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A pony found in Dartmoor, England, in July apparently died under mysterious and horrific circumstances: It had been mutilated, and several of its organs were missing, which fueled speculation that it was killed in some sort of satanic or pagan ritual sacrifice.
The 2-month-old male pony apparently had its genitals, eyes, tongue and one ear removed. The death seemed very sinister and mysterious, leading Dartmoor's livestock-protection officer to speculate that " witches or devil worshipers" were responsible. This theory, in turn, sparked fears about the people who would kill and dismember a young pony.
Now, the mystery has been solved. [Witches & Wiccans: 6 Common Misconceptions]
Devon and Cornwall police concluded this week that the pony had died of natural causes. The much-discussed "mutilation" was not, in fact, mutilation at all, but instead the normal result of wild animals eating the pony's organs and scattering its entrails.
"Initial media reports linked the death of the pony to satanic cults and ritualistic killing," the police said in a statement. "The police have sought the advice of experts and have come to the view that the death of this pony was through natural causes. All the injuries can be attributed to those caused by other wild animals. This incident received significant media reporting, some of which was clearly sensationalist."
But if the pony died of natural causes, what about the claims and rumors of satanic or pagan sacrifices? How did those come about?
Part of the answer, as the police noted, is surely that the animal-sacrifice angle made the story sensational and interesting. As long as people (especially officials) are willing to publicly speculate about whether there are groups of evil people lurking in their community looking for a chance to kill and ritually sacrifice animals — especially ones as cute and beloved as ponies — there's little wonder why the media ran with it.
The larger question is, why didn't locals and the livestock-protection officer recognize the signs of ordinary predation? After all, presumably dead animals are not uncommon on farms and ranches; surely a livestock official would be able to tell the difference between an animal that died of natural causes and was set upon by scavengers, and an animal carefully killed in some sort of ritual sacrifice, right? [Spooky! Top 10 Unexplained Phenomena]
Not necessarily, for several reasons. One problem is that most ranchers and livestock officials have no idea what occurs in a real animal ritual sacrifice, so they can hardly make a valid comparison. Though animal sacrifice has been a part of many religions (including Christianity, Judaism and Islam), these days, the practice is mostly limited to Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santería, which has very specific procedures and rituals for the sacrifice (and typically sacrifice chickens or goats, not horses). The butchered remains of a goat and two roosters found in Miami's South Beach this year were thought by some to be a Santería ritual sacrifice.
Of course, with something as mysterious and clandestine as suspected satanists, anything could be assumed to be the result of sinister actions.
Since no one was around when the pony died, it's impossible to know what, exactly, killed it. The possible culprits include wild animals, disease or even lightning. The fact is, scavenger animals eat soft tissues of the body first, including the parts missing from the pony: the genitals, eyes, tongue and ears. Since the pony had been dead for several days before its body was found, there was plenty of time for birds, maggots, blowflies and other carrion-eating animals to scavenge on, or even carry off, these "mysteriously" missing body parts.
Dale A. Wade, an extension wildlife specialist with the Texas A&M University Research and Extension Center in San Angelo, Texas, is co-author of "Procedures for Evaluating Predation on Livestock and Wildlife" (AgriLIFE Extension, Texas A & M System, 2010). In his book, Wade points out that ranchers, and even livestock experts, may not recognize what killed an animal, since it is often difficult or impossible to determine the cause of death simply by looking at, or even by handling, a dead animal.
Instead, to determine what killed the animal, the person studying the body should "examine carcasses for wounds, hemorrhage, bruises, broken bones and feeding. If necessary, the entire carcass should be skinned and opened to identify internal wounds and other factors, which help confirm the cause of death. For example, some animals are killed by a single grip at the throat, which causes suffocation but leaves little external evidence. … Knowledge and skill are often necessary to determine the cause of injuries or death."
None of these examinations was done at the time. The misidentification of normal animal predation is a common element in "mysterious" animal deaths, such as cattle mutilations and even suspected attacks by chupacabra, a legendary blood-sucking creature often blamed for weird livestock deaths. At its heart, this is an example of a logical fallacy called "argument from ignorance" (drawing a conclusion from a lack of evidence).
In other words, just because the pony's cause of death was unknown doesn't mean the animal was sacrificed by satanists, witches or anyone else; it simply means the cause of death was unknown. Though the case resulted in some red faces, the best news that can be drawn from the incident is that the pony died naturally, and was not the victim of foul play.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of "Skeptical Inquirer" science magazine and author of six books, including "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" and "Hoaxes, Myths, and Manias: Why We Need Critical Thinking." His website is BenjaminRadford.com.