Witch hunts & wildlife

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, November 1998:

Alleged sadists and Satanists were sought for purportedly stealing, killing and dismembering cats and dogs in at least nine states as Halloween 1998 approached. The supposed crimes drew sensational media coverage, lent emphasis to humane society warnings against letting pets run at large, and rewards of up to $10,000 were posted in some cases for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the killers.

An accurate description of the suspects, however, in all but a handful of the animal deaths and disappearances, would include either four legs and a tail, or wings, and none would be either werewolves or griffons.

Similar panics have developed each summer since the editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE began tracking them about 10 years ago. They coincide with the emergence of young foxes and coyotes from their mothers’ dens and with the first hunting by newly fledged raptors. The panics gain momentum approaching Halloween, as public attention to witches, ghouls, goblins, and other things that go bump in the night rises toward a crescendo. The panics virtually stop each year after
Halloween, however, distinctly unlike cases involving actual human sadism, which surge just before and after Christmas.

Trained to investigate human-inflicted cruelty, police detectives and humane officers typically have little background in  predator behavior. Veterinarians tend to expect –wrongly–that injuries done by coyotes, the most frequent wild predator of pets, will resemble those done by domestic dogs. Forensic evidence is thus misread by sincere people, acting in good faith, who incite witch-hunts at possible expense to professional credibility.

Marks of sadists

Human sadists tend to disable their victims by blinding them and/or by tying, breaking, or removing limbs. They then subject the victims to prolonged torture, often using fire or hot objects. They tend to focus on the face, especially the eyes, genitalia, and the anus. They often kill in a ritualistic manner, in which case the use of props such as candles or crosses may be evident. Often the remains are crucified. Dismemberments and disembowelings are characteristically bloody; the blood itself may be used to draw graffiti or symbols. If witnesses hear the victim, they will typically hear more than just a single cry.

Body parts removed from victims may include the ears, tails, genitals of male animals, and feet or claws. Internal organs of small animals are rarely if ever removed. Larger animals may be field-butchered, in essentially the same manner that a hunter field-butchers a deer.

Knife wounds made by sadists are typically crude, especially when they hack into bone. Sadists tend to do repetitive, frenzied stabbing, rather than clean cutting. Sadists do occasionally skin animals, after the manner of trappers, but–for the safety of the sadists, who also tend to be cowards–they usually begin only after the animal is dead and incapable of clawing or biting. Trappers use several different skinning techniques. They have in common that the initial incision is made from either a paw or a bodily orifice, and continues as far as possible in an unbroken line, avoiding any cut  across a marketable portion of the pelt. Even when the pelt is not to be sold, they tend to make the cuts of habit.

The ANIMAL PEOPLE files on thousands of cruelty cases indicate none in which a human sadist has been convicted of a crime against animals that was distinctively different in modus operandi from either sadistic crimes commonly committed against people, or routine hunting, trapping, and butchering practices.


Predators, in contrast to human sadists, are astonishingly quick and efficient. Except in instances when predators take
disabled but still living prey back to a den or nest to teach young how to kill their own food, predation victims tend to make little sound, if any, rarely even having time to know what hit them. Predators try to avoid wasting time and energy inflicting uncessary injuries. Their teeth and claws usually cut more cleanly than any knife. Predators don’t leave much blood behind: that’s food. If interrupted in mid-attack, they run or take flight with the parts they most want to eat. If able to eat at their leisure, they consume the richest organs, such as the heart, and leave what they don’t want.

Coyotes and foxes typically attack small prey such as cats and rabbits from behind and to one side, with a scissors-like jaw snap to the backbone and midsection which frequently cuts the victim in half. If startled, they tend to flee with the larger back half and whatever internal organs come along, leaving the head and forepaws. These are among the cases most often misread by investigators, who mistake the discovery of the head as an indication of ritualistic crime.

Coyotes have an entirely different attack pattern against prey larger than themselves, such as sheep and deer. Against these animals, they go for the throat and belly. They then consume the viscera first.

Cats, both wild and domestic, tend to leave inedible organs in a neat pile. Cats also have the habit of depositing carcasses, or parts thereof, at the doorsteps of other cats or humans they are courting. When cats kill much smaller animals, such as mice, they consume the whole remains, but when they kill animals of almost their own size, such as rabbits, they may leave behind heads, ears, limbs, and even much of the fur.

Tomcats, especially interlopers in another tom’s territory, often kill kittens. Instead of eating them, however,
kitten-killing toms sometimes play with the carcasses as they would with a mouse, then abandon the remains in an obvious place, possibly as a sign to both the mother and the dominant tom.

Coyotes, foxes, and both wild and domestic felines often dispatch prey who survive a first strike with a quick skull-crunching bite to the head. ANIMAL PEOPLE has resolved several panics over alleged sadists supposedly drilling mysterious parallel holes in the skulls of pets by suggesting that the investigators borrow some skulls of wild predators from a museum, to see how the mystery holes align with incisors.

Any common predator, but especially coyotes and raptors, may be involved in alleged “skinned alive” cases. The usual victims are dogs who–perhaps because parts of their bodies were hidden in tall grass–are mistaken for smaller prey. The predator holds on with teeth and/or claws while the wounded victim runs. The result is a set of sharp, typically straight cuts which investigators often describe as “filets.” The editor of ANIMAL PEOPLE once saw a cat
pounce and nearly skin a rabbit in such a case, and unable to intervene in time to prevent the incident, euthanized the victim. The attack occurred and ended within probably less than 30 seconds.

Raptors tend to be involved in cases where viscera are draped over cars, porches, trees, signs, and mailboxes: they take flight with their prey, or with a roadkill they find, and parts fall out. They return to retrieve what they lose only if it seems safe to do so.

Birds, especially crows, account for many cases in which eyes, lips, anuses, and female genitals are removed from fallen livestock. Sometimes the animals have been killed and partially butchered by rustlers. Others are victims of coyotes or eagles. The combined effects of predation and scavenging produce “mutilations” which may be attributed to Satanists or visitors from outer space, but except where rustlers are involved, there is rarely anything more sinister going on than natural predators making a living in their normal way.