear as if the blood had been entirely drained. And as natural scavengers from both air and land conducted their postmortem feasts, the surfaces left behind were surprisingly smooth, making it appear as if the work had been done with surgical precision.
Needless to say, many conspiracy theorists have refused to accept Rommel’s conclusions. The early 1970s were the years when allegations of satanic cults became more widespread in the United States, particularly in the wake of the murders committed by Charles Manson and the Sons of Satan. It seemed logical to connect the two phenomena.
Satanists were supposedly killing the animals so they could continue to practice their ritual sacrifices. The blood was drained so they could drink it, perhaps mixing it with drugs to induce hallucinations. The sexual organs were removed so they could use them for copulation and other fertility rituals.
Speculation shifted from satanists to aliens in the mid-1970s when crop circles were discovered in fields not far from some of the mutilated cattle. Again it seemed logical to connect the two phenomena, since the aliens’ use of UFOs would explain why there were never any tracks left near the scene, and the aliens’ advanced medical technology would explain why the mutilations appeared to be performed with surgical precision.
The alien theory was given a significant boost by Linda Moulton Howe, a television journalist and former Miss America contestant, who produced A Strange Harvest for national broadcast in 1980. In books and subsequent television programs, Howe has continued to suggest that the aliens who are supposedly abducting human beings and performing medical probes on them are the same fiends who are mutilating cattle for similar experimentation.
Conspiracy theorists who favor the satanists have one thing in common with those who favor the aliens: a belief that the federal government knows the truth—and has even been closely monitoring these activities—but is covering it up. Explanations for the government cover-up vary, but other conspiracy theorists have attributed the cattle mutilations to the federal government itself.
Troops and military equipment were shifted following the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Vietnam in 1973 to remote locations in the Great Plains and other areas of the American West. The use of sophisticated military equipment, including the federal government’s infamous black helicopters, would explain how the cattle were mutilated without leaving any evidence behind.
The U.S. government’s campaign to develop biological and/or chemical warfare would require testing these weapons against the cattle found on nearby ranches. Why the government would not simply purchase its own cattle to conduct these top-secret experiments remains a mystery.