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Mystery Still Stalks the Prairie: Ongoing Considerations and Puzzles Concerning Cattle Mutilations

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Have wanted to do a blog on the classic cattle mutilation book, Mystery Stalks The Prairie, for a while, but just couldn’t settle on an approach or tone.

Those questions were solved for me by the latest series of Earthfiles podcasts in which Linda Moulton Howe returns to the singular topic of her métier. Links to these podcasts are included below.

All of this is a return for me, not least because the mutilations she’s reporting on have been happening in Central Kansas, all within a relatively small area involving 3-4 counties, with Saline County at the center.

Whatever you might think about Linda (and I don’t agree with her about a lot of things), her attention to these reports and her history of archiving communications and accounts is useful, so I maintain a connection with her work for those purposes alone. I also appreciate her sympathy for the animals so affected.

In listening to the latest information, including some very disturbing necropsy reports by a vet she interviews (I was actually more terrified by the fact that the animal they discussed had encephalitis at the time of its death and mutilation and that its liver contained a veritable cocktail of pesticides, herbicides and petroleum products that are apparently considered “normal” for such an animal living on the Kansas plains), I was returned to the time in 1973 when I first encountered a cattle mutilation for myself, before there was a language and narrative surrounding such events.

I’ll describe that experience toward the end of this discussion, as well as the two UFO sightings I had during the same time period. What I can say at this point, is that the condition of the cow disturbed me deeply and I’ve never forgotten that uncomfortable feeling. There was something wrong about the entire scene and situation.

All researchers involved with examining the cattle mutilation mystery refer, at some point or another, to the first close examination of this topic, Mystery Stalks The Prairie (1976) by Keith Wolverton and Roberta Donovan, a law enforcement officer and local reporter, respectively.

Mystery is focused on a series of reported cattle mutilations that occurred across 5 counties in Montana in the med-seventies, roughly peaking between 1974-1975. Cascade Co was the focus of these reports. This text is a basic introduction to the topic and includes the most significant cases, as well as the prevailing local theories, given some of the additional experiences that some ranchers, and other individuals who lived in the affected counties reported.

There is a more recent and expanded edition of this book which was published in 2021 which includes a new introduction and a transcript of a YouTube roundtable that was conducted with Wolverton, other principals of the initial investigations and investigators in 2016. The original text of Mystery Stalks is included in this edition.

The only unfortunate aspect of the new edition is that all the animal photos are reproduced in black and white, whereas in the original edition of the book they are in color, albeit of an offset variety. The color photos do have a kind of shock value, in that it you get more of a sense of what the rancher/farmer actually saw.

While there isn’t a great deal of new information in the expanded edition, one does get to know Keith Wolverton a bit better. Wolverton comes across as a no-nonsense individual who is not at all prone to exaggeration or hyperbole.

Although he has helped investigate cattle mutilations for decades now and has taken reports of strange aerial craft, Bigfoot sightings and oddly dressed individuals hanging around mutilation sites, he readily admits that he’s only seen a few possibly strange things in the sky.

His few attempts at hunting Bigfoot with a colleague, who is an enthusiast, were a complete bust—so he basically says that he can’t really come to conclusions about “all that.” Overall, he seems to be a remarkably level headed individual who gives credit where credit is due and leaves far winded speculation to others.

I purchased the first edition of this book a few years ago in order to get a sense of how the text both reflected narratives that were then current regarding cattle mutilations and then influenced the work of others who have written on the topic since, most notably, Linda Moulton Howe, of course, who basically recreated a career for herself based on the topic, and, Chris O’Brien with his expansive and provocative summary, Stalking the Herd (2014).

I’m not going to be exhaustive about this because the mutilation mystery is still that, despite what the FBI concluded and what mainstream media outlets insist. But it’s a complicated mystery that doesn’t lend itself easily to any particular solution.

So, what I’m going to do here is to use Mystery Stalks The Prairie as more a launching point, since, in many ways, that’s exactly what the authors of the book intended.

Their goal was modest, despite all the “hay” (if there’s a pun take it) that’s been made of these reports. They simply wanted to tell the strange stories of some ranchers who found some of their most valuable cattle dead, or dying, in very unusual circumstances.

We like to use the term “High Strangeness” to talk about events or experiences for which it doesn’t appear there are ready explanations. This term is often assumed to mean occurrences that are very dramatic, that grab the attention, that engender suspense.

