A Slam-Dunk Debunk
Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore by Benjamin Radford. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque, 2011. ISBN: 978-0-82635-015-2. 202 pp. Softcover, $24.95.
Benjamin Radford is a longtime scientific investigator of fringe-science topics with an emphasis on cryptozoology. The University of New Mexico Press has published Radford’s latest book, Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore. Though modestly titled, this book is arguably the greatest cryptozoological book ever written. It’s a winner in every way, a slam-dunk debunk of the mystery surrounding the new monster on the block: el chupacabra.
Radford builds his case methodically, starting off with a history of vampire legends in general. After all, chupacabra literally means “goat sucker” in Spanish and as such falls squarely within the realm of vampiric tradition. Many people become familiar with vampires through popular media such as books or movies. In America, the emphasis is on European or American monsters. Yet Radford demonstrates that vampiric legend is a worldwide phenomenon that goes far back in history. Not surprisingly, each culture has a slightly different spin on the legend, and the culture of Puerto Rico, where the first chupacabra reports originated, is no exception.
The Puerto Rican version of the chupacabra legend incorporates elements of anti-American sentiment as well as conspiracy theories and religious “end times” notions. The chupacabra myth sprang up to explain dead animals left behind that had been killed (and supposedly left bloodless) by unknown predators. Radford methodically investigates how these animals probably died.
There’s an entire branch of science, taphonomy, that deals with what happens to animals after they die. Radford’s account is both accessible to the lay reader and sparing in unnecessary gore; all photos are in black and white. A near-reprise of the cattle mutilation flap of the 1970s, virtually all cases of alleged chupacabra attacks involve animals dying by ordinary predation, not by having their blood sucked. Using both photographs and drawings, Radford illustrates how an untrained individual might come to misinterpret an animal’s death as the result of a blood-sucking beast.
Sometimes asking a simple question leads to a surprising result. By the time the chupacabra legend went north to the United States, the beast had changed from a bipedal being with spikes down its back to a quadruped, something along the lines of a dog, wolf, or coyote. These animals are all canids, and as such have certain familial characteristics. Radford works through a very simple, non-intuitive question: Is a canid even physiologically capable of sucking blood from an animal’s wound?
The technology behind DNA analysis has progressed so quickly during the beginning of the twenty-first century that it’s not surprising that it has been used to identify the carcasses of animals claimed to be chupacabras. Without fail, DNA analyses of these animals have shown them to be known species or, occasionally, hybrids of known species. In many cases the carcasses are hairless, or nearly so. Radford includes a treatment of the nature of sarcoptic mange, which can cause an animal to lose most if not all of its fur. Hairless canids often look very different from normal, healthy animals.
The real death blow to the chupacabra legend was Radford tracking down and personally interviewing the first known chupacabra eyewitness, a Puerto Rican woman named Madelyne Tolentino. To borrow a term from epidemiology, Tolentino was “patient zero,” i.e., the single person from whom the tale originated and spread. This is the point at which everything falls into place, giving Radford’s investigation an almost Euclidian elegance. A careful examination of Tolentino’s account demonstrates virtually beyond a doubt that her sighting was a confabulation with a work of fiction.
As with a geometric theorem, the elegance lies in the process of the proof, not just the result. Radford freely admits that it may seem like overkill to put so much time and energy into debunking an intrinsically unlikely monster. Yet the beauty of Radford’s book is that we get to watch how things ought to be done. The investigative process is as important as the ultimate conclusion. Radford’s book is a must-have in any good crypto-library.