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The Dare

CONSPIRACY USA: Cattle Mutilation in Popular Media, Pt. 1

“Is it ‘saucers, Satanists, or CIA?’: All have received accusing glances as the mutilations investigation has proceeded. The ‘answers’ may lie with any of these—or with all—or with none.”

~ Thomas R. Adams, Project Stigmata, March 1978

The image that comes to mind when someone utters (udders?) “cattle mutilation” is typically little green men beaming cows into spaceships. Maybe a joke gets thrown in about rednecks and probes. If you ask someone to name an example on film or TV, they’ll say The X-Files (1993) or, if they’re old enough, Sightings (1992)—shows which featured mutilations but where mutilations were not the feature. TV casts a long shadow over the UFO phenomenon because of how ubiquitous spaceships have been on cable programming for decades.

The films covering the various fields of study under ufology (and cattle mutilation in specific) are less talked about. This is in part because they’re fewer in number than their TV counterparts, but also because specific fields like mutology, or the study of cattle mutilation, only briefly captured the public’s attention.1 Academics were quick to dismiss it as mass delusion. Writers at coastal newspapers mocked it as tabloid fodder. 

But just as movies can be an Empathy Machine so too are they a divining rod for our fears. They make manifest those things we don’t understand about ourselves and those things we’ve yet to recognize in others. Cattle mutilation is the perfect example of this because it was an expression of changing values. It was a harbinger of growing discontent with and distrust of government. More than any of that, it was an example of how the rational can transform into the irrational, undefined fears given shape in the phantasmagoric and conspiratorial.


Lady/Snippy, (1967)

WHERE HAVE ALL THE COWS GONE?

The first acknowledged case of animal mutilation occurred in September 1967. An Alamosa, Colorado, resident named Harry King was tending to a relative’s horse, an Appaloosa named Lady when one day it didn’t return. He investigated and found the horse dead, its face and neck stripped of flesh. King claimed in interviews that the precision of the mutilation “was so perfect it could not have been made with a knife.”2 Soon thereafter, a Superior Court Judge from Denver alleged that he saw “three reddish-orange rings in the sky that maintained a triangular formation” in the same 24-hour period in which Lady died.3

Lady’s mutilation quickly spread to local news media and the story took on a life of its own. Articles began appearing via the AP Wire on or after October 5, 1967, identifying the horse as “Snippy” and connecting its death to flying saucers. An October 5th story in The Amarillo Globe-Times asked, “Did a flying saucer kill and skin Snippy?”;4 another in the Austin American-Statesmen claimed definitively “Horse Loses Skin to ‘Saucer’ Visitors.”5 Further stories reported on the mysterious outcome of the horse’s autopsy and speculated why aliens might want to mutilate the carcass.

Lady/Snippy was a sign of things to come. In late 1973 and early 1974, stories reporting on the mutilation of cattle in states ranging from Nebraska to Kansas began appearing in local papers in both states. No one was quite sure what was happening. Nebraska State Senator John DeCamp—who would later go on to write The Franklin Cover-up, an alleged expose on Satanic pedophiles infiltrating high levels of government—contacted the Nebraska Attorney General to investigate, stating, “Whoever or whatever they are, come flying out of the sky at night with mysterious spotlights.”6

Reports of cattle mutilation peaked from late 1974 through 1975, with cases popping up everywhere from South Dakota to Texas. In every example, ranchers agreed mutilation occurred with surgical precision, flesh removed cleanly from the bone in circular patterns, and that the culprits targeted only sex organs and soft tissue. Where they couldn’t find common ground was in what caused the deaths. In January 1975, Minnesota ufologist Terry Mitchell argued that mutilations in the state were the result of UFOs beaming high-energy rays at the cows;7 and the following month, John Dunn, President of Oklahoma’s Cattlemen’s Association, attributed dead cattle to a cultic sacrifice for the “Equinox of Panda.”8 By July things had gotten even weirder. Dane Edwards, publisher of a Colorado paper The Brush Banner, began running regular stories on the subject focusing on black helicopters absconding off with heifers in the dark of night. This culminated in an October 1975 interview with another Colorado paper in which Edwards claimed the mutilations were part of a government program dating back to 1961.9

