Dead bulls generate media BS

News outlets have picked up and run with the story of five bulls (Hereford bovines) that have died under mysterious circumstances near Salem, Oregon last July. I’m not sure why this is getting attention again now except for the obvious – that ideas about aliens are back in the public consciousness thanks to a whole bunch of hype from the To The Stars Academy claiming to have videos of unidentified aerial phenomena and “metamaterials” they claim may not be of earthly origin. I find all that entirely underwhelming. But dead cows that have seemingly had some of their organs removed (notably the genitals) is an American paranormal trope that has been around for decades, and animals dying under strange circumstances is a curious thing. I don’t have the time or expertise to look into the cases in detail. I am looking at this as an interested person reading the news and hearing some really bizarre paranormal-themed conclusions pushed.

The latest story of cattle death and mutilation began in local media outlets in August. The five carcasses found at the Silvies Valley Ranch were all males, there was no immediate cause of death, and they all happened in the span of a few days.

From Oregon Live:

The five dead bulls were found on July 30 and 31, in a wooded area about 15 miles from U.S. 395, the nearest major road. They were each about a quarter mile apart, Marshall said. There is some official disagreement on when they were killed – the Harney County Sheriff’s Office, which saw only four of the bulls, puts the deaths at three to 14 days before discovery, but Marshall believes the cattle were discovered within 24 to 48 hours of their deaths.

The officials at the ranch and the local sheriff’s deputy described it to reporters as unexplanable. Yet, even these early articles invoked bizarre, fringe ideas. The new wave of articled from mainstream sources (took them a while to grab on) are even worse. Even NPR did a story without critical commentary:

The bull looks like a giant, deflated plush toy. It smells. Weirdly, there are no signs of buzzards, coyotes or other scavengers. His red coat is as shiny as if he were going to the fair, but he’s bloodless and his tongue and genitals have been surgically cut out.

It’s important to always understand that many sensational stories end up not being what was told in the media. Key facts are left out, exaggerated, or entirely wrong. When careful research is done, the story often resolves into something far less sensational. Taking a logical view of these cattle mutilation stories, a few things very obviously jump out:

  • The cases are assumed to be related. They are lumped together and other claims from the past are added to the conglomeration. Then they are tied together by some dubious facts under a common name that strongly assumes a common cause. Is this justified? No. Lumping things together that may not be related implies mysteriousness when there may be none – each case needs to be investigated individually before concluding that they are related if the evidence leads that way.
  • Several facts about the carcasses are assumed or misrepresented. The idea of the wounds being from lasers or scalpels is not at all well-demonstrated. There are data and real world experiments that show this appearance and missing soft tissue is explainable by natural causes – bloating that leads to splitting of the skin, insects and predators that remove parts. While it is certainly possible that someone could have taken a tool to the carcasses, that seems less likely than more obvious explanations. The idea of lasers seems high tech and fits in nicely with a dramatic tall tale of aliens abducting cows for some unknown use and dumping the remains.
  • Almost every story includes the claim that there was “no blood” left in the carcass. This is a total red herring. When an animal dies from sickness or internal injuries, it doesn’t bleed out. The heart stops pumping and the blood pools due to gravity, coagulates, and is not in “drop” form anymore. Even if there was an opening, the blood would soak into the ground or be eaten by various carrion feeders like flies. Does roadkill bleed if you cut it days later? No. This is nonsense from people who don’t know what naturally occurs in dead organisms.
  • The same media reporting patterns occur – the stories from those affected or afraid are provided and the expert information is marginalized unless the expert’s comments play into a dramatic conclusion. There are plenty of people who could cogently argue the opposite view – that this is not nefarious or all that mysterious – but that wouldn’t get clicks, would it?
  • There are no tracks around the body. This suggests that the animal just died on its own. This is somewhat mysterious, for sure, but it is not so weird if the animal was felled by lightning, poisoning, an acute allergic reaction, or illness. Has every possible toxin, disease, or illness been ruled out? No. In fact, almost none of the articles on the Oregon deaths included information from a veterinarian. None mention necropsies were done. One reason was that the remains were not fresh enough for this kind of evaluation. I’m not clear on why that would be an issue. You can certainly discern if the animal was injured in some way. Obviously, blood tests were not possible.

Opinion of the Vice-president of the ranch, Colby Marshall, is quoted repeatedly in the media pieces:

“We think that this crime is being perpetuated by some sort of a cult,” he said. NBC

Marshall said he wonders if the killer used poison darts. “We think that these are very sick and dangerous individuals and they need to answer for this horrible crime,” he said. Oregon Live

Marshall speculates the bulls were darted with a tranquilizer that knocked them out. While some people acted as lookouts, others bled the animals out by inserting a large-gauge needle into the tongue and into an artery, then removed the organs after the heart stopped beating, he surmised. LA Times

Guesses and wild speculation printed in the media sound like “facts”. They are not.

