‘The strangest collection of weirdos ever assembled’: Revisiting the early days of cattle mutilation research
On April 20, 1979, a cattle mutilation conference organized by former moon-walking Apollo astronaut Sen. Harrison Schmitt (R-New Mexico) was held at the Albuquerque Public Library. Schmitt opened the conference by telling the attendees:
There are few activities more dangerous than an unsolved pattern of crime. There is always the potential for such crimes to escalate in frequency and severity if allowed to go unsolved and unpunished. Such a dangerous pattern of crime is the mutilation killings of thousands of cattle, horses, and other animals over the past several years throughout many states…In the last five years – and probably longer – in at least fifteen states animals have been killed and systematically mutilated for no apparent purpose, by persons unknown.
This now legendary and somewhat controversial conference included in attendance “FBI agents, state police, sheriffs and local police from around the country, Indian pueblo governors, tribal police chiefs, Los Alamos scientists, veterinarians, New Agers in robes, hippies, news media, politicians, spooky agent types, dusty ranchers in beat-up cowboy hats, independent researchers and, of course, ufologists of all stripes and colors”1 —not to mention a growing legion of cattle mute sleuths, among them Tom Adams, Gary Massey and David Perkins.
In January 1978, Tom Adams began publishing the newsletter Stigmata, which soon became the central clearinghouse for a growing cattle mute subculture. Adams—along with his cow-curious colleagues, Massey and Perkins—referred to themselves self-deprecatingly as “mutologists.” According to Perkins, “We thought that being professional ‘mutologists’ sounded a little classier than ‘weird people who get a kick out of looking at dead cows.’”2 As Perkins recalled:
I first met Gary Massey and his partner Tom Adams in the mid-1970s in Colorado. They were a dynamic investigative duo, hot on the trail of the elusive cattle mutilators. The three of us quickly formed a close bond. Over the next several years we spent endless hours traveling together in Gary’s big van ‘Thang’, investigating mutilation cases, attending conferences and scanning the skies from my mountain top home in Colorado. We were the Three Musketeers of ‘mutology’, although at times, we seemed a bit more like the Three Stooges.
Tom Adams (left) and Garry Massey in 1980 (Photo credit: David Perkins)
A Yale trained sociologist, Perkins ventured westward in the late 1960s to study non-traditional communities, and during his research became part of one such counterculture experiment, joining the Libre commune in Southern Colorado in 1970. Perkins (known by the name of Izzy Zane to his cattle mute coterie) suddenly found himself on the front lines of mutology after encountering one such beastie in his rural neighborhood in 1975. Curiously enough, the only evidence discovered at the cattle mute scene was drops of blood that led back in the direction of Perkins’ home. Perkins later learned that the local sheriff had considered him, at least for a short time, to be a suspect in the case.
Intrigued by his initial cattle mute encounter, Perkins went on to establish the Animal Mutilation Probe (AMP), documenting his own case in addition to a slew of others he investigated in the ensuing years, along the way becoming an authority on the subject. In the summer of 1979, Perkins was contacted by Linda Howe, who was then working as a news reporter for the Denver CBS affiliate station KMGH TV. Howe, at the time, had just started digging into the rash of mutes spreading like wildfire across Colorado and the Four Corners region, and so she reached out to Perkins to learn from him all he knew about the subject, and to tap into his extensive network of cattle mute contacts.
On June 12, at Linda Howe’s request, Perkins loaded up his extensive case files into his ‘64 Plymouth Valiant station wagon (known endearingly as The Mutemobile) and hauled them 200 miles to the KMGH offices where Howe immediately began making copies of everything and hashing out plans with Perkins to take her and a film crew on a road trip later that year, the end results of which appeared in Howe’s documentary, A Strange Harvest. During their June 12 meeting, Perkins promised he’d give Howe a heads-up if any new cattle mute cases came to his attention. A couple weeks later, on June 25, Perkins was alerted to a mute discovered on the Potts Ranch in Walsenburg, Colorado. According to Perkins:
By the time I got there, the animal had been lying in the blazing sun for several hours. Its mouth was only partially open and I wanted to see if the tongue had been removed. I tried to pry open the jaws by hand but was unsuccessful. I found a stick and used it as a crowbar. After a few tries, the jaw finally popped open. In that process, I apparently opened up a pathway for the bull to release an explosive noxious spew of heated stomach gases and gross particulate matter…directly into my face. Indeed there was no tongue, at least as far back in the throat as I could see…I took a photo of Linda and her cameraman crouching over the mute, and in it you can see the very stick I used for that misadventure….
Linda Howe and cinematographer Richard Lerner investigate one of Howe’s first cattle mutilations near Walsenburg, Colorado in June of 1979. The stick on the ground is the one David Perkins used to pry the cow’s jaw open. (Photo credit: David Perkins)
Due to Perkins’ involvement in the field of mutology, as well as his academic background, Sen. Harrison Schmitt and Gabe Valdez (who were the prime movers behind the Albuquerque conference) tapped him as the keynote speaker for the event. Perkins recalled:
Getting in front of that group at the conference was pretty rough, and Valdez and Schmitt had picked me for reasons unknown to send me in first. Whether they were feeding me to the lions or what, I don’t know…and I didn’t say a whole lot; I simply provided an overview of the phenomenon. My most memorable line was: ‘The only thing that makes sense about the mutilations is that they make no sense at all.’ That was my first comment to the group, and it was a very Zen comment. And for some reason people picked up on it, and it was repeated by news outlets. And what I was trying to point out was that the whole thing seemed senseless. It just made no sense. I was trying to convey the fact that this was a real conundrum, kind of like a Zen puzzle of some sort for us to figure out.
Following Perkins keynote speech, Tom Adams presented a “preliminary report regarding the appearance of unidentified helicopters at or near mutilation sites.”3 An expanded version of this report was later released under the title of The Choppers…and the Choppers: Mystery Helicopters and Animal Mutilations (1980) documenting over two hundred helicopter/mute cases.
Next up to the podium was Gabe Valdez, who spoke about the strange lights in the sky he’d witnessed in the Dulce area that appeared to be associated with the mutilations. During one of his patrols, Valdez observed one of these lights (a UFO by any other name) flying directly toward Mount Archuleta, near the town of Dulce. Valdez had expected to see the craft crash into the mountainside, but at the last second it vanished into thin air, as if it had somehow flown into, or through, the mountain.
The Albuquerque cattle mutilation conference received mixed reviews, although to those in attendance it seemed a sincere effort on Harrison Schmitt’s part to bring together the principal players in the scene to discuss the impact that the phenomenon was having on the livelihoods of ranching communities throughout the American West.
Among the more vocal critics of the event was reporter Mark Acuff, who in an editorial for The New Mexico Independent described the conference as an “exquisite farce” featuring “the strangest collection of weirdos ever assembled in New Mexico.” Such negative portrayals as these were believed to have contributed to Harrison Schmitt’s failed re-election bid in 1982.
1. Perkins, David. 1997. “Darkening Skies, 1979-1980. Of Dead Cows and Little Green Men.” A chapter from 1947-1997: Fifty Years of Flying Saucers. 1997. Edited by Hilary Evans and Dennis Stacy. John Brown Publishing, London, England.
2 .“The Late Great Tom Adams – Thoughts on the Passing of Thomas R. Adams (1945-2014)” by David Perkins – Easter April 5, 2015.
3 Stigmata, Issue 7, Fall 1979