The mysterious deaths coupled with other strange occurrences put ranchers on edge. As early as 1974 there were reports of interactions between ranchers and the mutilators, but in July of that year, a man in Honey Creek, Iowa, claimed an unmarked helicopter had opened fire on him.10 So by 1975, the ranchers had had enough. In September, groups in Colorado began stockpiling weapons and forming posses to stand watch over cattle.11 Some went as far as to fire upon government survey helicopters working in areas near their land.12

And then just as mysteriously, the reports of mutilations themselves began dying off. News coverage of dead cattle decreased in 1976 and 1977, picking up again at the end of the decade, and then wavering off and on throughout the eighties and nineties. Where did the cows go? Home video. Once the provenance of news media, depictions of cattle mutilation transitioned to feature and documentary films to mixed results.


The Return (1980)

DEAD MILKMEN

Early depictions of cattle mutilation in feature films came in the form of low-budget horror and science fiction movies attempting to cash-in on more popular Hollywood hits. Nightwing (1979) ignored all previous theories to suggest that the mutilations were the result of a ravaging band of vampire bats, placing it closer to Jaws (1975) and its many imitators like Grizzly (1976) and Tentacles (1977) than any other cattle mutilation film that would come later. Similarly, The Return (1980) was an odd hybrid of Southern comedy and Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) style sci-fi mystery. Jan-Michael Vincent and Cybill Shepherd star as childhood friends reunited years after a UFO abduction to solve a series of grisly cattle deaths.

This trend would continue as the eighties progressed. Critters (1986), owing some of its success to Gremlins (1984), featured a passing reference to cattle mutilation early in the film when the Crites, a species of furry, foul-mouthed aliens, are first discovered feasting on a cow. This scene is the only time we see the subject mentioned, as unlike Nightwing and The Return, Critters isn’t about dead cows. The film bounces through tabloid tropes as it aims to riff on the popularity of UFOs and sci-fi films.

The only other science-fiction film from the era to cover the subject of mutilations, the aptly-titled Mutilations (1986), is also the most interesting because it’s the one that least resembles anything to come out of Hollywood. The film is an odd mix of amateurish acting, Ray Harryhausen-indebted stop-motion animation, and Book of Mormon sermonizing. It follows an astronomy professor and his students on a field trip as they encounter a mutilated cow. They immediately come under attack by a UFO and attempt to flee, but as they’re wont to do, shotgun-toting good ol’ boys arrived to save the day. It somehow turns then into Night of the Living Dead (1968), but with aliens, underground tunnels, and a weirdo quoting LDS scripture.

None of these films offered much in the way of an explanation for the phenomena. They were content to cash-in on the mystery of cattle deaths. The first feature to deal with the subject in a serious way was one which dove head-first into the various conspiracy theories surrounding the deaths.

Endangered Species (1982)

THE GREAT SATAN AT LARGE

Endangered Species (1982) wasn’t well-received upon release, in the fall of 1982. New York Times critic Vincent Canby described the film’s plot as “fearlessly torn from the headlines of your favorite supermarket tabloid,”13 and Eric Fielding of The Daily Herald out of Provo, Utah, went a step farther by comparing it to The National Enquirer and labeling the movie “dishonest and far-fetched.”14 Probably because of the bad reviews, Endangered Species didn’t fare well at the box-office and disappeared to the dead zone of late-night cable. What kind of film could draw that much negative press?

Robert Urich stars as Ruben Castle, a retired New York City cop. Like his cinematic peers of the era, Castle is the kind of no-bullshit, uncouth cop who hates crime more than he cares for the law. He left the force because, in his words, “I like to catch bad guys and kick the shit out of them.” That doesn’t jive with modern judges who treat the legal system like a revolving door, so, at the request of his newspaper-publisher friend (and Dane Edwards stand-in) Joe Hiatt (Paul Dooley), Castle packs up his belongings and moves himself and his belligerent teenage daughter (Marin Kanter) to a trailer park in Colorado. There, he and Hiatt investigate the strange deaths of local cattle alongside the town’s sheriff, Harriet Perdue (JoBeth Williams). They encounter interference from Ben Morgan, head of the Cattlemen’s Association (Hoyt Axton), and a secretive group of government agents.

