Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Mystery of Multiple Horse Deaths Evokes Memories of Past Unsolved Cattle Mutilations

Horse Dead & Chopper Shadow
Ranchers worry about horses


     CALHAN - Folks in this close-knit community on the eastern plains are baffled and worried about two mysterious incidents in which 22 horses and a burro were found dead.

     The rural residents in these parts are pretty level-headed people, and they scoff at the notion that UFOs might be responsible. But many were around when a spate of unsolved cattle mutilations occurred in the 1970s and again in the early 1990s, and they’re willing to entertain the notion — maybe with a little tongue in cheek — that cults, creeps and “black helicopter” people might be to blame.

     “There’s strange stuff going on,” Terry Ashcraft said Monday while doing some business at the Pikes Peak Co-op in Calhan.

     Ashcraft, who lives 19 miles east of town, remembers driving a farm truck down a dark rural road 15 years ago at harvest time and “running off” a helicopter in a field where cattle were later found mutilated.

     “It’s all speculative at this point, but I wouldn’t rule out a cult being reactivated like 15 years ago,” he said.

     The veterinarian investigating the deaths of the animals, John Heikkila, fielded lots of questions from worried stockmen Monday as he performed state-required inspections of animals at the weekly Calhan livestock auction.

     The tall, burly Montanan, who has cared for animals in the area for years, said he’s pretty certain the 16 horses found dead Saturday in rancher William DeWitt’s pasture were killed by lightning. All of the horses were found lying within 50 yards of one another, including one found still perched on its knees, snout to the ground.

     But Heikkila said he’s willing to entertain even farfetched ideas about the deaths of six horses and a burro owned by rancher Ned Sixkiller.

     “I’ve got so little clue on Ned’s, it just might be UFOs,” he said with a laugh.

     Sixkiller found his animals dead on Oct. 11, less than two miles from where the 16 horses were found Saturday.

     Heikkila performed autopsies on Sixkiller’s animals and found perfectly round puncture wounds in their hides or skulls, about the size of 22-caliber bullets. But the wounds were no more than three-quarters of an inch deep, and exams and X-rays revealed no bullet fragments or slugs in the carcasses.

     The vet said a first round of tests for poisons and for a feed additive for cattle that is deadly to horses have come back negative. He said he’s waiting for further tests that might reveal why the blood in Sixkiller’s animals didn’t clot, which he said would be expected.

     If that test doesn’t solve the mystery, he said, a definitive cause of the animals’ deaths might never be known.

     “Ned’s was not a case of lightning,” Heikkila said. “In real life, there are a lot of incidents where we just don’t know.”

     Still, Heikkila knows folks in the Calhan area are suspicious about the mysterious deaths happening so close in time and distance to one another. When he walked into the pasture Saturday and saw the 16 horses lying dead, he was, too.

     “When I first saw all those dead animals, I about wanted to puke myself,” he said. “I came in with a biased opinion. I went looking for puncture wounds like I found on Ned’s animals. It took me a lot of time working through the problems, but I don’t think they’re related.”

     He said the 16 horses did not show signs of being burned by lightning, but he said that’s not unusual. But he did find some other classic signs they had been hit by lightning, signs he didn’t find in the six animals owned by Sixkiller.

     Among them: The eyeballs in many of the animals had literally been exploded; the tissue had essentially melted away in the three to seven days that passed between death and discovery; and the horses had not been disturbed by scavengers, which avoid the flesh of animals killed by lightning.

     The vet said it’s unusual for so many animals to be killed all at once by lightning, but he said it isn’t impossible. He said the horses were in a pasture that had a lot of moisture, and a couple were found entangled in wire fencing that can conduct lightning.

     Ralph Lewis, who was herding cattle through the auction pens from atop his horse Monday, doesn’t know what to make of the deaths.

     He owns 30 to 40 horses near where the dead animals were found, and he plans to move his most valuable horses to a friend’s pasture where they can be watched.

     “Nothing makes sense about it,” he said. “It could be lightning, but it seems strange. We haven’t had that much lightning. And I’ve had cattle killed by poisonous weeds, but they don’t all die in the same spot.

     “Personally, I think somebody did something to them. I’ll tell you what, if I caught someone doing something to my horses, it wouldn’t be good. That’s my livelihood.”

     Clare Loughrey, who stopped into the co-op to get some supplies Monday, agreed. Loughrey said she can understand how lightning killed the 16 horses; she’s seen up to eight cattle killed by one strike.

     But those deaths — or the six others days earlier — had better not be caused by cults or the methamphetamine addicts that folks around here say have moved to the plains in increasing numbers, she said.

     “If somebody is pulling a sick prank, we’re not going to stand for it,” Loughrey said. “We all love our horses.”

Special Thanks To Christian Macé

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