What one often finds, however, in truly odd occurrences, are events/experiences that may not initially startle one, but instead produce a kind of puzzlement, a confusion. Expected patterns don’t add up.

It’s the accumulation of confusing data that builds up, over time, which is the actual measure of a mystery like cattle mutilation in the U.S. That’s the uncomfortable rub about it. That’s the actual effect and power of the book Mystery Stalks the Prairie.

Mystery first simply reports some very odd findings, and anyone who knows about how cattle die would be discomforted by some of the accounts. And this is where we have to go back to the narrative of cattle mutilations generally.

As Linda Moulton Howe tells it, cattle mutilations, or occasionally horse mutilations, are marked by the finding of deceased animals in or displaying the following conditions: bloodless carcasses and/or bloodless cuts made to the body, sometimes displaying complete stripping of the muzzle with a characteristic “square” incision on the jaw tissue.

The tongue may be completely removed, along with the left ear, the rectum is surgically cored out and there may be other organs removed, sometimes seemingly without the body being opened. Eyes are often missing (sometimes only one) or bulging in an unusual way.

Notably, predators or other carrion eaters often avoid the carcasses, which are then left to deteriorate on their own unless the rancher/farmer disposes of them in some fashion.

However, it is worth noting that very few of the Montana mutilations actually followed this scenario and that the classic “mutilation” Linda Moulton Howe frequently touts seem to be based on her introduction and exposure to mutilations in Colorado during the same time period. For example, none of the Montana mutilations involve that now classic clean skinning of the muzzle.

It is also true in looking at Mystery, and then later texts like Stalking the Herd, that it becomes quite clear the actual pattern of mutilation has changed over time and those variations seem to occur in clusters.

Moulton Howe does mention this from time to time in her more recent podcasts and writing, but doesn’t seem to emphasize those evolutions as much as she does the physical symptoms of mutilations and her theories about what is going on.

I think the notion that the phenomenon has evolved or developed over time is an interesting one and could actually provide possible clues as to who, or what, might be involved. An evolving pattern certainly puts a damper on the idea that we’re just looking at misidentified predation.

So, in Mystery, what were some of the “symptoms” that ranchers/farmers were dealing with unusual animal deaths?

One of the more obvious symptoms was that often the animal would go missing at first and then be found in a place where not only should it not have been, but couldn’t have gone on its own, i.e. it was found in an isolated lot or pasture that was locked/gated—a situation which also indicates that a predator couldn’t have simply dragged it there.

In the Mystery cases, the carcass was often repeatedly mutilated, missing eyes, ears, organs (reproductive and otherwise), but there was no blood on the ground, indicating the animal was either killed and bled out in a different location, or mutilated quite a while after death.

Eyes were not always missing, but in one notable instance, an eye had been removed via a hole drilled in the skull rather than via the socket. What predator would manage that? And why this kind of removal when cutting it out via the socket would obviously be easier?

In these Montana cases, there is less an emphasis on the lack of blood in the carcass itself, unless a necropsy was performed and little blood could actually be found in the body, which was noted in some cases by the examining vet.

It was in these Montana cases that the evidence of a serrated and burning cutting instrument was first noted, and the fascinating detail (missed in many reports) of not just the hide itself being cut, but the fur of the animal being cut or trimmed alongside some of the bodily incisions; this is definitely NOT what predators can/will do.

In more than one of the Montana instances, a strange white filmy substance was discovered on the ground or also on the carcass, while in one case, the carcass didn’t contain any blood, but a smelly white liquid that poured out during necropsy. Both the filmy substance and the smelly liquid were subjected to tests, but neither were identified (in the latter case, if the liquid had been the result of putrefaction that would have been obvious).

Puncture wounds in the jugular veins of several cows were reported, although it wasn’t clear if they were used to inject something or drain blood. Some vets reported that necropsy had indicated that some animals had a form of ketamine (brand name Ketaset) in their systems, but these instances didn’t always tally with the puncture wounds.

Experiments with Ketaset were performed with some calves to measure the effects of the drug and it was determined that certain dosages could have been used to render the animal vulnerable, but alive, for periods of time.

Although it isn’t absolutely stated, it is clear that some of the animals were mutilated while still alive, which is a disturbing fact that has been noted in other clusters.

One of the other interesting facts about the Montana mutilations of this period were the large number of calves that were affected, and according to observant ranchers, many of the mutilations occurred near water sources, ponds, creeks, watering tanks.