What separates Endangered Species from other films depicting cattle mutilation is its tone. It owes more to the conspiracy thrillers of the seventies like The Parallax View (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975). While it does contain moments of suspense, from an intense, pulsing Tangerine Dream-esque soundtrack by “Dream Weaver” musician Gary Wright to its mutilated carcasses and bloody deaths, the film is more focused on what lurks behind the scares. It’s a Big Picture movie directing its anger at a specific target.

To that end, the film barrels through suggestions of the paranormal in search of “the truth.” It hints at UFOs but this is cast aside as we realize the lights in the sky are black helicopters. We’re also led to believe the mutilations could be the work of Satanists, only to find The Great Satan responsible isn’t the one from the Bible. When Castle and Perdue catch a pair of cultists torching a barn, a lawyer appears out of nowhere, setting off their suspicions. It becomes clear something nefarious is going on when Joe Hiatt dies. Turns out Morgan, head of the Cattlemen’s Association, has struck a deal with the U.S. government to allow them to conduct biochemical weapons testing for a new strain of Clostridium Botulinum on the cattle.

The film itself is well-made and far better than critics’ dismissals would lead you to believe, making it one of the better conspiracy thrillers from a cinematic standpoint. The film surprises in many ways—not in the least because of the “accuracy” of its research. Issue 19 of Project Stigmata, a contemporaneous newsletter devoted to reporting on “the continuing investigation into the occurrence of animal mutilations” offered cautious praise for the film, noting that it far exceeded expectations in its handling of the subject of mute deaths. (The newsletter’s author, Thomas R. Adams, also suggested the film’s distributor MGM may have tanked its release on purpose because it had recently elected former Secretary of State Gen. Alexander Haig to its board.15) This is what makes Endangered Species fascinating: it explores a number of conspiracy theories in an authentic manner while also pointing towards tensions that wouldn’t be fully realized until decades later.

Rage (1972)

DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE

The theories found in Endangered Species wouldn’t have been too shocking by 1982, especially to ranchers in the Western United States. For much of the second half of the 20th-century, the United States divested land obtained during Manifest Destiny to state control through the act of homesteading.16 This ended in 1976 with the passage of the Federal Land Policy and Management Act, which asserted public ownership of lands in Western states and put an end to land transfers. The FLPMA was unpopular among ranchers and ignited conflicts between local groups and the federal government over grazing rights. Hostilities fomented into a movement known as the Sagebrush Rebellion as ranchers lobbied state legislators to reassert state control over land.17 But these concerns also became linked to other more fantastic fears expressed by the public as much of the land maintained in Western states served military and training purposes.

Between 1961 and 1977, the United States government tested nuclear weapons on American soil. Named Project Plowshare, the program consisted of 27 smaller tests with names like Gnome, Gasbuggy, and Rulison; all but one of the tests happened in the Western states of Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, and New Mexico.18 (Coincidentally, states which had among the highest reported cases of cattle mutilations.) From the beginning, the program was unpopular. It presented a number of public-facing concerns, from a generalized fear of nuclear weapons post-World War II to ecological issues connected to their use. This wasn’t without merit: Project Sedan, a nuclear test conducted at the Nevada Test Site on July 6, 1962, dropped nuclear fallout on surrounding states like Iowa and Nebraska.19 Areas near early test sites also reported issues like tritiated water and blighted land.20 The government discontinued Project Plowshare at the tail end of cattle mutilation mania, in 1977, after public backlash over fears of further contamination.

At the same time, the government was conducting open-air biochemical weapons tests on U.S. soil near ranchers. One incident, in particular, stands out—in 1968, ranchers near the Dugway Proving Grounds, a U.S. Army chemical weapons testing facility in Tooele County, Utah, reported their animals dying under unusual circumstances. Between March 14th and March 17th, 6,000 animals (mostly sheep) died in convulsive fits from asphyxiation.21 Early reports highlighted the fact that no one, including the Army, knew the cause. A March 21, 1968, article out of The Ogden Standard-Examiner stated that Army germ warfare officials from Dugway even tested the soil for nitrates to determine the nature of the “mysterious poison” that killed the sheep.22 Army officials denied any responsibility; on April 18, 1968, the Army issued a press release acknowledging evidence may appear to suggest their involvement but argued it was circumstantial and could not definitively show a link.23 It would be another 30 years before the Army admitted open-air tests of a deadly nerve agent, VX, were being conducted near ranchers in the same period the deaths occurred.24 Despite this admission, the Army still refused to take responsibility for any casualties.25 (The Dugway incident would also inspire at least one other film, George C. Scott’s Rage [1972].)

