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August 28, 2000

El Chupacabra
By Marc Herman

Iquique, Chile: Last April, farmers in Calama, a mining town in the heart of Chile's harsh northern desert, awoke to find their goats and sheep dead in their pens. An unidentified predator had mutilated the animals' necks. By the time the television cameras arrived, the rumor of a Chupacabra attack, Chile's first, was spreading fast through the slender Pacific nation.

Bigfoot With Teeth?
A mix of vampire and marauding, furry lizard, the Chupacabra has become one of the most common beasts studied under the general heading of cryptozoology, the study of animals that may or may not be real. No one has ever caught a Chupacabra, though plenty of eyewitnesses claim to have seen one. Descriptions vary. Eyewitness accounts during a rash of alleged attacks in 1995, many in Puerto Rico, described the animal as having a "reptilian body, oval head, bulging red eyes, fanged teeth and long, darting tongue," according to a report at the time in the daily San Juan Star.

That same description has weathered decades of scrutiny. First appearing in the late 1960s, alleged Chupacabra attacks picked up markedly in the mid-'90s, moving America's leading cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman, to term the animal "the single most notable cryptozoological phenomenon of the past decade." Coleman is the author of Cryptozoology A to Z.

"What's unique about the Chupacabra is that it's crossing languages, which I think shows how small our world is getting," says Coleman, reached by phone from his home in Portland, Maine. "It's sort of like Jennifer Lopez, kind of cross-cultural."

Latin Invasion
Indeed, in Latin America, the animal's reputation has spread south on a wave of Internet and newspaper publicity, with the Chupacabra behaving as a sort of celebrity monster. As recently as October of 1999, Brazil's Corriero Braziliense newspaper reported eight goats and three sheep dying of single wounds to the neck. Other Brazilian eyewitnesses claimed to have seen an animal that may fly or leap with powerful, monkey-like hind legs, attacking animals and humans both. Most witnesses also claim to have seen fangs. In every case, a predator appeared to wantonly kill livestock (usually goats or chickens), then mysteriously disappeared. No meat was taken, and only a small bite to the neck was apparent. And though no photographs of the assailant itself exist, hundreds of photos of the dead animals are on record, eerily similar drained of blood, but otherwise intact. And there are those eyewitnesses, from dozens of incidents in far-flung regions, all telling strikingly similar stories.

No such eyewitnesses came forward in Chile, but Calama's incident fits the profile. One fact inparticular stands out: Whatever killed the livestock hadn't eaten them, but inexplicably drained the animals of blood and left the meat behind.

Vampirism ... in paddocks ... of goats classic Chupacabra behavior, never before seen so far south as Chile.

Chupacabra Rap Sheet
In the annals of Chupacabra lore, the winter of 1995 was a time like no other. In Puerto Rico, arguably the center of modern Chupacabra activity, at least a dozen reports of Chupacabra attacks mounted quickly:

* In Orocovis, farmers found eight sheep completely drained of blood. Each bore puncture wounds.
* In Guanica, 44-year-old Osvaldo Claudio Rosado claimed to have been grabbed from behind by a gorilla. Puerto Rico has no gorillas. After fighting off the creature, Rosado needed treatment for scratches and cuts around his torso. Chickens and cows died nearby soon thereafter of single wounds to the neck, the blood simply gone.
* In Canovanas, livestock deaths reached into the hundreds. Mayor Jose "Chemo" Soto raised a posse of volunteers and personally hunted every week for the creature for nearly a year, armed with rifles and a caged goat. He failed to catch it. He was, however, re-elected.
* In Torrecilla Baja, a woman found a chicken dead of perforations in the neck, her cat dead with its genitals gone and her guinea pigs with their throats slit.

The animal soon made the leap to the mainland, with 69 chickens, goats and ducks found dead on a Florida lawn, again with their blood drained. Michigan and Oregon suffered subsequent attacks. Then, a rash of bloodsuckings in Mexico created a minor media sensation by late 1996, according to The Chupacabra Home Page, a project of some Princeton University students with time on their hands that is considered to be a definitive clearinghouse of Chupacabra lore.

