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.