When decapitated animals and a blood-smeared pentagram turned up in different parts of San Francisco, it wasn't long before people started using the S-word. Two S-words, in fact: Satanism and Santeria.
Residents on the 800 block of Capp Street woke up one early-August morning to the sight of a dead goat and chicken -- both beheaded -- in the gutter. One week later, a local hiker on Bernal Hill discovered a pentagram covered in animal blood. Bernal residents regaled a KTVU reporter with tales of animal heads dangling from trees.
Mission Loc@l quoted a Capp Street neighbor who claimed the discarded fauna and fowl were the work of locals who practice Santeria. Meanwhile, on the pentagram scene, the Bernalwood blog shrieked, "Satanists Conduct Unholy Ritual on Bernal Hill!", and our news blog editor fingered both Satan worshipers and Santeria, which of course have nothing to do with each other. Santeria, a religion based in West African, Caribbean, Catholic, and Native American traditions, is practiced by roughly 22,000 Americans, including an unknown number of San Franciscans.
"It's not for them to say it's Santeria," said Mary Ehm, owner of La Sirena Botanica on Church Street. "For us, the animals are very sacred. To do a sacrifice and leave it out in the street, that's not right. That's not Santeria."
Animal sacrifice is part of Santeria, but is only performed for major mojo: healing the sick or cleansing the spirit, for example. And there are other options, such as cleansing with fruit. All sacrifices -- fruit or animal -- are then taken into the mountains to "return to the Earth and feed the animals," Ehm said.
Goats are the high poobah of sacrifices in Santeria and can be taken only by a high priest, she added.
When people peg crimes such as dead animals on Capp Street or Bernal Hill on Santeria, "word goes out and then people think everyone does it," Ehm said.
The story is similar among Satanists, most of whom don't sacrifice animals. In fact, Satanists who follow the philosophies of Anton LaVey and the Church of Satan, once headquartered in San Francisco, actively oppose the practice. Theistic Satanists, who actually worship Satan, rarely kill animals in the name of the divine.
So who's decapitating animals? Who's painting pentagrams with animal blood?
Dr. Randall Lockwood, senior vice president of anticruelty services for the American SPCA, has noted that "sacrificial remains found in parks, especially those adorned with talismans like candles or pennies, are most often the work of religious novices, teens, or satanic dabblers."
Chalking up these events to legit religious practices is especially bad juju for people who get caught in the crossfire. Take, for example, the West Memphis Three, teenage boys who were falsely convicted of murdering a trio of Boy Scouts in rural Arkansas and spent 18 years behind bars before their release last month. One of the accused, Damien Echols, practiced Wicca. But in the early '90s Southern U.S., at the end of the Satanic Panic, a teen Wiccan is transmogrified into a Satanic ringleader who sacrifices little boys.
"A good deal of the fear, misinformation, and rushed conclusions in these matters is partially due to anxiety over cultures and traditions we don't understand, and partially due to the actions of various 'occult experts,' who have been sensationalizing and over-stating the problem of ritual animal sacrifice to law enforcement and animal welfare officers," said Jason Pitzl-Waters, author of The Wild Hunt, a widely read blog devoted to pagan news and issues. "This often leads to unfortunate rushes to judgments, and instances of innocent men and women being accused of animal abuse due to their decor or stated religious preferences."
Fortunately, in San Francisco -- where animal sacrifice is illegal under the health-code, police and animal-control officers seem to have their heads screwed on straight. Beheaded animals and other types of sacrifices do turn up from time to time, according to Capt. Vicky Guldbech with the San Francisco Department of Animal Care and Control. But neither she, nor Capt. Greg Corrales with the San Francisco Police Department's Mission Station, would peg them on a specific faith.
"It's horrendous, but we get a lot of either ritualistic killings, or animal sacrifices for religious reasons," Guldbech said. "When it's done right, you're not going to find it, because it's clean, it's done properly. But then there are those who pretend ... Is it a religious killing? Probably not. Are they trying to cast spells or threaten people? That's probably more like it."
Investigators have no leads in either incident.