As with all book reviews By Dr Kokjohn, Opinions expressed here are not those of The Project Archivist podcast. Copies of this book have not been provided free of charge or complimentary for review. Tyler purchases his books.
A Review of
Stalking the Herd
Adventures Unlimited Press, Kempton, IL, 2014
Mr. O’Brien has produced an exhaustive, nearly 600 page study of the animal mutilation phenomenon from its earliest recorded history to the present. He reveals that over the last 20 years he investigated ‘about 200 potential mutilation’ cases personally and some of this research is included in the book. I applaud him for seeking to set the phenomenon into context and his sustained effort to collect information on a first hand basis.
The book appears not to have undergone thorough copy editing prior to publication and readers will discover errors sprinkled here and there. For example, use of the word ‘undulates’ when he meant ungulates and ‘shoot’ instead of chute as well citation of inaccurate names and dates. An index is not included and some of the illustrations are of such low quality or utility to the overall story they might have just as well been left out as well.
Six hundred pages to nowhere in particular
Mr. O’Brien has studied animal mutilations intensively for decades and worked hard to create a comprehensive description of the phenomenon. While enthusiasm is laudable, his effort reflects an expert’s tendency to commit detail overkill. Possible readers are advised that a substantial portion of the book consists of tedious recounting of mysterious animal mutilation events. The stories generally follow a similar pattern and long before the author notes their interchangeability on page 427, I suspect many readers will have become totally frustrated after slogging through so much repetitious material. Worse, anyone expecting the copious body of evidence presented in the book to be subjected to a comprehensive overarching analysis will be disappointed. Although he suggests many possible, perhaps simultaneously valid ‘explanations,’ the vital critical assessments will be provided in the next book (revealed on page 550). Overall, I think Mr. O’Brien inadvertently provided a solid synopsis of his work on page 500; “…I’m embarrassed to say that I may be more confused now than I was back in 1993 – at the beginning of this investigative work.”
The missing pieces
It is amazing that a book almost 600 pages long could turn out to be so incomplete. The data and supporting material gleaned by the investigator personally and directly from the animals/actual event locations would literally be where the rubber meets the road for most researchers. The factual backbone of their own work becomes an evaluative standard to assess the long-standing ideas of others and a springboard to formulate new hypotheses. Despite his extensive boots-on-the-ground work (documented with numerous photographs of the author), it was disappointing to see so little exposition regarding the specific methods Mr. O’Brien used to collect/evaluate evidence and surprised to see such a small amount of it detailed in the book. Did he pose a standardized set of questions and employ a uniform procedure to collect samples from the animals and the immediate environment? How did he gather control samples? Where are the data/results? How do his findings compare to the accounts of others? No photographs to document any findings like ‘serrated’ incisions, laser cut/cauterized tissues or comparisons to experimental attempts to replicate the findings? By what criteria did he decide whether or not a possible mutilation event was due to animal scavengers? For anything more than brief and vague descriptions we must wait for the next book.
The confounding problem of investigator bias was noted at the beginning of the book in the Foreword by Greg Bishop (You Will Find What You Expect to Find) and again in the concluding remarks on page 550, suggesting Mr. O’Brien has uncovered consistent indications of preconceptions among other researchers. In light of the potential problems one has to wonder how much of the material presented in this book is deemed fully reliable by the author. In effect, he fails to exploit what should have been the most consistent datasets of all – the ones he created as the products of his personal investigations of over 200 cases – to both tell and put some order to this complicated story.
Deferring critical assessments of information to the next book comes back to haunt the author again on page 455 where he describes “The Blood Sucking Scorpion Crab Thing” and heaps questionable information from another source into an already bloated manuscript. Mr. O’Brien reiterates material previously published on the Journal of the Bizarre blog linking a witness report of a cow being attacked by a strange creature in Nebraska with a new presumptively subterranean crayfish discovered accidentally nearly 20 years later in Pennsylvania. Notwithstanding a determination to cover the subject completely, readers would have benefitted if the author had been more discriminating in his use of source material or attempted to extend the previous work with confirmatory investigations of his own. The eyewitness account of a cow being attacked is a one-off story from far ago with not much to reveal in the way of actionable information although it does suggest a hypothesis he seems not to have pursued. But the account of the frozen cave creature has far more potential for direct corroboration. Skeletal remains of the creature are shown in a photograph and the original article (http://journalofthebizarre.blogspot.com/2012/05/mysterious-creature-discovered-in.html), where are they now? Have any DNA tests been performed on the bone material? These questions are so obvious that it seems odd Mr. O’Brien did not at least offer an explanation for his lack of investigatory follow up. Even more so when one looks at the reproduced photo carefully or examines the original journal article which has more illustrations. Ignoring the obvious red flag that a creature unknown to science was described by a non-expert author who wished to remain anonymous, Mr. O’Brien opted for the path of least effort and repeated an obvious hoax. This lapse wastes the reader’s time and propagates a myth.
The food supply clearly poses numerous potential threats to human health making its security and safety matters of serious public concern. However, as the author noted on page 526, wild and domesticated animals have long been appreciated to be reservoirs of grave diseases such as anthrax, tuberculosis and influenza. Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, or mad cow disease) represents a new and deadly serious development, but prion disease in domestic animals is not unprecedented. Scrapie, a prion disease of certain varieties of sheep, has been known for centuries (noted by the author on page 528 and elsewhere). Might cow mutilations reveal concerns about transmissible disease agents in the human food chain? Many of the diseases cited in Chapter 12 have been well controlled for a long time, one, rinderpest (cattle plague), is now considered extinct. To avoid falling prey to the spurious and coincidental correlations that have confounded the workers he cited, the author needed to identify the specific agents of concern in the context of their long-term pattern of occurrence, interactions with other pathologic agents and geographic distributions. In addition, Mr. O’Brien needs to address some vexing contradictions posed by his own research. For example, the historical evidence he presents reveals the long history of cattle mutilation events predated the germ theory of disease, the inception of the U. S. government, black helicopters and the great mad cow disease epidemic by a wide margin.
Are mutilations a domestic animal prion sampling effort and a graphic warning the food chain is compromised (page 542)? Most of the accounts do not seem to describe the aftermath of the sampling protocol that would most reliably reveal mad cow disease. Because the mutilated remains are accessible this hypothesis could be verified by direct experiment. However, I urge the author or anyone he interests in conducting such direct investigations to consider the risks and proceed only with the utmost of caution. Also, they may do well to consider that there are alternative methods to seek prion contamination evidence. Hard to imagine the putative aliens or super-empowered human agents have not explored easier surveillance options.
If cattle mutilations are a warning the perpetrators face a harsh reality regarding its impact. After centuries of effort the hapless humans still do not have a clue. It is all pretty hard to swallow.
Tyler A. Kokjohn, Ph.D.
Professor of Microbiology
To purchase your own copy of ”Stalking The Herd” By Christopher O’Brien click the links below