“Suspicious Activity,” Animal Skulls, and the Perils of Sensationalism

“Suspicious Activity,” Animal Skulls, and the Perils of Sensationalism February 22, 2012

Yesterday, local news reporters in Chester County, Pennsylvania covered what law enforcement and animal control officials called a “dark and disturbing” scene. The alleged slaughtered corpses of half-a-dozen dogs, surrounded by occult books and paraphernalia.

“Two people are in custody after police found more than a half dozen dismembered dogs inside a Chester County house Monday night. SPCA officers carried out bags and boxes of evidence from a home in the 2400 block of Wayne Avenue in the city of Coatesville. Officials say the scene inside was dark and disturbing with elements of witchcraft and the occult on vivid display. In the living room, investigators say they found two dog skulls and a dog skeleton that had been gold-leafed. They then walked into the kitchen and found two dog skeletons on the counter and a dog’s head in the freezer.

This seems pretty bad. It’s one thing to tolerate the sacrifice of a livestock animal like a chicken or goat, but dogs? People love dogs, and those who harm and abuse them are usually treated as no better than if they murdered a human being. Plus, “witchcraft and the occult”? You know that local Pagans, not to mention adherents of Santeria or Vodou, will have to do damage control for years because of this. But what if, just what if, those weren’t dog skulls. What if they were something else?

“Since the remains found in Caln Township haven’t been confirmed as canine, [George Bengal, the director of law enforcement for the state’s SPCA] said there may not be cause for alarm. In his experience, goat and dog skulls can be easily confused.

It’s true! If you aren’t an expert in such matters, and if you are full of adrenaline responding to a “suspicious activity” call, it can be quite easy to confuse a goat skull with a dog skull. Here’s a side-by-side comparison with a domestic dog skull and a domestic goat skull.

For the sake of argument, if these were goat skulls, wouldn’t that explain why they were keeping some in a freezer? Why there were charred bone remains in a fire pit? That they were, you know, eating the goats? Now, I don’t eat meat, so goats aren’t on my menu, but I hear that goat is the most-consumed type of meat in the world, and is increasingly trendy here in the United States. So wouldn’t having a decorated goat skull in your house be no more different than the many, many, folks I’ve met who display decorated cow skulls in their homes (particularly in the Southwest)?

Regardless of veracity, because of the “sacrificed dog” angle that all the initial reports have put out, the local occult/metaphysical community is now on the defensive.

“In my 41 years of practicing the occult, I’ve never come across any ritual or activity that involves killing dogs or cats,” [Eric Lee, co-owner of Mystickal Tymes] said. “This person sounds more like a sadistic individual that should be heavily sedated than an occult practitioner.”

Now think of the owners of that house. Even if the remains were goats that they ate, will they ever have peace again? Or will they be forever branded as the “dog sacrifice” family, and be slowly ostracized and exiled from the community? Will the local media do big flashy “exonerated” stories, or will we just get a quiet addendum that nobody pays attention to?

A final question. Why did the local SPCA officials on-scene instantly jump to the conclusion that these were dog remains, comments that were soon walked back after the fact? Could it be that many SPCA officials received training in “occult” matters from biased sources? In fact, state SPCA official George Bengal, who is quoted above, has made odd remarks about animal sacrifice in the past.

“An animal welfare official says a beheaded dog and cat found in Philadelphia appear to be the result of a ritual sacrifice. George Bengal, Pennsylvania Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals director of investigations, said the dog and cat were found … near a bike path in Philadelphia’s Olney neighborhood along with three beheaded chickens. He said he believes the animals were killed elsewhere and the remains dumped where a passer-by found them. Mr. Bengal said there is usually an increase in ritual animal sacrifices at this time of year because of “a lot of high holidays that different groups celebrate.” But he said most of those sacrifices involve goats and chickens.”

