MOUNT AIRY - At first, it seemed a mere speck on the police blotter when a resident reported a dead pet duck in late November.
But the eerie details surrounding the duck slaying worried police and sent them searching for any leads in what they termed a disturbing incident.
The doomed animal was one of four large, white Peking ducks kept as pets by Marilyn and Charles Potter, residents of South Main Street.
On Nov. 30, as the ducks waddled around the three-quarter acre yard, Marilyn Potter noticed one was missing. A brief search of the property, which borders Pine Grove Cemetery, turned up the dead duck, still warm.
The animal had been decapitated, but the head was nowhere to be found.
Potter noted that it was strange that there was no blood anywhere nearby.
Also peculiar was that the duck's chest had been neatly sliced open.
Suddenly, police and Potter began to wonder whether the killing was an act of random vandalism, or rather the work of someone involved in satanic activities.
"I was more than surprised, I was really shocked," Mrs. Potter said. "It was because of the way that it had been done. That's what shocked me more than anything."
Police say people involved in cults and devil worship have been known to seek the hearts of animals -- preferably large ones -- for use in their rituals. Potter inspected the duck and found its heart still was in place.
The killing concerned police because it harkened back to past incidents in Mount Airy that had authorities worried about a rise in cult activity.
Three years ago, someone went on a spree of destruction through the cemetery, demolishing several tombstones and disturbing at least one grave.
Residents also talk of a beheaded deer that turned up several months ago.
"Once that happened, I was afraid it would start up again," said Tfc.
Gary Lang, of the Maryland State Police's Resident Trooper Program in Mount Airy. "Luckily, it hasn't."
Police aren't announcing a wave of cult activity because of the discovery of one dead duck. But authorities are on the alert for similar occurrences.
Lang said last week none have been reported since the duck death.
"There isn't much to it, not much to go on," the trooper said. "You just have to wait for something else to turn up."
As for Potter, she's now keeping a closer eye on her remaining three ducks -- as well as her two dogs -- and keeping them locked up at night.
Neighbors have asked Potter whether living next to the cemetery might be part of the problem.
"No, it's the people who are alive who are bothering me," she joked.