The Blaine County Journal News-Opinion - We've Got The County Covered

Cattle mutilations: Biggest animal cold case file in the nation?


December 11, 2019

This photo was taken just a couple of hours after the carcass was first discovered at 3U Cattle Company south of Whitlash. Rancher Bob Thompson said, "I initially thought the carcass was one of my calves. It turned out to be a yearling, but not one of ours. The rear half of the animal was missing, cut away with a very precise cut. The tongue and lungs were also gone along with the rear half." In the foreground is a pelvic bone and some vertebrae, found about 90 feet from the carcass and still sticky. No other missing animal parts were found. To the west is Gold Butte.

Columnist's note: I'd heard of cattle mutilations but when we moved to the Sweet Grass Hills (about this time a year ago) I began to learn about the specifics of these mysterious happenings. Bob Thompson and his family operate the 3U Cattle Ranch south of Whitlash. As we got to know the family our conversations turned to a cattle mutilation on their ranch in the summer of 2018. They had photos to document the carcass of a yearling left in one of their pastures. The photos were, well, weird and a bit unnerving.

In the meantime I dug out and read a book about mutilations in our region given to me some time ago. "Mystery Stalks the Prairie" documents an uptick in reported cattle mutilations that occurred in and around Cascade County from August 1974-1976. The authors, Roberta Donovan and Keith Wolverton, wrote the book to share information about the mysterious events hoping a cause might be discovered. Donovan was a reporter for a Lewistown newspaper and Wolverton was a former Cascade County Sheriff's deputy who helped investigate the more than 100 mutilations reported to the sheriff's office during that period. In the mid-1970's an uptick in mutilations occurred all over cattle country in the western states.

That's how I got interested in the topic and here's some of what I learned about cattle mutilations in north central Montana and one specific one in the Sweet Grass Hills.

Some background about

cattle mutilations

Though cattle are most commonly targeted, some of the earliest documented mutilations involved sheep and occurred in the environs of London in the early 17th century. Up to 100 sheep would be found slaughtered with the tallow (fat) and "inward organs" missing, carcasses and fleece still on the ground.

Not much was said of mutilations in the U.S. until 1967 when a mutilation of a horse in Colorado was national news and gave rise to the popular notion that some "creatures from outer space might be responsible." Before that popularized case the knowledge of mutilations was mostly confined to cattle-raising areas. A statistic I found in several places states "10,000 reported cases of livestock mutilations were reported since 1967." However, I could find no official tracking of livestock mutilations.

Increased reports of cattle mutilations occurred in the mid-1970's in areas from Oklahoma to Minnesota, including Montana. During this period in Montana many local governments created groups to investigate the mutilations. At one point Congress pushed the FBI to the search for explanations.

Each livestock mutilation is unique

but has common elements

According to observers in our area who've seen many mutilations, about 80-85% follow this common pattern: portion of the jaw is removed, sometimes an eye as well; the tongue is missing; there's no blood on the ground around the carcass and the animal's entire blood supply may be missing; sexual organs are nearly always removed and often other organs as well. An ear, or part of an ear, may also be missing. The process used to remove body parts is often described as "surgical-like" and, more recently, "like it was done with a laser." Cut marks may appear "serrated." On a few carcasses there were "two small puncture wounds" visible on a front leg. In some cases the hide had a "crisp" feel to it, like it was heated. Removed body parts are seldom found.

Locations of reported carcasses also have common elements. The mutilations often occur in a depression and out of sight of any house or road. The mutilations are usually on soft ground. Bob Thompson reported the carcass on his ranch was in an area still soft from flooding earlier in the spring. There are never any vehicle, human or predator tracks found near the carcass. Sounds of helicopters were sometimes heard in areas where mutilations occurred.

One Montana observer said, "Even the grass under the carcass looks different than if an animal had simply laid down." No mutilation has ever been seen and reported in progress. The majority of mutilations happen during the warmer months.

The mutilation at 3U Cattle Company year Whitlash: "Man, this is out of this world"-Bob Thompson

The mutilation at Thompson's ranch occurred in early June, 2018. While the mutilation was much like others, there were differences. The weather was mild but according to Thompson a fog was in place before the carcass was found. "The carcass," he explained, "was in an area my son and I had both worked just days before the mutilation." He estimated the carcass had been in place about 48 hours.

A major difference in this carcass was that the back half of the animal was missing as well as the lungs and tongue. Thompson said, "At first I thought maybe a bear had torn the rear portion off, having preyed on the animal in the fog." On closer inspection he saw the rear portion had been cut away about the floating rib location with a "very precise cut" that circled the carcass. He added, "It was weird that the animal had no smell of death and no flies were on the carcass initially."

It was a Sunday morning and some friends were coming to help move cows to a new pasture. The friends came back with Thompson to the site and they began to search and take photos. Bob said, "About 90 feet away we found a pelvic bone, some vertebrae and a couple of ribs. The bones were salmon colored and still sticky, with grass stuck on them. We couldn't find any other parts of the animal." Not sure about what might have caused the condition of the animal, Thompson remarked, "Man, it was not of this world."

Later, while moving the cows past the carcass Bob noted, "The cows would look toward the carcass but made no move to go inspect it." Some say predators will not bother a mutilated carcass. In the case of the 3U animal, Thompson said, "I saw some bird droppings on the carcass. Part of an ear was missing and I assumed the birds got that." He admitted the ear tip could also have been removed during the mutilation.

In the weirdest twist of this case, the animal turned out not to be a 3U Cattle animal. Bob Thompson said, "Later I got to thinking about how big that calf appeared. I counted my calves and they were all accounted for. The mutilated carcass was a yearling and that's why it seemed so big." A neighbor had earlier reported some yearlings missing but no connection was ever established.

So, what's the cause of livestock mutilations?

Bob Thompson, a rancher south of Whitlash, found this half carcass on his property in early June, 2018. Thompson's first thought was a bear had taken the animal. After seeing the precise way in which the animal had been cut in half and the tongue removed, he said, "Man, this was not of this world."

People who study the mutilations say some are clearly predator-caused, others appear to have human involvement and some are just inexplicable. One conjecture named a small variety of foxes with "razor sharp teeth" that could make the precise incisions. Buzzards and coyotes get some blame. The helicopter sounds, reported in some areas, caused some to think of a "government operation, maybe to do something related to the food chain or mad cow disease." Some events are attributed to cults, perhaps seeking body parts for rituals, or students doing pranks. The 1967 theory first attributing the mutilations to space aliens in UFO's is still around. Interestingly cattle mutilations seem similar the world over.

Bob Thompson summed the discussion of causes this way: "I was never a believer in UFO's or space aliens. However, this incident on our place makes me question if there is something not of this world involved in the mutilations. A friend of mine talks a lot about Bigfoot. Truthfully, I've even begun to look at that phenomenon in a new light." Meanwhile, no completely acceptable explanations of the mutilations are forthcoming.


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