A different Pennsylvania-based SPCA official in 2009 harassed a Satanist, accusing him of abusing his pets, despite no evidence that this was occurring. He too was the victim of a “suspicious activity” call. Which makes one wonder, why does the Pennsylvania SPCA think occult practitioners are routinely harming dogs and cats? What data or evidence are they basing this on, and why were officials so quick to exclaim “dog” in Chester County, Pennsylvania when it might have been “goat” instead?

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  • Anonymous

    As a 25 year vegetarian who has traveled in the far east where people eat dog, the “whole shock at dog meat thing” is the very height of hypocrisy. It got even more ridiculous when they started talking about chicken parts on strings!!! OH MY! As a fry cook at Big Boys I touched a LOT of chicken parts in the 1980s. Am I a satanist? This T.V. report is just plain dumb.

  • Thelettuceman

    Ahh…sensationalist reporting.

  • I’ve both a cow skull in my garden and a coyote skull on my altar. I’m thinking of maybe labeling them now. >.<

  • Scylla (Root and Rock)

    There are MANY individuals who go around picking up road kill, and clean the bones. These cleaned bones go to vet schools, and supply houses for everything from medical studies to home decor. Dog skulls in particular go for between $50-$200 depending on the breed. NOTE, people do not go around killing pets for these – they pick up already, and unfortunately, dead animals.

    A new trend has been in metal-leafing them, or doing dip decals for some -very- weird home decor (think of a cleaned deer skull that’s covered in a 60’s flower power pattern).

    It has essentially nothing to do with the occult, save for the fact that occasionally, one of these suppliers will provide a pre-cleaned specimen to someone as a totemic fetiche.

  • Dver

    I would hope a SPCA official would know enough about animal anatomy to instantly discern the difference between a dog and a goat skull. Very different structures.

    And so what if it was dogs? Doesn’t mean they killed the dogs, just for the bones. They may have found roadkill animals, for instance. Domestic animal bones are legal to sell and own, and are available online from a number of sources. And decorating skulls is pretty trendy right now (I should know, I sell some of them).

    I’d really like to know why officials were at their house in the first place. Did they have some of this stuff in a place visible to outsiders? Or did they invite the wrong friends to their home?

  • Guest

    Great- so was there evidence of abuse or just beheaded and skeletonized things? Because the last time I checked, you behead things before you eat them. Otherwise its just cruel. There were no signs of any cruelty going on so far as I can tell. This is just sensationalism at its best. This is shoddy police work and irresponsible journalism.

  • ameth.jera

    I rent a room in a house owned by a former biology teacher who is the widow of a UU minister. There are some preserved frog, snake and lizard specimens on the wall, a loggerhead turtle skull on the back porch and a cat skull in the windowsill next to the computer I am using to type this…Maybe I should call the local police and report this ‘suspicious’ activity, because you never know…

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The SPCA officer quoted sounds like he’s drunk “occult expert” Kool-Ade.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    OK, maybe it’s because both my parents were biologists, but those photos of a dog and a goat skull don’t look *anything* alike. Look at the teeth, look at that nose bone the goat has. Sheeesh…

  • I was going to say the same thing myself. Daughter of a functional morphologist & a nurse, I would expect those ASPCA people AND the law enforcement officials to be able to ID those. The dental alone gives them away.

  • WhiteBirch

    I noticed the teeth too, but I’m the daughter of a veterinarian. It might be less obvious to someone less familiar to finding dog xrays on the dining room table?

  • WhiteBirch

    A trend is forming here! LOL.

    I do know, in the rural area where I live, the Animal Welfare people are not highly trained, nor are there nearly enough of them to do all the things they need to do. Not sure which part of PA that is, but there are definitely some areas where public service workers are understaffed, undertrained, and underfunded and it’s not really their fault.

  • When I was growing up, we put our pets (except for the cats) in the freezer to be fed to our dermestid beetle colony. We stopped for roadkill (I still do!), we saved bones from dinner. This was normal to us. It had nothing to do the “occult” — we were a science family.

    Nothing has changed except that now I have scads of “occult” material amongst my science stuff.

