The cattle mutilation wave did not occur at just any moment in time. The harsh reality suggested that attention given to these “strange events” responded to the infinity of existing social concerns. The mystery, therefore, could be considered an outgrowth of the crisis. According to the theory’s most newfangled variant, the phenomenon had been deliberately inflated to distract the population from the nation’s state of malaise. But more than a smokescreen, the exaggerated diffusion of such news looked like another symptom of the same illness.
On December 19, 2001, a crowd of Argentineans took the streets, banging on cooking pots, to protest against a government asleep in the midst of the most brutal crisis of recent history. Ferocious reprisals followed the protests, resulting in thirty-nine dead at the hands of the police. Bank freezes, the uncontrolled dollar and high rates of unemployment added to the sad national ordeal. The ashes were still hot in 2002. Shortly before the wave of alien cattle rustling, the emblem of creole opulence had been prey to minor “depredations”. It is still hard to forget the image broadcast by a news program, when a truck with beef cattle overturned on the outskirts of Rosario, Santa Fe, in 2001 and a crowd surged to butcher the animals on the roadside. Other factors – frivolous to some, but serious in their psycho-social impact – fostered the dejected popular mood: around the same time, the Argentinean football team had been eliminated from the world cup in the first round.
For once, a modern expression of the supernatural drew the interest of two specialists in myth and legends. Martha Blache and Silvia Balzano, researchers with CONICET, put forth an explanatory model for the events. They suggested the possible interconnection between Chupacabras reports, the penetration of genetically-modified sorghum and the use of new herbicides whose preparation is controlled by American laboratories. They wondered, for example, if the phenomenon might not be a warning against the uncertainty created by these changes and the perceived lack of control evinced by cattlemen. Globalization may be related to the role played by a country that “benefits from our raw materials and natural resources, removing them in an efficient yet imperceptible manner,” without leaving traces. News about cattle mutilations, they write, seemed to condense a wider metaphor reflecting a country in a state of crisis that is trying to identify the culprits. Who is attacking the cows, tame and apathetic representative of Argentine heritage? Is our blood being sucked by international agencies or domestic carrion animals?” The popular imagination, they conclude, “could sublimate the conflicting demands of the IMF with regard to the foreign debt.” (6)
In proposing their model, Blache and Balzano did not conduct a survey on the political trends or the technical-scientific concerns of cattlemen. Implementing a sort of psycho-cultural analysis using press clippings is always risky. But the authors are the first to say that their hypothesis rests only on journalistic sources. At least they didn’t keep quiet.
The authors also noticed the similarity in the conclusions reached by Kenneth M. Rommel when the FBI assigned him to study the bovine massacre in the United States in 1980 and those of SENASA in 2002. In his study of twenty-seven cattle mutilations, Rommel ascribed the phenomenon to the combined effect of the media, the social influence of “experts” and the action of various predators in the genesis, formation and extension of the wave. (7) Both in the United States and Argentina, the mutilated carcasses were found according to pre-defined patterns. What the authors have termed “the media transmission chain” supposes the participation of narrators who contribute to disseminating a legend regardless of their posture toward it.
This consensual version of the reality to be defined arises from an “identikit”, and these strangeness patterns configure, in turn a “selection criteria”. Thus, in order for the animal to belong to the category of “mutilated cattle”, it must meet a number of symptoms and even common scenarios. In order to build a “classic cattle mutilation scenario”, the animal must be found without its organs or soft tissue. The edges of its skin must be “clean, circular or with sharp angles” and the body must be as dry as possible, “as though exsanguinated”. Rommel did not find this “ideal case” in any of the one hundred seventeen mutilations he researched between 1975 and 1979, especially because – as in the Argentinean case – “surgical precision” vanished under the microscope and the exsanguination was only apparent. “Blood always pools in the lower parts of the carcass.” The missing parts – soft tissue organs – are the parts appealing to a carnivorous predator. He also discovered that the areas under the carcasses’ weight was also intact. An “intelligent mutilator” would have turned it over to devour the hidden parts. This was never the case.
In the United States, sociologist J.R. Stewart found that the number of cattle mutilation incidents was directly related to the volume of news devoted to the subject in the media. He also interviewed eight hundred adults and determined that the police, having no experience in elucidating the causes of cattle deaths, and certain local vets, more accustomed to treating live animals, were inclined to accept the farmers’ eyewitness accounts (9). A similar study was not performed in Argentina, but the phenomenon came to an end when the media moved on to other subjects.
Application of the “pitted windshield theory” can lead one to think of a case of selective perception molded by the stereotype provided by the media. I must stress that I am not a sociologist who can reduce the phenomenon to a case of mass hysteria. Even so, this theory seems more convincing to me than finding explanations in the incursions of a bloodthirsty Chupacabras, aliens hankering to throw some creole spareribs on the grill or a gang of lunatic scientists injecting strange potions into our cows.
For the moment, we know that the media is accustomed to broadcasting mutilated images of reality, and we cannot ask cows for their opinion. They can’t even moo. The red muzzled mouse – Professor Kravetz told me – swallowed their tongues.
1) “El Senasa dictaminó que las vacas mutiladas murieron ‘por causas naturales’” (01-07-02), in diario La Nación , Buenos Aires. “Vacas muertas: eran mutiladas por ratones de campo y zorros”, in diario Clarín, Buenos Aires (2-07-2002).
2) “Las vacas podrían haber sido mutiladas”, in diario Clarín (22-06-2002) y “El enigma de las vacas mutiladas, reportado por dos investigadoras en Internet”, in diario Clarín (24-06-2002).
3) “La salida de Cané del Senasa fue por una disputa política” (23/8/2003). In diario Río Negro.
4) Agostinelli, Alejandro (2002); “Vague de mutilations animales en Argentine”. In VSD Hors Série N° 5, pp. 56-61. Ed. GS Presse Com., Francia.
5) Balmaceda, Oscar (2002); “El INTA dice que las vacas mutiladas murieron por causas naturales” (29-06-02), in Diario La Nación, Buenos Aires. “Observaciones sobre supuestas mutilaciones en bovinos en el sudeste de Buenos Aires. Grupo de Sanidad Animal” INTA EEA Balcarce.
6) Balzano, Silvia; Blache, Martha (2004); “La leyenda del Chupacabras en el área pampeana. Una posible interpretación” In Folklore Latinoamericano, Tomo V, pp. 41-53, Buenos Aires, Instituto Universitario Nacional del Arte. Also see: Balzano, Silvia; Blache, Martha (2003-2004); “La cadena de transmisión mediacional en una leyenda contemporánea: El caso de las vacas mutiladas como metáfora de la crisis argentina actual”. In Estudos de Literatura Oral, No. 9-10, 39-55, Universidade do Algarve, Portugal.
7) Rommel, Kenneth (1980); Operation Animal Mutilation Project.
9) Stewart, James R. (1980); “Collective Delusion. A comparison of believers and skeptics” en Midwest Sociological Society, Milwaukee, Winsconsin, Estados Unidos.
[Translation (c) 2014 Scott Corrales, Institute of Hispanic Ufology (IHU)]
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