In one instance, two calves disappeared and were later found mutilated, albeit in different ways. One had been apparently dropped into a pond and pulled out of it prior to death and mutilation—there were clear drag marks from the water indicating that—although no obvious footprints. In this instance, the calf’s eyes were protruding, an ear had been removed and rectum surgically removed.

The other calf, lying nearby, had been incised in exactly the same fashion as is used to perform a C-section on a birthing cow in distress. The uterus and ovaries had been removed and the intestines were protruding from the wound.

In yet another case, a bull calf was found alone close to a remote water tank on the property. The right hind leg had been cleanly cut off in a circular manner right through the bone, yet there was no trace of bone dust or evidence of any kind of saw.

When the rancher turned the calf over, he found that an internal organ (it doesn’t say which one) which had been removed, was on the ground and the calf had apparently been turned over and laid on top of it, which crushed it. The animals sex organs were missing completely, except that the scrotal sack had been left in place.

In still another odd case, a heifer who had just given birth was found dead and mutilated. Her calf was missing and was never located.

And finally, another heifer who had given birth was found with two mutilated calves, one of which was newly born, and still alive having had its tongue and part of its lip removed (poor little one). The mother of this wounded calf was missing and never found. Neither of the calves belonged to the heifer and her calf remained missing.

In some of these cases there were tire tracks, horse tracks, or strange vehicles and people seen in the area. Although carrion flies are present on many of the animals in Mystery (present in the photos), a number of the reports also indicate that normal large carrion eaters appeared to avoid consuming mutilated animals.

In many instances, other cows in the area surrounding the carcasses were “listless,” disturbed or easily spooked in a manner unusual for them.

The second half of the book examines some prominent theories and other reported anomalies, and at this remove, these accounts read like everything we’ve heard before, except this is one of the first time all these narrative components are present.

Montana law enforcement did come across evidence of a neo-pagan group (which they call a cult) operating in the area, and there are photos of the ceremonial circle that was examined by investigators. However, there was no evidence of sacrifice or blood-letting in the circle itself, and they were unable to find any specific person connected to the site.

Other reports are described as well, the now familiar unmarked black helicopters, unidentified nocturnal lights and Bigfoot like creatures. None of these is an explanation, however.

Is it possible that some of these cattle deaths were the result of predation. Of course. But all of them? There were very few predators left in the Northern plains of Montana in the 1970’s (wolves, bears and cougar would have been native), and those that remained or persisted (such as coyote) kill in easily identifiable patterns.

Ranchers and farmers are accustomed to dealing with animal deaths because they often have to be reported to insurance carriers. Determining the manner of death often determines whether or not there will be a payout for the loss or how much that payout will be, so it’s important that the death be explained. Unexplained deaths may mean a complete financial loss for the animal.

This is why cattle rustling is dealt with pretty severely. Most Americans don’t know that there is, in fact, a special division of law enforcement that deals specifically with cattle deaths. If they are stumped about these deaths, then there’s something that’s stumping them.

That’s were Mystery Stalks The Prairie leaves us. Later works, such as that undertaken by LMH and Chris O’Brien and David Perkins attempt to develop some larger patterns.

One of these is tying mutilations to military installations. When you look at some of the maps produced by Perkins, as reproduced in Stalking the Herd, at first glance, it does appear that there may be a link. The problem emerges when one realizes that many mutilations have occurred in areas where there is no clear military deployment (as in the recent cases out of Oregon).

There have also been attempts to link cattle mutilation clusters to areas of radioactive fallout that were tied to underground testing of nuclear weapons both for military experimentation and as part of Project Plowshare, that bizarre program which attempted to use nuclear weapons for “peaceful means,” such as fracking.

When I did a careful analysis of the fallout patterns connected to Plowshare and overlaid them with reported cattle mutilations over time, there was only very general correlation that could be the result of any number of other factors.

In fact, some of the central counties involved in mutilations, such as Cascade Co in Montana, Alamosa Co in Colorado (home of San Luis Valley), and more presently Saline Co in Kansas, actually have been affected very little by the long lasting Thorium outloads characteristic of those nuclear explosions, which ended in the early 1970’s anyway.

I also did a careful analysis of the possible relationship between fracking and cattle mutilations and nada on that score as well. If there was a relationship here, then Texas would lead the way in mutilations, and it doesn’t.