    My home is overrun with dead things. I have body parts of a multitude of species, not just the everyday sort. I have a plate with two dead birds on it that has been moved from room to room for over a month now b/c I haven’t had the time to tend to the poor things properly (they were extracted from the chimney). Given the “evidence” in the article above, I must have roasted those birds alive & plan to do something very dodgy with the remains. But first I must go consult my “occult” books for directions…

  • Wtdees06

    mmmmm….goat….now you’ve made me hungry.

  • Ursyl

    I watched the report. They did not say that only skulls were found. Bad and yellow journalism as that was, I’m going to make the wild leap that even those guys can tell the difference between the HEAD of goat and the HEAD of a dog.

    That said, my gut reaction was “since when does everyone have to be ordinary?” So much of that “reporting” revolved around how very out of the ordinary what those folks had was. So?

  • The eye sockets gave it away for me. “Eyes in front, animals that hunt; eyes on the side, animals that hide.”

  • Weird, the Palo Mayombe episode of Criminal Minds was JUST on tv last night.

  • Kilmrnock

    This is near Philadelphia , ABC 6 is a philly tv station . I live in northern DE , not far from there , Northern Delmarva.This one of the tv stations i watch regularly, the local ABC affiliate.Gotta love to way these news crews sensationalise this type of thing even b/f the bones and skulls are identified , and the occult materials statments . Unfortunatly the only way this type of stuff will end is if the people who own the house , if wrongly accused , sue for libel . Hit the SPCA and the local news station where it matters ……..in the pocketbook. This type of thing should be a non story until the bones are identified and charges filed.Kilm

  • Mia


    I’m going to crawl under a rock right now. Phone me when sanity returns.

  • Alex Pendragon

    Now wait a second here! We are Wiccan, and we own two cats, a dog, four goats, and a lizard, and as we consider them ALL members of our family, we have NEVER entertained the idea that some deity needed us to sacrifice them. We bought the goats for weed control, and as pygmy feinting goats, aren’t exactly “meaty” animals. But I DID have to put a bullet through a redneck neighbor’s pit-bull to stop it from chewing up one of my “girls”, which I guess you could say was a sacrifice I was more than willing to make……

  • Ivy

    Wow. This is probably the closest to my own home that one of these sensationalist news stories has hit. (And I feel fortunate.) I live two counties over, and in fact work down the street from Eric’s shop in New Hope. I’m a little surprised that SPCA and other law enforcement officers can’t tell a dog skull from a goat skull. Chester, Montgomery, and Bucks county have so many farms, and lots of folks growing (and slaughtering) their own food. And Coatesville is a stone’s throw from Strasburg and Lancaster, and the large farming communities there.

  • I suppose it could still turn out to be dogs, but if so, why then would George Bengal hedge his comments?

  • deerwoman

    “I’d really like to know why officials were at their house in the first place. Did they have some of this stuff in a place visible to outsiders? Or did they invite the wrong friends to their home?”

    I would like more information on this also. Under what pretext did they decide to investigate this house? I suppose their neighbors could have seen the chicken parts hanging from the trees in the backyard and been spooked. They state they have the homeowners in custody but the news has not yet identified them which is strange.

    I live in Southeastern PA so this is a little too close to home. I also have animal skulls on my altars and lots of books on witchcraft and the occult in my house so they’d probably conclude I sacrificed them in some grisly, evil ritual!

  • You were being sarcastic, yeah, Jason, about the dog and goat skulls being easy to confuse?
    Apart from being, at least in those photos, both white, they don’t look *anything* alike.
    And I’m slightly prosopagnostic.

  • Anonymous

    Politicians, reporters and zealots never let facts get in the way of a good story..

  • Boris

    Animal welfare people who cannot see the difference between a dog’s skull and a goat’s skull, but who are perfectly able to recognize “occult paraphernalia” ???

  • Harmonyfb

    Chicken on strings? You mean, like when you have to hang chicken carcasses to drain out the blood before you clean them? You know, like people do when they slaughter their own chickens? Ye gods, has this reporter never been to a farm?