Move Over Pinochet ...
Still, until April of 2000, the beast had never ranged as far as Chile. Though attacks on livestock are not unheard of around Calama, a rural community near a wilderness hosting pumas and smaller predators, the violent mystery caught the nation's fancy. Within days of the first reports, the attacks had become a media sensation, with headlines dominating the national press and amateur video of the slaughtered livestock playing every night on the local news. In May, a Santiago citizen rented a gorilla suit and an alligator mask, hung a sign around his neck that read "Chupacabra" and spent a few afternoons lurking on a popular downtown paseo, leaping and biting at passing commuters' necks. The Clinic, a local humor magazine, went so far as to propose replacing two popular players on the national soccer team with a duo of the Calama Chupacabra and ex-dictator Augusto Pinochet.

But in Calama, the Chupacabra was no joke. Livestock were dead, and the unlucky farmers had lost their livelihood. Not to be caught flat-footed, Calama officials quickly called in the national guard. Hundreds of armed soldiers undertook a massive search of the area, hunting the Chupacabra. Night patrols, however, found nothing neither the beast nor the puma skeptics believed was the real killer.

Chile's Chupacabra Hunt
With no results locally, the federal government got into the act. Back in Chile's capital of Santiago, the Justice Ministry began an investigation at the highest levels of Chilean law enforcement.

Two months later, neither the national guard nor the Chilean ministry had found the Chupacabra. But nor had they found anything else. No one knows what killed the Calama livestock by biting their necks and draining their blood. By late June, an official Chilean government statement had blamed the attacks on wild dogs.

NASA Experiments Gone Wrong?
Chilean Chupacabra watchers remain suspicious, and the case continues. As recently as late June of 2000, Chilean newspapers printed accusations from Chilean "UFOlogists" people who study unidentified flying objects in the same northern deserts where Calama lies of Chilean military officials finding three "Chupacabra eggs" and even catching the animal itself. The Chupacabra material was then turned over to NASA, according to Chilean press accounts. Radio programs in Chile have also accused the American space agency of creating the Chupacabra in a lab in the first place, while conducting genetic tests in the Chilean desert on mandrills, an animal similar to the baboon.

NASA denies the charge with more annoyance than amusement. "Before this it was the face on Mars, and before that it was modifying the weather, before that we were beaming radiation from satellites to make people impotent," says a decidedly weary-sounding NASA spokesman, Brian Welch. "Before that they were saying we faked the moon landing." Welch suggests the Chupacabra is blamed on NASA because the space agency is the last place anyone in Chile would think to call and ask about it.

"If you were persuaded to believe that sort of thing, you'd blame the last person you would go to for confirmation of it. I mean, people who believe this sort of thing certainly aren't beating down the door to ask us about it."

Speculation Dogs Chupacabra
Loren Coleman agrees and is comfortable with the wild dog explanation. "Dog packs tend to do that, go on frenzied attacks, eat a little, then leave the rest." The wounds in the Calama victims' necks were, indeed, far from surgical, he notes, and media accounts tend to stress the bizarre over simpler explanations. "Newspapers love the phrase Chupacabra, but most cryptozoologists aren't going to the bank with [it]." Meanwhile, a collective fascination with the beast means that any farm animal, pet cat, rabbit or chicken that comes to grief could be another Chupacabra case, simply because an animal dies and no one sees the predator.

"If you look at the Jersey Devil," notes Coleman, citing an American myth strikingly similar to the Chupacabra, "anything unknown [that happens in New Jersey] falls under the heading the Jersey Devil. Exactly the same thing is happening now with the chupa."

Perhaps. But then again, no one has found the wild dogs either. In Chile, to date, not everyone is convinced.

Copyright © 2000 Discovery Communications, Inc.

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