Eerie X-File of the pampas

SUN JOURNAL

Mutilations: Something mysterious is killing and bloodlessly dissecting cattle on the plains of Argentina. The official government explanation -- a carnivorous mouse. But many skeptics point to strange lights in the sky.

July 23, 2002|By Reed Lindsay | Reed Lindsay,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

SALIQUELLO, Argentina - Daniel Belot has seen his share of dead cows.

As a veterinarian in the heart of the cow-full pampas, Belot has written off bovine deaths to causes as diverse as foot-and-mouth disease, bloat, lightning, killer bees and cattle thieves who butcher their loot in place, a crime that has become increasingly common as Argentina's economic crisis has extended to the countryside.

Then, in April, he discovered a case that stumped him. A rancher had found a nearly 1,000-pound Aberdeen Angus lying on its belly "like a rabbit," in Belot's words. The left side of its face around the jaw was gone, the hide cut away in two straight lines meeting at a 90-degree angle.

Its tongue, pharynx and larynx were missing. Muscles and ligaments had been removed from the jawbones, leaving them spotless. There was no blood on the animal or nearby; nor were there signs of scavengers or predators.

"I had never seen anything like it before," says Belot, who works for Argentina's animal health agency, Senasa, in the sleepy town of Saliquello. "How were those cuts made? When? Why?"

Three months later, Belot has no answers. Across this country's immense, grassy plains, Argentina's renowned beef cattle are turning up dead, mutilated in ways that have baffled experts and spooked ranchers.

Since Belot detected the first mutilation in April, nearly 200 more have been reported in the area, in addition to a scattering of cases from as far away as Patagonia and Uruguay.

Most cows have the same missing parts as the first one examined by Belot. But all the mutilations share an uncanny similarity: Organs, flesh and skin have been removed in angular or neatly curved cuts that leave no blood and clean, dry bones.

"The type of incisions do not coincide with any infectious or contagious disease that we know," says Alberto Pariani, a veterinarian at the University of La Pampa who has examined 40 mutilated cows. "When animals eat, they rip, they tear. They don't cut.

"Everyone who has experience working on the ranch says the same thing: No animal can do this."

Blame has been pinned on everything from ravenous rodents to satanic cults, but in the farmhouses and small towns that dot the pampas, the paranormal is the No. 1 suspect. Sure enough, the mutilations have been accompanied by a spate of UFO sightings.

The mutilations are not without precedent. Since the 1960s, hundreds of mutilated animals have been found in the United States with nearly identical characteristics - removal of organs in what appear to be surgically precise cuts, no trace of blood, no tracks of humans or animals, often with coinciding testimonies of strange lights.

Mutilation cases have been reported during the past year in Montana and Oregon. The news media have evoked comparisons with the legend of the chupacabras, literally "goat sucker," revived in Puerto Rico several years ago when farm animals there were reportedly found dead and bloodless with abnormal puncture wounds.

But according to an Argentine government-backed investigation, the mutilations have an earthly explanation. A team of university veterinarians working with specialists from Senasa and the National Institute of Agricultural Technology recently announced that they had caught the mysterious cow mutilator.

The culprit's name: Oxymycterus, commonly known as the long-nosed mouse. The theory holds that the cows die from disease or other natural causes, not unusual in winter, and are then set upon by scavengers, including foxes and birds. But it is the hungry long-nosed mouse, with its four potent incisors, that is allegedly responsible for nibbling off flesh and hide in circular and linear cuts.

To prove their hypothesis, veterinarians at the national university in the city of Tandil placed dead cows in areas where some of the mutilations had been discovered. Four or five days later, the cows were left with "lesions exactly the same" as those discovered in the mutilated cows.

The announcement was made at a Buenos Aires news conference, where reporters were shown a video of mice crawling through a carcass and chomping a cow tongue on a laboratory table. National media coverage of the mutilations has effectively ended since the news conference.

But many experts and local veterinarians remain unconvinced by the government-endorsed conclusion. One question the university team has not answered is why the mice, or any scavenger for that matter, would consume the hide around the jaw instead of first devouring the rest of the cow's softer flesh and innards.

Another chink in the theory: Some cows have been found mutilated hours after being seen intact, leaving scant time for the mice to remove the organs.

Nobody, from ranchers to biologists specializing in rodents, has ever seen mice feed on a cow carcass.

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