  • Fvrnite

    Oh great, here we go again with the ” occult experts” God squad cops and sensationalized half-arsed ” reporting”. Any halfway intelligent person knows there is a difference in having animal skulls and the abuse/slaughter of animals for the sadistic ” pleasure” of it. In a number of rural areas, they still butcher their own animals for foods, not to mention hunt deer, wild boars, etc., and gee, sometimes they even preserve the animal skulls and mount them as a form of decoration.

    So I’m guessing according to these ignorant types, my kitty cat is in danger of me sacrificing him since I’m a Pagan.

    Ignorance of minority faiths and what they do and do not believe or do is unfortunately the norm for both the media and “law enforcement”. If the person butchering dogs in some sadistic act also happens to have a few ” occult” or ” witchcraft” books around, guess which gets the emphasis. Not his or her sadism, but folks like us get the blame.

  • SimonB

    Oh no! I’ve got a roe deer skull on mine (found it when out walking in the woods one day and cleaned it up) – perhaps I should do the same!

  • Lori F – MN

    Wow. Nothing like an unbias news report. [snark]
    Perhaps they were the bones of beloved pets who they chose to remember by gold leafing and placing on their mantle instead of having them cremated and boxed up or disposed of by a vet office.
    The report leaves me with more questions and no answers.
    Who reported this ‘suspicious activity’?
    What did the police expect to find?
    What if there had been crosses and bibles instead of books on witchcraft?
    Could these have been dogs who had been found by the roadside dead?
    As for the chicken parts hanging from a tree, is having chickens legal in that area? If you can have them, wouldn’t it follow that you would possibly EAT them? Maybe the parts that were hanging were an offering to a diety.
    Obviously nobody is asking useful questions or thinking logically.

  • A.C. Fisher Aldag

    Okay, folks, PLEASE. I understand our concern about this being labeled an “occult” crime or “ritual sacrifice”. Really. Yes, the authorities and press are jumping the gun.

    But someone would have to be a seriously sheltered city-slicker to mistake a dog skull for a goat skull. Goats do not have canine teeth. It would be patently obvious, especially for an ASPCA worker or Animal Control officer. I can see a raw rookie mistaking a goat skull for a deer skull… but failing to identify a dog skull? No way.

    Yes, the worry about “occult” labeling bothers me, too. Officials sometimes see innocuous items such as candles and knives, black curtains, and freak out. Especially at the scene of another crime.

    To me, it’s very obvious that the dog skulls, skeletons, and gold-plated bones are trophies given out for dog fighting.

    Dog fighting is much, much more horrid than animal sacrifice.

    Animal sacrifice is usually performed for food purposes as well as for a libation. My tradition, and many other religious traditions, thank our Deities and then kill an animal to make an offering. Jews, Santeros, Cymri traditionalists, Muslims, Condomble all practice some form of butchering and ritual sacrifice. It’s all over the “Bible”. We usually eat the meat, although blood or one haunch or the entrails may be offered to ancestors or the Gods. (Don’t be grossed out; what do you think sausages are made of? That’s right, blood, organs, intestines. Ask Paula Deen.) It’s usually done in a very humane manner — much better than the factory farms and slaughterhouses that kill animals for McBurgers or chicken nuggets.

    In contrast, dog fighters often steal pets out of yards and off tethers, and use them to “bait” the fighting animals. They use strays, they get unwanted animals from the dog pound. It teaches the fighting breeds to battle their opponents. Dog fighters force two dogs to fight each other to the death. Usually, two dogs will fight, but they won’t deliberately, savagely kill another dog… the other dog will run away. Dogs have to be taught to kill.

    Dog fighters also drug up their dogs to make them meaner. Dogs who have survived are scarred, often have eyes, ears and limbs missing. It is horrid. This made the news a few years ago, when footballer Michael Vick was caught with fighting dogs. Most dogs don’t survive more than a few fights. But more are bred in “puppy mills”. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dog_fighting Dog fighters often keep skeletonized remains, including skulls, for trophies.