These events connected to larger stories nationally. As part of the 1975 Church Committee hearings on abuses committed by the Central Intelligence Agency, Army scientist Charles Senseney testified that in 1966 the Army had dropped a light bulb containing a bacterium, Bacillus atrophaeus, on the New York City subway while passengers rode the line as part of a test to see how biological weapons might spread.26 Those same hearings also revealed the extent of the CIA’s MKUltra program which involved everything from dosing unsuspecting johns in CIA-run brothels to experiments conducted in Canada on patients diagnosed with schizophrenia incorporating electroconvulsive therapy and sensory deprivation.


Robert Urich and JoBeth Willaims in Endangered Species

IN THE REAL WORLD

One of the questions that comes up when discussing the government’s alleged involvement in cattle mutilation is: why? Why would they do it? Why wouldn’t they buy the cattle from ranchers and conduct tests away from the public’s view? Near the end of Endangered Species, Ben Morgan confronts the military official (Peter Coyote) in charge of the cattle mutilation program. Morgan demands the military leave town, but he’s rebuked: the military has spent years looking for the proper conditions to simulate a biochemical attack on Moscow. Much like the NYC subway test, the cows are a vessel to spread the bacteria to the town’s population to see how real people would react in such a situation. Morgan persists so he too becomes a victim of the test.

Movies like Endangered Species reveal a simple truth: irrational fears can mutate out of rational concerns. Conflicts with the government over land rights and military tests may have led ranchers to believe the government responsible for the cattle deaths. This fear of the government started as a general resentment harbored in fantastic claims of UFOs but would branch off into more serious resistance. The Sagebrush Rebellion inspired Cliven Bundy and his family to begin pushing back against conservation efforts by the Bureau of Land Management.27 The near 25-year conflict turned into an armed dispute between the Bundy family and federal agents at Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016.

There are other “rational” explanations as well. In 1972, just before the cattle mutilation craze kicked off, the price of feed for cattle jumped due to the United States government sending emergency supplies of grain to famine-wracked African and Asian nations.28 Some researchers have suggested the high cost of grain combined with a struggling U.S. economy may have led some ranchers to kill their own cattle and/or misreport natural deaths as cattle mutilation to collect insurance on their herds.29

However, these examples don’t explain why such claims have persisted throughout the decades since the first mutilated cattle appeared. As recently as 2019, ranchers were still perplexed by the causes of cattle mutilations among their herds, yet no ranchers reporting these claims connect the deaths to the government.30 The United States may be guilty of a great many things but killing cows no longer appears to be one of them.

So, if not the government, then who? Are there other possibilities outside of those explored in Endangered Species? Could someone (or something) else be killing cattle—and if so, why?