In fact, the overall paucity of Texas cattle mutilations relative to the size of the cattle herds in Texas is part of what led the FBI to conclude that most such mutilations were principally caused by misidentified predation with a minority the result of human behavior toward whatever purpose—illegal, but not alien or “paranormal.”

There still remains the question of whether cattle mutilations are actually tied to other types of animal mutilation that are unusual, but don’t make the news generally because of the “kinds” of animals involved.

Fortunately, LMH does report on some of these other types of animal mutilations, because of her affection for animals generally, and what is interesting is that they also seem to happen in clusters and involve very specific, non-predatory types of behavior.

One example is the “half-cat” phenomenon that seems to pop up in odd places, affecting a neighborhood or community and then disappearing.

When one actually sees what happens to these animals, it is clearly not normal predation. Animals are cut cleanly in half, organs surgically removed, wounds are often bloodless and then the halves, or half are clearly left in places where the animal will be found.

This phenomenon has happened in various parts of the U.S. over the last several decades, in London, and several locations in Australia and South America. Interestingly, Texas communities have been targets off and on for many years. Few cattle mutilations, but lots of half-cats.

In New York, we have periodic incidents involving rabbits. In several cases I’m aware of several rabbits –often at a time-- have been found in closed, locked cages, completely and cleanly decapitated. In each, the caging material was too small to have permitted anything to reach in and do the act and then retrieve the heads.

There is also a kind of unspoken understanding among many hunters in the Hudson Valley that they may come across deer or other game carcasses that have been mutilated in the same manner as cattle in other places (i.e. no evidence of predation, surgical serrated cuts, stripped muzzles, organs missing, lack of blood, etc.).

Bigfoot investigator Gayle Beatty and Fortean investigator, Bruce Hallenbeck have both encountered such reports themselves, involving the mysterious deaths of deer, wild rabbits and in one instance a coyote.

What is my interest in all of this?

I turned 12 in 1973. My family had moved back to the Midwest after a sojourn in Tennessee and we were living in Olathe, Kansas, right at, what was then, the northern edge of town. Much of the surrounding area was still rural.

My family was in turmoil at the time—and eventually, my parents would divorce over the their part of the conflicts. But what I most remember about that time were three very strange experiences, and I didn’t realize the significance of any of them until much later.

One was my sighting of what I now know is called a pseudo-star. I had become interested in trying to recognize constellations, bright fixed stars and the principal planets through the seasons and had just learned several, like Orion, Gemini, Cassiopeia, Sirius, Mars, Venus and Jupiter, and of course the dippers and Polaris.

Being in Kansas, I often had access to the big sky, and there was less light pollution then. We often traveled to my grandparent’s farm in Jefferson Co, where I stayed for lengthy periods.

One evening in 1973 my parents were driving my brother and I home after one of these visits. I really didn’t want to go home because the atmosphere was like a battleground between them.

At one point on the drive, we stopped at small gas station on the way for a pit stop or something. I went outside to see what constellations I could see—and was identifying Orion when I noticed what seemed like an extra star on the “belt.”

Just as I was wondering to myself if I’d miscounted how many stars were the belt, the “extra” star suddenly brightened, shot a little to the right, and then moved in an jiggle up and down fashion before suddenly shooting left and almost instantly disappearing (thought it might have shot straight up).

I cannot explain it, but it really felt like it was saying “hi”—even though I wondered if anyone else in my vicinity had seen it (like in the neighborhood). There were no reports, but that doesn’t mean anything as we know.

I was a bit unnerved by this—because I had no idea what it might mean, or if I had just been imagining things.

A few weeks later (this had happened in the early Spring—maybe March) the local papers began to report on several mysterious cattle deaths which were being reported in the area.

There were rumors that the animals had been killed by “cultists” and law enforcement were encouraging local farmers to report anything else unusual (although no one was ever identified or ever even questioned to my knowledge).

One of the reported mutilations had occurred on a farm just down the road from my house, only a couple of days previous. I decided to sneak over take a look.

In retrospect, it was kind of strange how I even found the animal. I just had the name of the farm, no idea of where she actually was. I just got on my bike, rode to where the edge of the property was, hid the bike, and crawled through a couple of fences.

I walked only about 100 yards in and there she was, in an isolated brushy open area surrounded by woods, apparently not where she, or any of the other cows normally pastured.

I knew I was trespassing, so figured I’d have to look quickly and carefully, memorizing what I could in my head. I didn’t have a clear idea that cattle mutilations “were a thing.” After all this was 1973, kind of early. But I wanted to see what had exercised farmers so much that they felt like they had to call the police.

