Hairless carcasses attract morbid attention. Is it a mutant? A monster? Well, it’s most likely an unfortunate local animal who fortunately left remains for us to photograph, gawk over, get grossed out about, and share around the world on social media.
We are coming up on the spring/summer season and we already have our first mystery beast of the year which washed up on the U.K. shore: The Tenby Mystery Carcass. The best guess for this is likely a badger, judging from the size, head, teeth and claws. It may look large and horse-like but note the footprints, it’s not large. It’s about medium-dog sized.
Even though they are strange and disgusting, I’m intrigued by these critters and can’t pass up a chance to post their pictures and speculate (with comparative evidence) about what it is.
Carcasses on the beach are unpleasant. They are smelly, bloated and missing important parts. There may be trauma to the body. Decomposition will make the creature look nasty and also makes it difficult to comprehend what they looked like alive, possibly so much so that we can’t relate them to a known animal. Often, as part of the decomposition in water, the hair falls out with just a little bit remaining as clues to what it looked like alive.
Covered in seaweed, one of the most interesting was dubbed the San Diego Demonoid due to its overall weirdness and HUGE canine teeth.
It looked plastic, baked and dried out in the hot sun, but it really was an animal carcass, not a fake. The teeth were noticeably big (helped by the drying and shrinking of the face), and there was a tuft of white hair that remained along the top of the head. Since the fur and color of an animal are often its most obvious identifying characteristics when alive, the fact that this thing has basically no hair left but odd tufts of fur compounds the confusion over what it actually was – an opossum. No kidding. The Seal Beach creature was also determined to LIKELY be an opossum.
A new hairless “mystery beast” appears about two or three times a year in the media and circles the globe for months through internet channels, featured on mystery mongering sites and even “reputable” news outlets, Tweeted, Facebooked and Googled by the curious public who haven’t a clue about what it is. The creepy picture is often accompanied by the speculation that it’s a new species unknown to science, a mutant, an alien or a government experiment gone wrong.
The gold standard for mystery carcasses is the Montauk Monster. In fact, often when these stories come out in the news, they will reference good ol’ MM. Did you know that it was actually identified? Probably not because that’s not as good of a story.
This bloated body, missing some flesh as well as hair, was discovered on a Long Island beach. Speculation was that it was an escapee from the offshore laboratories of the Plum Island Animal Disease Center. Paleontologist Dr. Darren Naish provided a direct comparison of skulls to show, definitively, that this poor beasty was a raccoon rendered hairless and deformed by the action of the seawater and natural decay with perhaps some assistance by hungry sea and shore creatures. Ah, nature at work. Mystery solved. Long live the monster. What happened to the carcass is unknown.
East River monster (July 2012)
A second “Montauk Monster” appeared near the Brooklyn Bridge in July a few years later. The story originated in a local news outlet with people speculating it was a pig or a dog or something worse. The authorities didn’t help as they just ignored the questions or made up a lame guess (leftover roasted pig?). But it was such a disgusting mystery that the photo went viral and appeared everywhere. Again, it was hairless and bloated – indicative of being dead and in the water for a spell. Actually identifying the creatures is not too hard for experts to do if photos are taken of the feet, skull (especially teeth) and the entire body with a scale to determine the size. Even though it looked quite a bit different from Montauk Monster version 1.0, this 2.0 version was another raccoon.
Hairless animals (that we conventionally think of as having hair) are weird-looking. Hairless dead animals freak people the hell out. You can easily tell if it is a mammal (cat, rat, groundhog, dog, seal, whale) compared to, say, a fish, but without a close-up, it’s very difficult to determine exactly what species it might be. Regardless, there is no sense in jumping to monstrous conclusions like “alien” or “sea monster”. It’s more likely NOT a new species, but a dead thing we aren’t used to seeing so… dead.
How do land animals end up on the beach? A reasonable explanation is that they died near the inland rivers or streams, fell in or were dumped in, and then washed downstream into the ocean. After bobbing around for a bit, they lose their hair through water action, bloat from the gasses of decay, and get picked at by other animals before washing up on shore quite the worse for wear.
Away from water-based hair removal techniques, hairless coyotes, foxes, dogs, raccoons or pretty much anything that is not immediately recognizable is now automatically referred to as a chupacabra. Originally described as a goat-sucking vampire beast native to Latin America, it now is a catch-all for any weird or mysterious carcass with teeth.
