Imagine this — it’s a July evening in Arroyo Hondo. The waning sky and moon are beginning to give way to night. And a rancher latches a gate behind him after checking in on the livestock for the evening. It all seems fine, especially the 6-month-old bull. But in the morning light of a new day, it becomes clear that nothing about his pasture is fine, especially the bull.
No signs of struggle mar the pasture beyond the willows where the bull lay dead. Skin was missing from around the jaw. One eye, the tongue and its penis were totally gone, nowhere in the field to be found. The animal’s rear end was cored out. The scene was absolutely bloodless.
The mutilated cows of Taos were serious business in the mid-'90s. Ever since one of the first reported cases in 1976 near Pot Mountain came to light, the mystery of how cows ended up dead and disfigured only grew more stupefying.
The Hondo case shared the same elemental traits with cattle mutilations spread across the globe. From Mora to Brazil and Dulce to France, mutilated cows and other large mammals had organs and skin missing — removed with surgical precision — and bones exposed, as white and clean as an alabaster gravestone.
Despite the mutilations appearance across time and space, no one has come up with a definitive explanation of what happened.
Most folks who call themselves level-headed chalk it up to predators. But what an imperfect explanation, as many of the ranchers whose cows turn up dead say the eery ease of the field look nothing like a predator kill they had ever seen. Most everyone else hypothesizes UFOs. But that, too, fails to take the story from A to Z. Perhaps it was simply a crime spree with dedicated copycats, a government coverup of mad cow disease, a secret puesdo-military base in Archuleta Mesa, santanists or just demented pranksters.
But do ambiguous theories really satisfy curiosity? Perhaps it is the veil of mystique that has lodged the story of cow mutilations so firmly in our local mythology.
Phaedra Greenwood, a local author and former reporter with The Taos News, started looking into the phenomenon in 1995 when one reported mutilation turned into several. The tell-tale signs of mutilations kept turning up in Sheriff’s reports and call logs. Greenwood even joined a team of local police and investigators, recording the sites and talking to neighbors when dispatched to another weird cow death.
Of course, not all mutilations were real. Some were simply the work of coyotes and vermin. But that didn’t stop folks from being on alert. And there were official pushes to verify what it could be, to separate the wheat from the chaff.
A former district attorney investigator and judge, John Paternoster, had a client who was a rancher north of Questa. Like so many other human victims of these mutilations, the rancher lost several head of cattle to mutilations. That was serious business, especially when every lost cow meant less profit — realistically, most “profits” were just enough to get by until the next year.
Paternoster called for an official investigation into the phenomena, saying law enforcement ought to treat each mutilation as a crime scene and use an official protocol, thus legitimizing the investigations and hopefully find a way to the root of the costly mystery. Enticing theories aside, Paternoster once told Greenwood, “There are few frontiers available to curious minds, and this is one of them.”
But the insatiable desire to understand the mystery wasn’t isolated to Taos. Gabe Valdez, an FBI investigator, spent years traveling across New Mexico talking to ranchers and everyone else who might have had some piece to the puzzle. The New Mexico Livestock Board kept their own tabs on the happenings, and a Los Alamos chemist did his own analysis of dead and mutilated cattle on the side. Taos even hosted a conference for freelance investigators and the generally curious alike.
Understandably, fear and confusion were palpable. Folks got spooked. Not only were their animals dead and cut up in the strangest of ways, but the mutilations were oftentimes associated with people seeing strange lights in the sky — white, blue and red orbs, disks, things zooming past the stars hundreds if not thousands of miles per hour. Several paranormal investigators, including Chris O’Brien from the San Luis Valley in Colorado, documented story after story of black helicopters landing and taking off from the very fields where mutilated cows had been found.
The weirdness didn’t stop there — just north of the state line, one rancher told a story of finding his herd circling methodically around a dead and mutilated cow, giving out the most mournful moo he’d ever heard. And throughout official probes and investigations, from the late 1970s when the FBI first got publicly involved onward, relevant files went missing while investigators got death threats in the night.
As the Los Alamos chemist told Greenwood in ’96, “The deeper you get into it, the more mysterious it gets.”
As the millennium approached, reports of mutilations stopped. Greenwood didn’t get the calls she used to, and ultimately, the phenomena of the mid-90s dried up. The legitimate financial blow of losing a cow to a mutilation — as well as the national hype of the time — was lost in the day-to-day as folks went on with their lives, planting another field and raising another herd.
The reality of cattle mutilations gave way to local lore.
Myth and mystery, though, have a way of coming back into play every now and again. Cattle mutilation investigator Christopher O’Brien wrote in his 1996 book about the phenomena, The Mysterious Valley, “Maybe strange events that occur through time, and subsequently become a part of the mythic tradition, are somehow sparked by a veil of unconscious cultural uncertainty.”
If everyone gets to telling these stories and asking these questions again, who knows what else they might start to see.