I mean, I’d spent lots of time on a cattle raising farm and had seen my own share of dead/killed cows. There was the mother who’d dropped her calf during an ice storm, stumbled in the process and fell into a ravine breaking her neck. Grandpa had found her when he’d gone out looking for her in that same storm—he’d had to put her down and had saved her calf, which we helped raise by hand feeding her.

There was one breeding cow that had been attacked by something in the pasture, probably a group of coyotes, that grandpa similarly had to put down and another that had been hit by lightning during a thunderstorm. I had seen the effects of flies, and carrion eaters and even wind and rain on a carcass.

Anyone who’s been around cows and helped raise them comes to know and understand some of these things. I developed a deep affection for them and their sturdy common sense and often very wise way of being in the world.

What I saw when I snuck onto that farmer’s property was unlike anything else I’d ever seen.

First, the cow was splayed out in a very unnatural fashion—her legs akimbo, as if she had fallen from somewhere. The ground around her was very muddy, and there were footprints around—those of the farmer and law enforcement.

But there were no animal prints, no coyotes, and no buzzards circling. There were also no bottle flies, no insects at all on her (this was late May/early June and the weather was warm and muggy and had been for days).

There was also no smell (which by that time would have been very obvious) and no bloating (very unusual). By that time in my life, I was VERY familiar with the smells of decomp and putrefaction.

She was lying on her right side. Her left eye was missing, deeply cut out. Her left ear was missing. I couldn’t tell about her tongue. There was no apparent blood on the ground, which by that time would have been a stinking dark black pool. Her rectum was cored out and it looked like something had been done to her udder but she was partially laying on it.

Most disturbing to me though were two diamond shaped -marks which had been cut or incised into her exposed side through the hide. The edges were serrated and looked like brands—except that the hide had been removed as if a hot cookie cutter had burned right through her flesh and removed the chunks. You could see the meat underneath.

The lack of flies, the silence of the scene, the whole situation just made my skin crawl. There was something about it that had “meaning” other than the simple death of a cow.

I think it’s because of that obvious sense of “meaning” that has led to all the speculation about what might be going on.

I remember just suddenly getting a chill and realizing I wanted to get out there, and not just because I might be caught. I ran back, got through the fences, jumped on my bike and rode home as quickly as possible.

I had no idea who had done this to the cow. But it was a “who” and it was for some reason.

About a week later I was home alone in the evening and went outside to look at the sunset. We’d had some summer storms and I knew that the colors would be pretty. I noticed a bright light in the West, and assumed it was Mercury or one of the other planets.

Until I noticed it was under the clouds and quite closer to me than I’d originally thought.

Then I thought it was probably a plane—reflecting off the fading sunlight. All of a sudden it changed color from white to a deep red, flared and shot to the left. It looked like it was either getting bigger or closer, I couldn’t tell which.

And because I couldn’t tell, I started to get uncomfortable with it—and decided I should go inside, just in case it was something I didn’t want to deal with. Literally as soon as I made that mental decision, it shot up a little bit in the sky, turned a very obvious green and just faded out—right there.

I went in the house and locked the door. And to this day, I have no idea whether the lights I witnessed that year have/had anything to do with the cattle mutilation I saw—or whether I just happened to have all these things happen the same year.

And, to this day, I have no idea what animal or cattle mutilations are about, who does them or what the meaning of them might be. I do like how Chris O’Brien examines the history of how cows are seen in the West and in the U.S., in particular, as one approach to understanding the symbolic element that might be present in cattle mutilations.

At the same time, symbolism aside, cows, and other animals, are very much living, physical creatures that are apparently getting caught up in one way or another with the strange, unknown “games” and narratives that humans (and perhaps others?) play.

It bothers me profoundly that animals are sometimes disturbed and harmed by this unknown crap, in the same fashion that we test, consume and use many of them every day.

And no, don’t get righteous on me, I haven’t eaten beef for over 25 years. I know too much about the beef industry to participate in it any longer, even though I think small level, local farmers can be very ethical about their meat production.

Cattle/animal mutilations, which are actually quite distinguishable from normal predation, mean something. Someday I hope to know what they are all about, and who is trying to send that message.

Linda Moulton Howe's latest YouTube installments on Cattle Mutilations and here and here

A truly bizarre 2021 mutilation in Oregon

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