    So while the authorities are “barking up the wrong tree”, chasing after occult figures that don’t exist, they’re letting the rest of the dog fighters in this locale get away. Dog fighting doesn’t happen in isolation. There are rings of offenders. There are audiences who bet on the outcomes. Instead of looking for “occult books” why aren’t the cops seeking the offenders’ “black book” with the name of all their dog-fighting cronies?

  • I tend to agree with A.C. on this one. I grew up in that area, and it is largely a farming area, so I am doubtful that the ASPCA people would confuse dog remains with that of a goat. But dog fighting is also a big problem in the region. And while it’s nice to “support our Pagan brothers and sisters” sometimes people are practicing their own thing that really is as ghastly as they make it out to be. Not saying that the “dog” remains and the “occult” displays inside the house are definitely connected, but it’s not impossible either.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    AC, I think you’re onto something here.

  • Mikey UK

    I think the most important part to your post is “[w]e are Wiccan”. Indeed! Wicca does not have a tradition of animal sacrifice, but that does not negate the beliefs of traditions that do. And I’m pretty sure those who do engage in animal sacrifice can tell the difference between an animal used for an offering and a pet.

  • Lori F – MN

    Here’s a thought… If this is dog fighting maybe the keep occult stuff to throw off police.
    My mind didn’t even go to dog fights.

  • Clutchk37

    and yet there are thousands of dogs and cats being killed in animal shelters and not a word said in the papers ,and in some shelters the way they are killed might be considered a ritual .

  • deerwoman

    Dog fighting is a strong possibility I had not considered. I had no idea that such people kept dog skulls as trophies. I hope the police and ASPCA are thoughtful enough to consider that possibility in this case and that they have not let their minds be clouded by the sensationalism of a possible occult connection.

    Thinking about this whole situation further, I also realized that these investigators could have easily mislabeled items as “occult” and “witchcraft” related which in reality were intended to be simply decor or novelty sort of items. The report did not go into specifics about the quantity or quality of said items. “Elements of the occult and witchcraft on vivid display” can be open to wide interpretation. Some people collect knives, swords, figurines, etc. which some would construe as “dark and disturbing” even though they actually have nothing to do with the occult. Perhaps the homeowners are LARPers and have accrued some menacing-looking costume items the police mistook for real ritual garb. I think the report may have mentioned books, but it could be possible that the homeowners had a spellbook or a copy of the Satanic bible around for entertainment or shock value that the investigators stumbled upon and immediately drew lurid conclusions despite the fact that the homeowners may not be practicing occultists of any sort or have any real links with Paganism.

    Without more information about the situation, I think it is premature to link the dog remains to the occult. Sadly though, even if the whole occult angle was blown out of proportion and/or the remains are shown to have zero relation to the occult or Paganism in any form, there will probably still be those who will remain convinced it was occult activity just from exposure to the original news clip.

  • Kilmrnock

    Has there been anymore info released , are those actually dog skulls and bones ?And i agree if it was dog remains the fighting angle need to be explored.If things go as usual , the media had their sensational lead story , no follow up will be done on tv . They will move on to the next big story. Kilm

  • Sunweaver

    A friend of mine is a teacher and regularly picks up roadkill to bury in his backyard. He cleans the bones and then uses them for science. There’s nothing occult about it.
    He’s a Mormon.
    I can imagine what a sensationalist animal rights activist would think of his backyard.

  • Wow, this is the first time I have read something of yours and been somewhat sympathetic to the agency you are criticizing. Yep, I agree they emphasized materials in the household as being related to occult and witchcraft irresponsibly, unnecessarily, and just plain ignorantly. However, to suggest that adults who are able to hold down a job are unable to tell the difference between the remains of a carnivore and a herbivore is a little over the top.

  • Except that it wasn’t me making that claim, but George Bengal, the director of law enforcement for the state’s SPCA. He’s the one who told reporters that “In his experience, goat and dog skulls can be easily confused.”