There are perfectly natural reasons for why these pathetic animals are follicularly impaired. It’s not unnatural or mysterious and it’s not a reason to shoot them on site or assume they sucked the blood out of your livestock (not true by the way, only a select few animals can actually suck blood). Why do the hairless dead trigger morbid fascination and disgust? Other than those who work with animals, we are not familiar with the many ways that hair follicles can be damaged or destroyed – bacterial and other skin diseases, burns, parasites, poisoning, nutritional deficiencies, hormone problems, allergies, and friction. Perhaps hairlessness provokes strong imagery associated with effects of nuclear radiation or chemical burns. It’s unnatural and disturbing, leaving a mammal vulnerable and sick. We are pretty clueless about what lives just outside our door and comes out only at night. We avoid bodies left to decay or remove them quickly from sight, unaware of how nature reclaims them. We live sheltered lives. Nature is weird.
Here is a parade of repulsive remains that became postmortem media stars:
Cerro Azul Creature / Blue Hill Monster (September 2009)
A group of kids in Cerro Azul, Panama reported that they observed this animal crawling out of a cave near the shore. Fearing it, they killed it. (Note: their stories changed over a few days.) Hairless, bloated and pale, it did look like Gollum. Yet, in my first glance of the thing sprawled on the rocks, it was rather easily identifiable as a sloth because of the distinctive hands. This pathetic thing was very dead when it washed up on shore and likely lost its hair due to being submerged for a while. I lost a little bit of respect for humans after the kids said that they beat it to death. The National Environmental Authority of Panama necropsied the body and confirmed it as a brown-throated sloth. Sloths are native to South America and should have been quickly recognized. But not to the rest of the world. That version didn’t make such an interesting story.
“Omajinaakoos” (May 2010)
Two women with a dog discovered this bald, snarling-faced animal along the waterfront of the Big Trout lake in the Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug reserve in Northern Ontario, Canada. They took pictures and later returned to collect the carcass but it was gone. Locals told the story of the legendary creature called ‘oomajinakoos’ or “the ugly one”. They said the finding was a bad omen. A professor from the University of Toronto was quoted in the news saying, “It is silly. This is a dead carcass that has fallen in the water.” He identified the animal from pictures as a mink, common to the area, and sounded a bit peeved at the idea it was anything more mysterious.
Minnesota Mystery Roadkill (August 2011)
A white body with remnant tufts of hair and long front claws lay along a Alexandria, Minnesota road looking awful. It didn’t look quite dog-like enough to be a dog so people labeled it all sorts of things, including chupacabra. The media reported that local wildlife officials were “baffled”. I’m skeptical that they were all that confused. Pretty quickly, they pointed out it looked like a really messed up badger left lying in the summer sun, a bit contorted due to being hit by a car. Badgers aren’t commonly seen, being mostly nocturnal and living underground, but are native to American prairie lands. This photo never included scale so it was difficult to judge size. Several people went with the explanation that it was a R.O.U.S. (Rodent of Unusual Size like those from The Princess Bride). Let’s not get crazy, here. Tests confirmed badger.
Finally, this pathetic guy lived another day.
Prince Chupa (August 2011)
It’s a deer! It’s a kangaroo-fox-rat thing! It’s (you guessed it) a chupacabra! Hospital workers on a smoke break at a Maryland hospital noticed this frail, dark grey, hairless critter skulking in the nearby woods months earlier and bestowing a most embarrassing name upon him. Chicken and some Chinese leftovers served to entice the skinny, long-tailed guy into a cage trap. The workers took photos and video before releasing it back into the woods (without calling animal control?) The local media picked up the story and ignorantly promoted it. The most frightening aspects of this story were, one, people who work in a hospital thought that nature would produce a 3-species hybrid and, two, they couldn’t use Google to figure out they had trapped a fox with mange.
In all these sad cases of animal alopecia, the witnesses went by their gut reaction, ran through their memory bank (no match), and assumed something fantastical. Why do people move to an extreme explanation instead of the more obvious explanation that it’s a variation of a native animal? I’m not sure. Maybe it’s related to our almost entire disconnect from the natural world around us or the simple need to make a story even better.
Poke the dead thing with a stick (No, really, don’t do that*)
Today’s media feeds us these stories in an uninformed way. They often fail to fact check and find a qualified consultant to comment. Instead, they quote a confused witness and embrace the bizarre and scary, thus creating or justifying community concerns. “Weird news” stories are picked up from other outlets and allowed to propagate with information from unqualified “experts” and eyewitnesses who spout their otherworldly ideas about what it is. That’s not news. That’s sensationalism and it’s irresponsible. It spreads misinformation and unsubstantiated fear.
Far fewer news outlets follow-up when the real identification of the animal is revealed. By that time, most people embraced the drama and ran with it, leaving the real answer to languish behind, decaying, forgotten and eventually lost. Even though the most famous of these mystery beasts, the Montauk Monster, was rather quickly revealed to be a raccoon, that part of the story was ignored and people STILL refer to it as a “monster” or “mutant”. It’s not that. For a while, it’s a mystery. It’s nature.
*It may well explode.