UPDATE: Revised at 2 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 21.
There is, you'd like to think, a reasonable explanation for the spate of seemingly eerie cattle mutilations that have swept across our western lands. Coyotes. Mountain lions. A whiny Jay Leno seeking to have the entire pasture to himself.
Or maybe the cattle mutilations are the work of a wacky religious cult, which is not to imply in any way that there are any wacky religious cults around here, even though an unusual number of cars do seem to have sacred cow ears dangling from the rear-view mirrors.
Anyway, a few weeks back, in a snowy field in Colorado's rich San Luis Valley, resting on its side on the undisturbed ground as if placed there by a gentle hand, was the body of a 4-year-old brown cow. This leads to the obvious question: "How now?"
With us today to address that question is Chuck Zukowski, who lives here in our village and has a passion for the strange and unexplained. Do aliens exist? Do magnetic fields indicate the presence of interplanetary materials? Will things get better around here after the flying saucer takes Doug Bruce back to his own galaxy? When former state lawmaker and El Paso County Commissioner Ed Jones decided a few weeks ago not to throw his hat back into the political ring, was it because he feared his toupée might go flying into the ring with it?
Although mostly, Zukowski will stick to the cattle mutilation thing. And before you roll your eyes, know this: Zukowski, who has spent 30 years probing alleged UFO sightings, does not seem in any way to be a UFO nut. Even though his license plates read "UFONUT" (not kidding) and he has a Web site named ufonut.com (also not kidding).
"I'm well aware of the giggle and ridicule factor," says Zukowski, a bright guy, a computer software designer and a reserve deputy sheriff in El Paso County. "So I go with it. I have some fun."
Last year Zukowski traveled to five strange cattle mutilation scenes in Colorado. He was summoned by ranchers who were puzzled and, in some cases, frightened by what they found in their fields.
The most recent, near Alamosa in December, was the case of the 4-year-old cow with its ears and udder missing — the body parts removed with great precision, clearly not the work of a coyote or mountain lion. A video of the scene is available on Zukowski's Web site. (Warning: It is graphic and is not easy to watch — although it's easier than trying to watch The Jay Leno Show.)
Baffling mutilations have been reported across the western United States since 1967, when Snippy the horse died a bizarre death, also near Alamosa. Snippy's owner said the cuts on the body were surgical. When she touched the horse's flesh, she said, it oozed a thick green fluid. There were reports of UFOs darting across the night sky.
In a story for the Denver Post a few years back, I walked with rancher Chuck Bowen across his Eastern Plains ranch near Eads and he talked of two of his cows that had died in the same manner as Snippy. He was asked about aliens darting across the galaxies to snatch cow and horse parts. He smiled.
"You would think they'd have something more important to do," he said.
Zukowski thinks so, too.
"Until I actually see an alien mutilating a cow," he says, "I'll figure it's something else."
A more likely culprit: the military. In our initial conversation (and then in my first version of this column), Zukowski and I referred to Alamosa, where dozens of unexplained mutilations have occurred, being the scene of above-ground nuclear testing after World War II.
After a reader's comment that perhaps we meant Alamogordo, N.M., instead, I called Zukowski to determine if we should clarify. His response:
"Maybe I was wrong. Alamagordo was the site of the documented tests, but there have always been rumors that during the '50s and '60s the area around Alamosa, Colorado, was the site of secret and limited radiation tests on the environment, tests performed by the military. This would explain why they keep checking radiation levels even today and why, maybe, they are doing research on the cattle and horses, to see the effects today of the radiation."
And as Zukowski said in our first discussion, "So many of these animals seem to have been put down on the ground without a trace of footprints or trampled grass or tire tracks. Helicopters can lay things down that way."
Then he adds: "But there are reports of identical animal mutilations in Missouri and Canada and the Dominican Republic and other places where there was no nuclear testing."
Zukowski will continue investigating.
"For me, it's the love of the unknown," he says.
This week he was planning a quick trip to northwest Colorado.
"Bigfoot," he says softly. "Someone says they've found tracks."