Deputy Sheriff Jenkins also chimes in with ideas put forward by others and his own thoughts:

“A lot of people lean toward the aliens,” Jenkins says. “One caller had told us to look for basically a depression under the carcass. ‘Cause he said that the alien ships will kinda beam the cow up and do whatever they are going to do with it. Then they just drop them from a great height.” NPR

“Personally, I would lean more toward the occult, where people for whatever reason – whether it’s a phase of the moon or whatever rituals they’re going to do with their beliefs – are coming to different areas and doing that,” he said. LA Times

Jenkins, the deputy, said the wounds, when examined, appeared clean-cut. “The parts were definitely cut out with a sharp blade,” he said. “There weren’t any signs of predatory eating or chewing. They were cut out by at least one person.” Capital Press

None of Jenkins claims given above are factual but his capacity as a law enforcement officer carries weight even though he may have zero expertise in this particular area.

The articles note that common causes were ruled out – poison plants, predators and gunshots. Lightning storms did not occur during the time. There was not a full moon. The animals were not found close together. NBC news at least noted that natural causes were likely and explained the missing blood and the conditions of the carcasses. They cited Dave Bohnert, director of Oregon State University’s Eastern Oregon Agricultural Research Center, who said he believes people killed the bulls, but it could be natural – he had not investigated the case. It is odd that all were bulls, much less numerous in the herd than cows. So there is something here to solve but none of these people quoted are helping much.

The articles, not to mention the voluminous and really cringe-worthy commenters, serve up ridiculous “conclusions” about what could have done this. If someone can point to reliable sources that confirm any people butchered cows in this way in the name of Satan, please supply citations. There is little to no evidence of this far out claim. Mention of exsanguination automatically triggers people to yell “Chupacabra” which is goofy, but some people seriously believe there are vampire creatures preying on livestock. And, even early on, jokers suggested Sasquatch was messing with the cows. Unfortunately, this is not a new idea – it has been suggested that Bigfoot likes to hang around cows and even slaughter deer in spectacular ways. Again, it’s goofy. It is not reasonable to suggest some outside nefarious source (alien or human) is responsible when the natural sources have not been adequately studied. The best you can say is “I don’t know” what happened to these animals.

Interestingly, Oregon Live states the ranch is owned by a veterinarian. It seems odd that little science and mostly wild speculation and assumptions pad these news stories. Also of note, back in August, tissue samples were taken but there is no mention of the results. Decomposition makes the results difficult to interpret.

UFO investigators and alien believers deeply cling to the conclusion that this is very mysterious and point to other amateur sleuths that they claim have uncovered valuable clues. Yet, it remains that valid natural explanations are likely and these are accepted by the majority of scientists, veterinarians and experienced animal professionals. An FBI investigation in New Mexico in 1980 concluded there were no unnatural causes at play. [Rommel, Jr. Kenneth M. Project Director, “Operation Animal Mutilation: Report of the District Attorney, First Judicial District, State of New Mexico,” published in June of 1980.]

What is a fact is that some animals die suddenly and we sometimes just can’t figure out why.  That makes us nervous. People come up with creative ideas about what happened. But as a news consumer, it’s of paramount importance to think critically about the information provided. It’s unreasonable to propose extreme explanations and it’s irresponsible for the media to market these nonsense claims as if they had merit.

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Paranormal education classes showing up at major universities

Paranormal subjects typically lie outside the circle of academic respectability. One can argue that they have been deliberately marginalized to keep them diminished in credibility. But, with the majority of the population of the U.S. subscribing to at least one paranormal belief, I’d argue we should be discussing these phenomena in an intellectual context. Things are changing. But for a while now, non-credit, community education classes have been providing a certain degree of legitimacy to these subject areas. 

In recent news on paranormal-themed websites, I’ve heard that David Halperin, retired professor of religious studies, is teaching a non-credit course about UFOs and alien visitation at Duke University. Entitled UFOs–Encounter, Mystery, Myth, he writes about it here. These kinds of continuing education courses, aimed at those with leisure time for enrichment activities, are very common. In this situation, at least we see a qualified teacher. He’s qualified in both instruction and in UFO lore. I suspect this course will be interesting and worthwhile. Here is the summary:

This course rests on two premises: (1) UFOs are a myth; (2) myths are real.  UFOs became a feature of the cultural landscape 71 years ago.  They’ve been debunked innumerable times, yet remain firmly fixed in our shared consciousness.  In the changed socio-political environment since the 2016 election they’ve achieved a surprising new respectability.  We’ll explore these “visitors from inner space” from a psychological and religious perspective, asking the essential question –not “Where do they come from?” or “How do they fly?” but, “What do they mean?” –for us as individuals, as a culture, as a species.

