Rocky Mountains “Witch hunts & wildlife” panic is resolved

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, September 2003:

SALT LAKE CITY, DENVER– A 13-month two-state panic over
alleged cat mutilations by purported sadists officially ended on
August 1, 2003, when police chief Ricky Bennett of Aurora,
Colorado, told news media that, “There are definite signs and
markings that all were caused by predators.”
Twenty-nine of the 46 cats who were supposedly mutilated in
Colorado were found in Aurora, but the panic actually began after
the remains of a dozen cats with similar injuries were found in the
same Salt Lake City neighborhood from which Elizabeth Smart, 14,
was kidnapped on June 5, 2002.
Smart was recovered alive on March 12, 2003. David Brian
Mitchell, 49, and his wife, Wanda E. Barzee, 57, are charged
with kidnapping Smart from her Salt Lake City bedroom, raping her,
holding her prisoner until their capture, and attempting to kidnap
Smart’s 18-year-old cousin.
Mitchell’s stepson Mark Thompson, who helped bring Mitchell
to justice, told Newsweek that Mitchell had a history of cruelty to
animals “He shot our dog in front of us. He killed our bunny and
made us eat it,” Mitchell recalled.

But Mitchell was not named as a suspect in the Smart
kidnapping until shortly before his arrest, and none of the 58 cats
whose deaths were investigated in Salt Lake City and Denver actually
bore injuries resembling those typically inflicted by humans.
Summarized Denver Post staff writer Sheba R. Wheeler after
Chief Bennett’s press conference, held in his capacity as lead
investigator of the Colorado cases, “Puncture wounds, torn skin,
and a lack of visible bleeding found in 10 cats necropsied last week
were caused by attacks from foxes, coyotes, and some domesticated
dogs. Several also were killed by owls.”
Salt Lake County Animal Services chief Temma Martin cited
foxes, coyotes, raccoons, and owls in a similar announcement four
days earlier–375 days after ANIMAL PEOPLE told Martin and Salt Lake
City newspaper reporters that the descriptions of the wounds
indicated that “The predator could be a young coyote, a bobcat, a
Several cats found dead near a cemetery, ANIMAL PEOPLE said,
were more likely to have been killed by foxes or badgers, and some
cats might have been victims of hawks, owls, and eagles.
Forwarding forensic descriptions from the November 1998
ANIMAL PEOPLE article “Witch hunts & wildlife,” ANIMAL PEOPLE noted
that similar panics develop each summer in urban habitats that
attract wildlife. The panics typically 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, then virtually stop each year after Halloween,
distinctly unlike cases involving actual human sadism, Satanism,
and the practice of Santeria sacrifice, which surge just before and
after Christmas.
“Trained to investigate human-inflicted cruelty,” ANIMAL
PEOPLE explained, “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 cost to professional
ANIMAL PEOPLE provided similar information to Denver and
Aurora humane society directors, feral cat colony caretakers, and
news media after becoming aware of the Colorado investigation through
local news coverage published on Halloween 2002.
“Of course you were right,” Temma Martin e-mailed to ANIMAL
PEOPLE on July 30, 2003. “I’m sorry our investigation didn’t give
us this evidence sooner, but we have been leaning in this direction
for a while now. No one in our area is an expert in analyzing this
kind of case, so we were slow in gathering conclusive evidence. I
do hugely appreciate your information, though,” Martin continued,
“and have mentioned the predator theory in every interview I have
done with the media since last summer. They just didn’t choose to
focus on that angle. Unfortunately, it was not until we changed our
lead investigator that we got fully on the right track.”
The case was cracked, Martin said, by Lieutenant Troy Wood.
In June 2003 Wood found a fox den just about where ANIMAL PEOPLE
predicted one might be found on July 22, 2002.
“Hair and feces from the den were sent to a lab in Michigan
for analysis. The results showed cat hair in the feces around the
den and identified the hair on the ground as that of a fox. Lab
tests revealed fox hair beneath the claw of a dead cat found on the
Willowbrook Golf course in late June,” wrote Michael N. Westley of
The Salt Lake Tribune.
Humane investigators around the U.S. subsequently asked
ANIMAL PEOPLE to reprint “Witch hunts and wildlife.”
Letters-to-the-editor indicated that explicit details in the article
upset many readers, and it drew as strong a response when shared
with members of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “Witch
hunts and wildlife” will therefore not be reprinted, but will be
e-mailed or faxed on request, and is accessible on the ANIMAL PEOPLE
web site at <>.

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