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The Weird Tale of the Goatsucker

St. Petersburg Times, March 21, 1996

MIAMI-- When police arrived at the crime scene they had never seen such carnage.

Lifeless victims--69 in all--lay strewn across the yards of two families in Sweetwater, a heavily Hispanic neighborhood in south Miami.

But it was a Miami massacre with a difference--a case perhaps for Ace Ventura, Pet Detective.

The victims were all animals--goats, chickens, geese and ducks. Who --or what--could have done such a dastardly thing?

The killer, say police and a local zoologist, was a large dog.

Wrong, say local residents. It was the chupacabras, the Caribbean's very own Bigfoot, except this creature is a vampirelike predator whose name literally means "Goatsucker" in Spanish.

Don't be surprised if you haven't heard of the chupacabras.

Until this month it had never had been seen or heard of outside Puerto Rico, the U. S. island commonwealth of 4-million people. For the past six months, the hideous bloodsucking beast with an oval-head and bulging red eyes--part reptile, part insect, part UFO alien--allegedly has been terrorizing the island's central mountains.

But after the slaughter in Sweetwater, the chupacabras has firmly established a place in the annals of Miami make-believe.

It may sound like something out of Star Trek, but it has gripped more than just the imagination of Hispanic Miami. For those who believe in the chupacabras, the fear is real. In some cases the attack on livestock has caused serious economic loss.

One Sweetwater woman claims to have seen it, and there have been alleged chupacabras attacks in other parts of Miami. The beast has developed a large following in Latino communities across the United States, from New Jersey to California.

Authorities are taking the killings seriously--up to a point. A specialist has investigated the deaths, and a county commissioner has called for a police inquest.

"It's mushroomed way out of proportion," says Ron Magill, assistant curator at MetroDade zoo. "I'm sitting here literally in shock."

Chupacabras aroused great interest, and discussion--some of it less than serious--on the Internet, where it has its own home page, complete with sketches created by a Princeton University history student.

"This has turned out to be a new kind of folklore," said the student, Hector Armstrong, a native of Puerto Rico. There is even talk of a video-game spinoff, he says.

It already has become big business: There are T-shirts, a chupacabras sandwich, live morning radio and a Spanish pop song with a chorus that roughly translated goes like this: "Gotta have fun and party. In case the Goatsucker gonna get me."

Last week English-language radio got in on the act when the popular station Y-100 ran a week-long "search of the elusive chupacabras!" offering a $1,000 prize for a real photo of the creature.

The station made its own mock effort, sending a reporter into the Sweetwater woods dressed in a goat costume.

The chupacabras coverage was a hit.

One of Latin America's most watched Spanish-language TV chat shows, Cristina, which is recorded in Miami where it has a large audience, gave credence to the "chupacabras phenomenon" with an hour-long program on it Monday.

On the show was Jose "Chemo" Soto, the mayor of Canovanas, a town in Puerto Rico where the chupacabras supposedly has claimed more than 100 victims. Soto, who is running for re-election, offered viewers this grim warning: "whatever it is, it's highly intelligent. Today it is attacking animals, but tomorrow it may attack people."

A former police detective, Soto is known to locals as "Chemo (Indiana) Jones," for his quest to capture the mysterious creature. Using caged goats as bait, Soto leads a weekly monster hunt of local volunteers who patrol the town's surrounding hills--so far to no
avail.

Also interviewed on Cristina: a vet from Puerto Rico--nick-named Dr. Chupacabras--who claims the wounds he has examined on alleged victims of the beast are "totally abnormal" fang-like punctures.

Others on the program included an extraterrestrial philosopher and a writer on UFOs, who believe the chupacabras was sent from another planet to Puerto Rico.

According to Jorge Martin, publisher of Evidencia, a magazine on UFO research, aliens are drawn to Puerto Rico by the Arecibo Observatory, the world's largest radio-radar telescope.

The killings, whatever their cause, are a serious problem that has frightened many people in Puerto Rico and Miami.

This has been fueled by a number of eyewitness accounts from seemingly credible people. At least 15 Canovanas residents claim to have had a close encounter with the monster.

"I was looking off the balcony one night, and I saw it step out of a bright light in the back yard," said Michael Negron, a 25-year-old college student.

"It was about 3 or 4 feet tall with skin like that of a dinosaur. It had bright red eyes the size of hens' eggs, long fangs and multi-colored spikes down its head and back."

The creature reportedly disembowelled the family goat, draining the blood from its neck.

Some theories--and eyewitness accounts--are harder to believe than others. Consider the latest sighting in the Puerto Rican town of Caguas, where the chupacabras allegedly entered a bedroom window and mauled a stuffed teddy bear, leaving a "puddle of slime."

Critics say the hysteria has been whipped up by sensationalist media that are eager to promote the legend as part of a sales or rating drive. Puerto Rico is a fertile market for such bizarre tales, due to widespread Afro-Caribbean cultural and religious beliefs that involve animal sacrifices and blood rituals.

Officials say folk monster tales are hard to combat with rational explanations.

Just ask Magill, the Miami zoologist. When he attended the Sweetwater slaying, he pointed out to residents what he believes to be incontrovertible proof the killer was a large dog, maybe 50 pounds in weight, or more.

"They were just totally not listening," he said.

On inspection he found the bit marks were "classic canine punctures from dogs."

As for the vampire theory "Contrary to the popular belief, all the animals were full of blood."

He demonstrated this on one dead goat. "I took a knife and cut into the carotid artery and blood came out of the carcass.

He also showed where he believes a dog dug its way under the garden fence.

"It was a classic dog digging. You could see all the dirt pushed back and dog hair on the bottom of the fence." Magill was able to identify footprints as being that of a dog.

Residents wanted to know why none of the animals had been eaten. Again he points to what he calls the "classic m. o. of dog attacks. "Dogs don't kill for food, they kill for fun. It's a thrill."

For Magill the scene was a deja vu experience. Two years earlier, dogs killed 15 antelopes at the zoo in the same fashion.

But Magill says all his explanations were for naught. Local residents were enthralled by heavy media attention that day.

An older woman came out of the house and turning to a group of TV cameras demonstrated how she had confronted the chupacabras.

"It stood up on two legs and was hunched over like this with big arms and looked at me with these red eyes," the woman said.

"I just said, 'Oh jeez, here we go,'" says a discouraged Magill. "As soon as she did that every news media camera zoomed in on her. That was the footage they played over and over again."

Part Cuban, and fluent in Spanish, Magill understands the cultural sensitivity of older people in the Hispanic community over their religious and cultural beliefs.

He even believes in UFOs and extraterrestrial life forms.

"I'm not one of those pure scientists who say 'No, we are the only ones with the truth and all that stuff is ludicrous,'" he says.

"It's just in this case that was not it."
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