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Believers are the majority: Paranormal acceptance in America is rising

The results of the 2018 Chapman University survey of American Fears have been released and they suggest that America (that is, even well-educated America) is even more accepting of the paranormal than in the past three years. You can view the entire survey here but let me highlight the major points as well as some possible explanations for the numbers and some problems with applying them.

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UFO reports declining: Several social factors involved

An article in Gizmodo today focused on the question of why UFO sightings (reported to NUFORC and MUFON – the major U.S. organizations who record these claims) are in decline since 2012 – a 30 to 40 percent drop from 2012 to 2017. When Jennings Brown, the journalist, contacted me Friday to talk about it, a few things came to mind. In contrast to the opinion of one leader in the UFO community quoted in the piece, I refuse to cop out with an untested, unsupported sci-fi-inspired answer to this trend. I suspect the real answer is social and far more complicated than we can easily tease out.

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When Bigfoot became an alien (around 1973)

Talk about a flashback! In my latest podcast interview with Jason Colavito, we are discussing the alien-Bigfoot connection (in the context of Bigfoot as Nephilim) when Jason mentions the TV series Six Million Dollar Man that featured Bigfoot as a recurring character in four episodes, and once on the Bionic Woman show from 1976 to 1977.

The Secret of Bigfoot (part 1) aired on February 1, 1976. I was 5 years old, so I likely did not watch this but I do have a strong recollection of seeing these shows and being rather frightened by the Bigfoot character – he was huge and had a look very similar to the Patterson-Gimlin film Bigfoot (“Patty”). In fact, other than the lack of breasts, this Sasquatch suit fit pretty well in comparison to Patty. The head and face are always the hardest to make authentic-looking. This TV bigfoot featured creepy eyes and appeared roaring out of the shadows, giving me a serious case of the willies. Already obsessed with monsters, I loved it anyway.Read More »

A ruse by any other name still stinks

As one who runs a website about weird news, it’s been a crazy start to the year. A number of hoaxes proliferating around the media the first week of this year. They are passed on almost with the same respect as actual news. If you resolve to do anything this year, resolve to doubt the news when it sounds too outrageous or too weird to be true. Because it’s probably not.

There are too many urban legends and popular rumors going around to follow at any one time, but let’s take a quick look at some of the major hoaxes that recently created hype in the media.

Made for TV hoaxes

Not counting the Punk’d and Candid Camera-type practical joke setups that are humorous (if rather mean), several television programs aim their hoaxes at the public, making them realistic, and keeping the background a secret as the bizarre video goes viral across the web.

In July, in Whitstable, Kent, U.K, a video from a medicine shop’s closed circuit television showed a man surprised by a falling box. But before the fall, the camera captures the box defying gravity, levitating off the shelf, hanging there for a moment, then dropping.

Was this paranormal activity? (There were obvious signs that it was not.) It was such a fun video that it was passed around extensively. Finally, in December, it was revealed as a hoax for a TV show. The reveal happened on a broadcast that did not get good ratings. Most people may still assume the video was actual evidence for paranormal activity.

The case of the glowing squid-like mystery creature in Bristol harbor, also in the U.K., didn’t hang on quite as long. People in the harbor sounded amazed to see and film a bright, pulsating animal that did not look like a machine. It looked like something out of this world!

The prank was released on YouTube as part of a marketing stunt by UKTV’s entertainment channel, Watch, to launch the show “The Happenings”. I really wanted that bioluminescent beastie to be real.

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Today’s edition of being scientifical: UFO research and homeopathy

Ever on the lookout for scientifical examples, here are two that I thought were interesting.

The first relates to my interest in amateurs being scientifical. UFO researcher Budd Hopkins presented the results of a study he conducted at a conference about UFO abductees. According to Robert Sheaffer (Skeptical Inquirer V. 35 No. 3 May/June 2001 p 25-27), he was roundly taken to task. Hopkins devised an image recognition test supposedly to determine if children were being abducted. He also conducted a Roper poll to find out how many Americans believed they have been abducted. His research lacks the basic protocol of credible research. Why? Hopkins is not a scientist. Read More »

Research groups’ useful social function is not “being scientific”

The LA Times reports on the MUFON conference with the headline “convention emphasizes scientific methods”. The reporter then skewers this idea by showing how at least some of the attendees have thoroughly embraced the idea of alien visitation and human-alien hybridization. Oh my. (Read about a scientist’s experience in attending a MUFON conference here.

The reporter doesn’t have to go to the fringe to point out the sham of science here. It’s more basic than that – rooted in popular misunderstanding about what science is and what scientists do.

UFO researchers, including MUFON, were included in my study of ARIGs (amateur research and investigation groups). I looked at how they use the concept of science and being scientific in their activities. In this article, we see some common devices come up: they emphasize the “precision of a scientist” and the use of devices; they document reports, they are “professional”. All that is fine but certain critical components of being scientific are missing.Read More »