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What's up with dead roosters in the middle of the road?
October 28, 2010

Dear Cecil:

A dead rooster was dropped in the middle of an intersection in our neighborhood recently (Springfield and Belle Plaine). It was smashed (from having been run over?) and seemed to have had its entrails pulled out deliberately. A neighbor reports having seen other dead roosters over the years, in the same intersection as well as in others. Our police department liaison says it's unlikely that there's a cock-fighting connection but can't come up with any other explanation. Gang initiation? Voodoo ritual? Urban-chicken rumble? What's the poop, Cece?

My Aim Is True, Chicago

Cecil Adams replies:

People ask why I love living in the big city. It's because I get asked questions where the two most reasonable answers are (a) urban chickens and (b) animal sacrifice. Let's consider these one at a time.

Urban chickens. According to some, raising chickens in the city is the latest well, calling it a trend is surely an exaggeration, but it isn't the outré notion it used to be. The claim, as argued on the Straight Dope Chicago Message Board, is that people now keep chickens in the city, occasionally a few get free, and every so often one winds up as roadkill. Thus the carcass in the intersection.

Anything's possible. However, I point out that we're not talking generically about chickens, but specifically about a rooster. If you've had any experience with roosters, and I'm here to tell you I have, you know they're not critters whose presence is easily overlooked, owing to their propensity to start crowing at three o'clock in the morning. (Or maybe four. The roosters I encountered lived under our cottage during a week-long stay in Kauai. My sense of time when awakened wasn't the best.) I feel confident that if urban roosters were on the loose in your neighborhood, My Aim, you wouldn't be asking where that carcass came from. You'd want to know how to make roadkill out of the rest.

Animal sacrifice. This is the more likely explanation, in my opinion. As you may imagine, it gets us into murky territory pretty quick.

I'll be blunt. Your first thought on hearing a story like this is that it bears the hallmarks of Santería, a secretive religion described as a blend of West African beliefs brought to the New World by slaves plus Roman Catholicism. Santería has a sizable following among Hispanics, with an estimated 70,000 adherents in the Miami area alone, and quite a few in Chicago — the most prominent local believer is White Sox manager Ozzie Guillen. The religion has no churches for the most part, no central organization, no book of common prayer. There are just a few core elements: a belief in spirits called orishas; priests called babalorishas or iyalorishas; and a conviction that one needs periodically to slit an animal's throat.

The last item, not surprisingly, has been controversial. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a ban on ritual animal sacrifice by the city of Hialeah, Florida was unconstitutional because it was aimed at the Santería religion.

Some don't see any necessary connection between street-corner carcasses and Santería. The Trib's Eric Zorn, who considered a similar question in his blog a few weeks ago, ventured the opinion that this didn't sound like the kind of thing followers of the religion went in for. An expert I consulted, Miguel De La Torre, a religion scholar and author of Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals of a Growing Religion in America (2004), was likewise skeptical, for reasons to be discussed. Nonetheless, I point out the following: 

  • In February 2006, Elmhurst police arrested Jose A. Cruz for tossing a "still-flapping but decapitated chicken out of his car," the Tribune reported. "Cruz told officers he killed the chicken for good luck because he was about to drive home to Florida. [Police] said Cruz practices the Santería, or Lukumi, religion, an African-based faith that originated in Latin America. Followers sometimes sacrifice animals, most often chickens, believing that they can receive help from deities." Cruz was charged with littering.

  • In 1994, police interrupted a Santería ceremony involving 30 white-robed worshippers at a residential building in Humboldt Park after receiving a call about animals being killed. According to the Tribune, authorities subsequently removed more than 200 animals, including two "large crates of 'chickens/roosters'; 11 baby goats; a dozen more chickens; two ducks; a baby lamb; a large crate containing about two dozen pigeons; numerous bird cages containing about 100 parakeets, finches and a cockatiel; 'three unlicensed dogs'; a dead baby goat and a dead pigeon." Neighbors said the building's owner was a Santería priest. If all you saw was a rooster, My Aim, count your blessings. Things could have been a lot worse.

  • If you'll forgive my going a little further afield, each day janitors at the criminal courthouse in Miami clean up Santería offerings, including deceased chickens, left in hopes of influencing a case.

  • You said that rooster carcass was found in the middle of an intersection. Elegua, one of the most prominent Santería orishas, is the god of the crossroads. Professor De La Torre told me a sacrifice at an intersection could be an offering to Elegua by someone whose path is being blocked.

On the other hand:

  • Santería tends to be the default explanation whenever dead animals turn up. Browsing through the archives, for example, I find reports of (a) a decapitated goat, rooster and hawk found at the top of an Oak Park sled hill in December 2007, and (b) a dead 150-pound black bear discovered in a park in Queens, New York, in 1995 with a crucifix stuffed in its abdomen. Authorities in both cases speculated about a link to Santería, but cited no proof. It could have been well, I suppose we can't persuasively chalk up the bear to roadkill. Voodoo, perhaps? Professor De La Torre observes that Santería and voodoo are close cousins, the primary difference being that, whereas Santería originated in Cuba as a fusion of Yoruba beliefs with medieval Spanish Catholicism, voodoo, having arisen in Haiti, combines Yoruba elements with Catholicism as practiced by the medieval French.

  • Professor De La Torre also points out that the disemboweled rooster could could just as easily have been the work of a mentally disturbed teenager, or some copycat who ran across an account of Santería ritual on the Internet. Adherents of Santería generally don't mutilate the animals they sacrifice — more often than not, they eat them.

By now, I imagine, you — well, maybe not you, My Aim. Maybe you're toughing it out. However, I'm guessing a good many sensitive souls are thinking: oh, gross. One concedes there are unsanitary aspects to Santería ceremonial practice, if in fact that's what this was. However, to put the matter in perspective, it wasn't the Yoruba who came up with the idea of eating God's body and blood. For what it's worth, Professor De La Torre says he's seeing signs that Santería is becoming more Americanized (read: blander) as adherents internalize the bourgeois proprieties — the probably inevitable process by which yesterday's carcass in the crossroads turns into today's Halloween.

Then again, maybe this was something else altogether. I can't wait to find out what.

— Cecil Adams
Photo by James Emery, Wikimedia Commons

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