TAMPA, Fla. -- Animals sacrificed for the living. The sight can be unnerving and even terrifying for those not familiar with the practice.
From Africa to Cuba and even along the shores of a Florida lake, sacrificial rituals continue in modern society. Afro-Caribbean religions like Santeria involve animal sacrifice in their most important cleansing ceremonies.
"[This has been going on] all through history!" says Dr. Mozella Mitchell. She chairs the religious studies department at the University of South Florida and has written books on mystical religions like Santeria.
Mitchell points out that animal sacrifice dates back to ancient Greek society and the Biblical accounts of Genesis. "These religions [like Santeria] retain the ancient traditions of animal sacrifice. They're appealing to the gods to do something good, to communicate to them something good to help to benefit their society rather than to harm anybody. They're not trying to harm anybody at all in their ceremonies."
Still, most everyone recognizes that animal sacrifice can evoke a negative response. We asked Dr. Mitchell why people respond the way they do? "They just don't know. It's ignorance. They don't know about the traditions. They don't know about the history. They think it's something new and something devilish that's going on... you know, evil."
But is there something evil at work in Florida that looks a whole lot like Santeria?
"There's a dark side to every religion in the world, and there are those who do black magic," Mitchell adds.
TV reports from Miami and West Palm Beach to Orlando and right here in Tampa Bay have all covered incidents of animal sacrifice:
Just days ago, people in Port Saint Richie awoke to chicken feet tied with ribbons around their door knobs. Residents there speculated, "They're supposedly into Santeria or voo-doo."
Last Halloween, headless goats and chickens covered a Miami street, prompting neighbors to tell reporters, "It looks like witchcraft, some type of Santeria."
In Tampa several months back, a string of headless animals turned-up along the Bay at the eastern end of the Courtney Campbell Causeway. Coastal clean-up volunteers gasped at the discovery, calling it "gruesome."
June 23rd, a security guard found a cow's tongue in a box with 100 nails driven into it just outside the Hillsborough County Courthouse.
July 3rd, Sheriff's deputies found another box outside the Falkenburg Road Jail. This one held a white goat, two baby chicks, a rooster, and a dove -- all headless.
Those type of rituals and sacrifices, Dr. Mitchell says, are not associated with Santeria. She says they're individuals practicing some kind of black magic: trying to cast a hex to stop a liar, to free someone from jail, even curse someone with years of bad luck. In the worst cases, Mitchell says it can be someone practicing black magic to kill someone else.
"The powers in nature can be used for either good or evil," Dr. Mitchell says, "And there are those individuals who are evil and want to hurt other people and to use these various forces in nature to play tricks on people and hurt people, damage people." When we asked if any of that can actually happen, Mitchell quickly responded, "Yes, it can be accomplished. It can be accomplished."
However, for believers of Santeria, one thing they haven't been able to accomplish is setting themselves apart from those performing black magic; even though Santeria has existed in the Bay Area since the Cuban migration to Ybor City in the late 1800s.
"Even today, even though the law does not forbid them to practice [Santeria], still, there are social stigmas that they look down upon them and condemn them," Dr. Mitchell tells us.
It's that lack of public acceptance that keeps much of this mystical religion and those who practice it to remain in the shadows.
Animal sacrifice, through Santeria, is considered a protected religious practice by the United States Supreme Court. However, there is a gray area. Leaving a headless animal in public after the ceremony is finished can be considered a criminal offense. It's up to the discretion of local law enforcement and judges.
Follow 10News Reporter Chase Cain on Twitter @chase_cain
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