1 Stewart, James R. “Cattle Mutilation: An Episode of Collective Delusion.” The Zetetic, vol. 1, no. 2, 1977, pp. 64-65.
2 “Autopsy Adds To Mystery of Alamosa Horse’s Death.” The Daily Sentinel [Grand Junction, CO], 09 Oct. 1967, p. 1.
3 Lobato, Sylvia. “After 50 years, Snippy still a mystery.” Alamosa Valley Courier [Alamosa, CO], 07 Sep. 2017. alamosanews.com/article/after-50-years-snippy-still-a-mystery.
4 Hitch, Mack. “Great Dead-Horse Mystery.” The Amarillo Globe-Times [Amarillo, TX], 05 Oct. 1967, p. 1.
5 “Horse Loses Skin to ‘Saucer’ Visitors.” The Austin American-Statesman [Austin, TX], 05 Oct. 1967, p. A1.
6 “DeCamp Asks Probe Into Cattle Mutilations.” The Lincoln Star [Lincoln, NE]. 27 Aug. 1974. p. 22.
7 Sanders, Ed. “The Mutilation Mystery.” Oui Magazine, Sep. 1976, p. 52.
8 Ellis, Bill. Raising the Devil: Satanism, New Religions, and the Media. University Press of Kentucky, 2000, pp. 245-246.
9 Beedle, Heidi. “The Mutilators.” Colorado Springs Indy, 27 Nov. 2019,
https://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/colorados-cattle-mutilation-history-and-the-journalist-who-wouldnt-let-it-go/.
10 Sanders, Oui Magazine, p. 51.
11 Stumbo, Bella. “Mutilations of Cattle: Terror in Colorado.” The Los Angeles Times, 11 Sep. 1975, p. 3.
12 Ellis, Raising the Devil, pp. 252-253.
13 Canby, Vincent. “Topical Suspense.” The New York Times, 5 Nov. 1982,
https://www.nytimes.com/1982/11/05/movies/topical-suspense.html.
14 Fielding, Eric. “Endangered Species.” The Daily Herald [Provo, UT], 16 Sep. 1982, p. 26.
15 Adams, Thomas R. “Endangered Species: The Movie That Not Everyone Is Talking About.” Project Stigmata, Fourth Quarter 1982, p. 7.
16 Bui, Quoctrung, and Margot Sanger-Katz. “Why the Government Owns So Much Land in the West.” The New York Times, 5 Jan. 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/06/upshot/why-the-government-owns-so-much-land-in-the-west.html.
17 Goleman, Michael J. “Wave of Mutilation: The Cattle Mutilation Phenomenon of the 1970s.” Agricultural History, vol. 85, no. 3, 2011, pp. 400-401.
18 United States Department of Energy, Office of Science and Technical Information. “Executive Summary: Plowshare Program.” https://www.osti.gov/opennet/reports/plowshar.pdf.
19 “6 July 1962: Sedan – Massive Crater, Massive Contamination.” Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization, https://www.ctbto.org/specials/testing-times/6-july-1962-sedan-massive-crater-massive-contamination.
20 Sovacool, Bejamin K. Contesting the Future of Nuclear Power: A Critical Global Assessment of Atomic Energy. World Scientific, 2011, pp. 171-172.
21 Woolf, Jim. “Army: Nerve Agent Near Dead Utah Sheep in ’68; Feds Admit Nerve Agent Near Sheep.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 1 Jan. 1998, p. 3, http://pbadupws.nrc.gov/docs/ML003729062.pdf.
22 “Cause of Sheep Deaths Eludes Experts.” The Ogden Standard-Examiner [Ogden, UT], 21 Mar. 1968, p. 12A.
23 Hersh, Seymour. “The Secret Arsenal; Chemical and biological weapons.” The New York Times, 25 Aug. 1968,
https://www.nytimes.com/1968/08/25/archives/the-secret-arsenal-chemical-and-biological-weapons-.html.
24 Wolf, Salt Lake Tribune, pp. 3-5.
25 Wolf, Salt Lake Tribune, p. 4.
26 United States. Congress. Senate, Church Committee. Volume 1: Unauthorized Storage of Toxic Agents, pp. 173-175, http://www.aarclibrary.org/publib/church/reports/vol1/pdf/ChurchV1_6_Senseney.pdf.
27 Fuller, Jamie. “The long fight between the Bundys and the federal government.” The Washington Post, 12 Apr. 2014, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/04/15/everything-you-need-to-know-about-the-long-fight-between-cliven-bundy-and-the-federal-government/.
28 Goleman, Agricultural History, p. 401.
29 Stewart, The Zetetic, p. 65.
30 “5 bulls found dead in Oregon; then the story gets weird.” NBC News, 2 Oct. 2019,
https://www.nbcnews.com/news/animal-news/5-bulls-found-dead-oregon-then-story-gets-weird-n1061421.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Robert Skvarla

Robert Skvarla is a freelance writer from Philadelphia. His focuses include conspiracy culture, fringe communities, and new religious movements. He has written for Atlas Obscura, Philadelphia City Paper, and Cinepunx, and served as a programmer for the Cinedelphia Film Festival.

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