Monster Hunt: The Chupacabra

Katie Heaney tries to figure out the difference between "shriveled dead thing" and chupacabra

chupacabra monster Minnesota Katie heaney Madelyne Tolentino coyote mange animal

Is this a chupacabra? Probably not, but it's dead, so how could we ever know for sure?     Photo: Pablo Spekuljak/Flickr

The trouble with the chupacabra is that it looks an awful lot like a handful of other, regular animals. When someone thinks he’s found one in the United States, the creature usually looks like a coyote, or a fox, or a dog, or a wolf, or a small kangaroo—just slightly off. But most things look a little off when they’re dead. And that’s what most so-called chupacabras have in common when they are found: being a shriveled dead thing.

But then there are those that describe the chupacabra more like a creeping lizard, a green-gray-black scaled monster, either with color-changing spikes or duller black (but still deadly, in the end) spines trailing down its back and tail, with a Hollywood bug-eyed alien face and claws on its fingers and toes. This is the fantastic version, and, it has to be said, the one without the carcasses to show for it. There are only drawings. Or, anyway, that’s what they want us to think.

The chupacabra—the name, Spanish for “goat sucker,” for the animal’s reported eating habits, the vampiric puncture wounds found on the necks or chests of its prey—is a relatively new legend, which I think makes it just slightly more suspicious for reasons I can’t quite explain but which have something to do with having too much familiarity with the historical setting into which it was born. (It’s the same way with religions, for some people. If you had relatives whose names you know and who were around and living when it all got started, doesn’t it just seem less authentic somehow?) 1995? I remember 1995. It did not seem an especially mystical year, or anything like one that could give birth to a new strain of folklore that could last for decades or more. But then, maybe I was too busy with the fourth grade to notice.

It is to that year, though, that the first eyewitness account of a chupacabra dates back, spotted in Puerto Rico by a woman named Madelyne Tolentino. A few months earlier, eight sheep drained of blood, apparently through puncture marks in their chests, were found dead in a town nearby. The attacks intensified, and soon some—some, but not all, of which were goats—were found mutilated in Canóvanas, where Tolentino lived. She was the first to report seeing the creature responsible.

In the months between the first set of attacks and Tolentino’s report, she went to see the science-fiction movie Species, about a sexy (but lethal) alien woman named Sil who is hell-bent on seducing a human man and who, in her true, spiny-backed form looks more than a little like Tolentino’s drawing of her chupacabra.

That’s how Benjamin Radford—a paranormal enthusiast-but-skeptic whose written works (and podcast, MonsterTalk) exist to ruin the fun everyone else is having by applying scientific criticism to cryptozoologic and legendary phenomena—came to decide the lizard-man variety of the chupacabra mystery was nothing but a cinematic fever dream. It’s fair enough, if you’re looking for “explanations,” or whatever.

THE MORE MUNDANE VERSION—the dog that is just a little crazy—persists in the continental United States, no matter how many times it is “proven” that the American chupacabra, as it were, is nothing more than a coyote with mange. The theory explains the look: the hairlessness, the leathery skin, the wiry dying bodies. The smell.

Mange, however, wouldn’t account for the goat-sucking-ness of the thing; the insatiable and frightening craving for blood that makes any of this a more compelling story than one that starts and ends with “a few of my livestock have died.” Scientists say (and not without reason, though I’m loath to admit such a thing) that part is just a myth, an idea run wild upon seeing puncture wounds in an animal’s neck—something that is not, after all, so far outside the typical series of consequences when a carnivore kills something using its canine teeth. So there you go. It’s a young mystery all finished.

But it’s still the sort of thing that can pretty easily end up starring in a tongue-in-cheek segment on CNN, the reporter telling the viewer that this, like most chupacabras seen before it, is just a coyote with mange, probably. “Chupacabra” is still what we want to call it when we want to tell someone about something dead and weird we saw on the street—like this blob of paper-white flesh and long nails and teeth found in August 2011 just south of a town called Alexandria in western Minnesota.

Whatever the thing in that picture is, I think we can all agree that it’s a damn mess. Nothing that was once living is supposed to look like that. Its head is falling off, and it has an ugly, toupee-like clump of brown hair perched in the middle of its back. Its neck is much too big and its hind legs too small. I’d have said it could look like almost anything, but once I learned that the woman who found it, Lacey Ilse, said that the dead creature looked “half-human,” I knew I didn’t mean it. I tried turning my computer screen around and squinting my eyes out of focus and everything. It is 10-percent-human at best.

But anyway, there it was, on the street and in the national news. And a number of people must have wondered what it was for long enough to make it there, but then everyone who counted pretty much decided it was simply a decomposed badger, which is probably one of the more boring chupacabra lookalikes there ever was.

We went to Alexandria just in case.

BEFORE WE LEFT, I asked Rylee if there was anything we should bring to bait it.

“What do they eat?” she asked.

“Well ... goat blood,” I said. She took French in high school, not Spanish.

She paused. “Do we have any?”

Despite hiking up a steep trail meant for snowmobiles for two rather difficult hours, we did not see a chupacabra in (or around) Alexandria. If they are real, for as much as I’d like to claim them as a part of the local wildlife, they just don’t seem all that natural a fit in Minnesota. But then if it were white, like the predecessor seen by Lacey Ilse, it would have blended right in with the fresh foot of snow on the ground. It covered up everything; we didn’t see any badgers (dead or alive) either. The only other living things we saw, in fact, were the local snowmobilers, and, well, there are some questions even I am too embarrassed to ask a stranger.

Katie Heaney is a writer based in Minneapolis. She has a memoir coming out in early 2014.

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