Police think it was likely a “voodoo” ritual or a park picnic gone wrong.
While walking in Manhattan’s Highbridge Park near the Harlem River on Sunday, a park-goer discovered a sealed Corona beer box. The person pried it open, revealing some typical picnic fare (fruit, vegetables, and soda) and some more unconventional items (animal bones and a cooked horse head).
Horse meat is technically legal to purchase and eat in New York. But a patchwork series of state and national laws—as well as a culinary culture that views horse slaughter as inhumane—has turned horse meat into an underground market. It’s one that thrives in seedy internet forums and, apparently, in New York City’s public parks.
While police do not suspect any criminal actions in the Highbridge Park horse head case, they are investigating whether the animal could have been cooked as part of a “voodoo” ritual connected to Saturday’s Dominican Republic Independence Day, the NYPD told the New York Post. Washington Heights, the neighborhood where the horse head was discovered, has a strong Dominican-American community, although “voodoo” has little to nothing to do with the Dominican Republic Independence Day.
Nevertheless, occult rituals are often blamed for the animal carcasses that appear in New York City’s parks with alarming frequency.
On the same day that the Highbridge Park horse head was discovered, sheep and goat remains were found in nearby Inwood Hill Park. They join over a dozen other mutilated animal carcasses found in city parks over the past two years, according to public record. Among these creepy findings have been a goat head pinned in a tree while its body lay “wrapped in a red sheet and on the ground,” a series of decapitated birds arranged in a circle, and a cow tongue full of needles attached to a tree.
(The unofficial record for cow tongues found in a New York City park goes to a 2009 incident, in which 15 calf tongues were nailed to Prospect Park trees.)
Some New Yorkers liken the displays to ones that originated from West African religious practices and spread to some Caribbean nations. Nailing a tongue to a tree, for example, is believed to “to silence damaging rumors or court testimony” in some Afro-Caribbean religions, writer Erik Baard said, explaining a cow tongue discovered in a Brooklyn park last year.
But the dramatic displays of animal parts have led some to question whether the carcasses are part of an elaborate practical joke. While religions like Santería and Vodou are often associated with ritual animal sacrifice, practitioners of these religions told writer Adrian Chen that leaving animal parts like goat heads in a public place would be considered disrespectful in their religion.
Regardless of why they continue to show up in New York City parks, goat heads and cow tongues are relatively easy to obtain. Horse heads? Less so. The U.S.’s last horse meat factories closed in 2007, suggesting that the Highbridge Park head was either imported or killed outside a licensed slaughterhouse.
And unlicensed meat plants are sometimes the least troubling aspect of the U.S.’s horse meat trade. In October, a prize show horse was believed to have been butchered for meat after it was stolen from its Florida owners. The slaughter was one of a string of horse thefts in the state, a crime spree that resulted in raids on three illegal Florida slaughterhouses. Among animal abuse charges, the slaughterhouse owner were also accused of selling horses for meat and “black magic and sacrificial purposes.”
Police say they are still investigating the Manhattan horse head.