December 17, 2009

Cattle Mutilations Return? Part 1

On Nov. 26, 2009  story moved on the AP wire (I know that is obsolete terminology. So sue me.) about "mysterious cattle mutilations."

Cattle mutilations in the San Luis Valley. Oh my, here we go again.

The San Luis Valley of southern Colorado has a reputation for "high strangeness." (Did I mention I was born there? It's true.)

Colorado was central to the "cattle mutilation" wave of the mid-1970s, which actually stretched from Alberta to New Mexico. But were cattle actually mutilated?

During that first "wave," my curiosity about it contributed to my desire to be a newspaper reporter. But by the time I actually was one, the "wave" was over, although I did write one retrospective story in the Colorado Springs Sun circa 1981.

My better piece, "Mutilation Madness," was published in Fate magazine in June 1988. It is not available online. Perhaps I should scan it.

But back to the 1970s ...

The "cattle mutilation" phenomenon, I decided, had two aspects: One was a failure of journalism. The other was observers' tendency to wrap a narrative around just a few shaky points of data. (More after the jump.)

From the journalism viewpoint, the whole thing had several problems:

  • It was rural.
  • It was non-standard, not fitting into any sports-crime-politics pigeonhole.
  • It was rural.
Therefore, it was not worth sending the A Team to do the story.  Instead, the job went to the newbie, to the person who sat in the far corner of the newsroom and did drudge jobs, or was handled by the small-town editor with too much on his plate.

Speculative narratives were slapped onto the scanty evidence. The so-called mutilations were the work of such as these:

  • Deranged Vietnam veterans, particularly helicopter pilots. This is one point of origin for the whole "black helicopter" meme. And all Vietnam vets were deranged—that was another meme.
  • Aliens from other planets who needed cow rectums for some obscure purpose. A Denver TV journalist named Linda Moulton Howe took that one and ran with it.
  • Satanists or other murderous cultists. We were just entering the peak years of the cult scare too.
  • Secret germ-warfare research conducted by some rogue government agency.

Since this news story was by definition non-serious, few editorial judgments were made about how it was covered.

One of those "back of the newsroom" reporters at the Colorado Springs Gazette wrote a package of articles about a group of twenty-something occultists, ceremonial magicians and would-be disciples of Aleister Crowley, who vowed that they would find the culprits through esoteric means—and collect the reward offered by the Colorado Cattlemen's Association.

No one ever collected that reward. (Perhaps coyotes and ravens don't have bank accounts.)

Continue to Part 2.

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