By KIM SKORNOGOSKI • Tribune Staff Writer
There were just a few drops of blood around the cow — hardly what was expected considering the tongue and udder were removed and the flesh and tissue scraped clean to the bone.
In the days before its death, the cow showed no signs of being sick. The tongue and udder looked like they had been cut with precision — not ripped as a predator would do.
“I reached out to everybody I know to try to get an explanation,” Meagher County Sheriff Jon Lopp said. “Everybody’s got a theory — from insects to UFOs. I’ve actually read a lot about it. I’m still as confused as I was when I started.”
Though this incident was the first time Lopp has seen a cow mutilated in such a strange manner, it’s been going on elsewhere for decades.
In England, accounts of mutilated cows, horses and goats date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first reports in America surfaced in Pennsylvania and Kansas in the 1960s.
Montana’s first known similar incident was a Sand Coulee steer in late August 1974. By December 1977, sheriff’s deputies had investigated 67 mutilation cases in Cascade, Judith Basin, Chouteau, Teton and Pondera counties.
The hallmarks of these incidents are the almost surgically precise removal of reproductive organs, udders, anuses, teats and tongues with very little bleeding. Flesh around the jaw often is removed, exposing the mandible. Sometimes, internal organs are removed with no obvious points of entry.
Lopp found no human or animal tracks around the dead cow, and no signs of a struggle — just like in the other mutilated cow cases. However, the ground was hard when the cow was discovered in late October, and there was no snow on the ground.
After asking around, Lopp learned of another Meagher County rancher who several years ago had three cows die in a similar fashion within a few months of each other.
Over the years, explanations have included the legendary Chupacabra, extraterrestrials, secretive government programs and satanic cults.
Montana Department of Livestock Brands Enforcement Administrator John Grainger has a more earthly explanation — magpies and coyotes. Grainger investigated several cow mutilation cases while he was the Roosevelt County Sheriff, before he started working for the state.
He said that an errant bullet can strike a cow during hunting season, but it might take weeks for the animal to die of blood loss or infection.
“Magpies are very specific and precise,” Grainger added. “They can take out an eye very closely. They can’t eat through the hide, but I’ve seen them hollow out an area around a bullet hole.”
The missing body parts are the first to be consumed because they are the softest and tastiest, according to livestock inspector Mark Feist, who covers Meagher County.
“It’s kind of like candy for predators,” he said. “As far as I can tell what it was were animals chewing on them. I’ve never seen a Martian come down and do it, if that’s what you’re asking.”
The federal government reached the same conclusion in a 297-page report following a four-year investigation at the urging of a Colorado senator who said 130 cows were mutilated in his state in 1975.
However, that explanation doesn’t sit right with Pondera County Sheriff Tom Kuka, who first heard about the strange mutilations while growing up near Valier.
“Lots of people have suggested it’s birds or bugs,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe the number of calls I got from people saying it was space aliens with vaporizers or some creature like Bigfoot.
“I’ve never really formed an opinion as to how they died or why. … There’s just something strange about it,” Kuka added.
Pondera County is a historic hotspot for mutilated cattle. About 15 such cases were reported in 2001 and 2002 in the county, and another five were reported in the neighboring counties of Cascade and Glacier.
The Department of Livestock doesn’t track cattle mutilations, leaving it to individual county sheriffs to investigate.
Considering a cow typically is sold for $1,200, the crime is investigated as felony criminal mischief.
Though both have since left the Pondera Sheriff’s Office, Dick Dailey and Dan Campbell collected photos and evidence on Montana cattle mutilations for years, pinpointing each incident on a map.
“Nothing about it seemed natural,” said Dailey, who worked on ranches in Wyoming and Montana before joining the sheriff’s department. “The cuts on them … if predators were doing it, it would be stringy. These were really smooth cuts.”
The cows’ jaw bones showed no signs of being chewed on and most often the missing hide was on the underside of the animal — where a coyote or bird couldn’t get to it.
Campbell said he never saw any signs of beetles and maggots, which would take weeks to do that kind of damage.
Further adding to the mystery, the men said they tracked coyotes in the area, but the animals wouldn’t come within 20 or 30 feet of the carcass. Even grizzly bears readying for hibernation stayed away from the decomposing cattle.
One cow found shortly after it died was tested by the Las Vegas Institute of Science. Dailey said it had high amounts of a government-controlled sedative in its blood stream.
Both men said they are certain there are cattle mutilations that go unreported — either ranchers dismiss them as natural or think there’s nothing law enforcement can do. Campbell said ranchers in other counties and Canada have often called him, frustrated that area officers won’t investigate mutilations.
“I’m sure among law enforcement we were at the butt end of every joke,” he said. “It’s a felony crime and to push that into a box just isn’t right.”
Years later, another Pondera County cattle mutilation left an intriguing clue.
A few feet south of the carcass was a foot-deep impression in the stubblefield. There were no drag marks or footprints to the cow’s final resting place — as if the bovine had fallen from the sky and then bounced.
Now a ranch foreman in Augusta, Campbell is certain animals didn’t mutilate the cattle, but he is not willing to leap to any unearthly conclusions.
“I don’t think it’s aliens,” he said. “Here in Montana, we’ve hit just about everything on the road — and I’ve never hit an alien.”
Reach Tribune Staff Writer Kim Skornogoski at 791-6574, 800-438-6600 or [email protected].