Scared horse in barn.

What the strange case of horse mutilations in France reveals about our state of mind

The incidents may be a natural phenomenon, but the pandemic has made us more accepting of the sinister

Laura Spinney | The Guardian | Selected Excerpts

The animals have been found missing ears and genitals, with eyes torn out, or deep, clean cuts to their bodies. The recent spate of horse mutilations reported across France has provoked horror and outrage. Satanic cults have been mooted, or individual perpetrators engaged in copycat crimes. But what if the panic reveals more about our collective state of mind in 2020 than any new and twisted form of human behaviour?

The reports started trickling in in January, but they picked up dramatically over the summer, until they were providing a sinister drumbeat to an already strange holiday season in France. Around 150 investigations of animal cruelty are under way, in more than half the country’s 96 metropolitan departments. Internet sleuths put the number of incidents closer to 200.

The outpouring of emotion on social media has been accompanied by efforts to organise vigils and share photos of vehicles lurking suspiciously close to fields and stables. On 7 September, the minister of the interior, Gérald Darmanin, visited horse breeders in the northern department of the Oise and warned them not to take justice into their own hands.

Two days later, the minister for agriculture, Julien Denormandie, announced that a dedicated phone line had been set up, where breeders could report incidents. One man has been arrested, but he was released after his alibi checked out. By then, a photofit portrait of him had been shared nearly 500,000 times on Facebook. Not that those on Facebook are listening, but a few quiet voices have raised the possibility that no one is responsible for the shocking injuries.

On 3 September, Le Monde pointed out that they could be a natural phenomenon – horses that have hurt themselves or died naturally and been set upon by scavengers such as foxes and crows.

Previous scares, from the US to Germany, have eventually been explained this way. In the UK, in the decade from 1983, a rash of horse mutilations was widely blamed on a “horse ripper”, but despite prolonged investigations no conviction was ever made. Experts concluded that most of the injuries were sustained through accident or post mortem. A fox’s teeth are razor sharp, apparently; they can inflict damage that closely resembles a knife wound.

If you were to approach the problem scientifically, you might start by asking how many horses are found mutilated in France in an average year, and measure excess mortality in 2020 – just as epidemiologists have done throughout the pandemic. That would give you an indication of whether there is anything unusual about this year. If there is, you would then raise a number of hypotheses to try to explain the increase, and investigate them methodically.

In France, to date, investigators seem to have made the classic error – the staple of many crime dramas but also of real-life miscarriages of justice – of zeroing in too fast on a single hypothesis. Nobody even seems to know if the number of mutilations noted this year represents a departure from the norm. Instead, ministers have asked the public to be vigilant – ensuring heightened attention to the phenomenon – and spoken of barbarians and justice. It’s hard not to see a vicious cycle at work: the number of reports increases; ministers respond with promises to catch the culprits, with the public’s help; the reports increase again.

Why have French investigators focused their efforts on a single, tenuous theory to the exclusion of all others? Perhaps it isn’t so surprising, given French people’s state of mind – and not just theirs. For months, while the pandemic has raged, we’ve all absorbed a steady stream of chatter about deep state intrigue and “foreign interference”.

Some conspiracies are real. A trial is ongoing in Paris of suspects in the terrorist attacks of 2015. But there is also a close association between belief in conspiracies and seeing patterns where they don’t exist. The case of the mutilated horses may constitute a crime, or it may be one more illusory pattern jumping out at a world on edge, primed to see the wood and not the trees. If it’s the latter, the dangers are twofold: that innocent people will be punished, and that the real cause will go undiscovered. The only way forward is to keep an open mind, and to follow the data.

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Laura Spinney is a science journalist and author. Her latest book is Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How it Changed the World.

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