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Forget Big Foot: Big Teeth Is Making Its Mark

Mexicans give their anxiety over the economy and a drought a frightening face

After Big Foot of California, the Abominable Snowman of the Himalayas, and the vampires of Transylvania, now Mexico is adding a chapter to the Big Book of Strange and Other-Worldly Monsters who periodically surface to send people into a frenzy - especially in troubling times.

The Mexican beast is called Chupacabras, or goatsucker, because for the past few weeks farmers have been going out to their goat or sheep herds in the morning only to discover carcasses with deep fang-like wounds. According to the farmers' reports, the animals are drained of blood.

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The reports of livestock deaths by some strange fanged visitor began in Mexico's north. But by the end of last week TV news programs were showing maps of reported attacks in virtually every region of the country - including Mexico City.

After one farmer reported getting a good look at a predator the likes of which he had never seen before, an artist's rendering was created showing a fiery-eyed demon with pointed teeth, two front fangs, and a long devil-like tail waving at the end of a body covered with long brown hair.

But that rendering lost some credence after fishermen at a northern Mexico reservoir discovered, near the site of heavy livestock killings, the purported remains of a strange winged beast with a cat-like head - and again, those terrible teeth. The fact that the earlier beast was only a reported sighting, while the winged creature was left untouched until TV cameras could record its features for broadcast, quickly made the flying version of the Chupacabras the more popular one.

By the weekend, last week's T-shirts sporting a hairy, rat-like monster had metamorphed into newspaper cartoons featuring a winged predator that was a mix between a bat and Dracula - with former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari's big ears, bald head, and mustache often making it clear who the country's intellectuals believe is the real Chupacabras.

Not everyone, however, is taking the phenomenon as a joke. Mexico's environment secretary, Julia Carabias, made an impassioned plea for Mexicans to remain calm in the face of what she guesses is the work of some variety of canine.

White-coated biologists appear nightly on TV, earnestly explaining why the fang marks are probably those of coyotes or wild dogs, or how a serious drought in northern Mexico might be driving normally human-shy animals down from the hills.

But to no avail. Receiving better billing are other "scientific" hypotheses of normal creatures gone mad from toxic chemicals building up in the environment, of biomedical experimentation gone horribly wrong, or of a sudden proliferation of vampire bats - a creature long part of Mexican lore.

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With some farmers already devastated by the drought and facing extinction as their withered crops are replaced by imports, a crazed flying monster is as good an explanation as any for what is sucking the life out of the countryside.

And in Mexico City, one cartoon suggests the real Chupacabras is the economy, thus zeroing in on the susceptibility of a population reeling from a year of deep economic hardship. In one neighborhood, a man caused an uproar by screaming "Chupacabras!" after he saw a "big, strange, furry beast" run from a lifeless pigeon. Hundreds of neighbors gathered, but only after the police and the Red Cross arrived was it determined that a hungry alley cat had done the deed.

Now it seems the Chupacabras may be seeking human victims. One woman reported being attacked by a flying, fanged beast and showed neighbors the bites to prove it. Journalists promptly arrived, but a local official suggested the perpetrator of the neck bites was probably not more threatening than the married woman's human nocturnal visitor.

It's beginning to sound like time for Gabriel Garcia Marquez, or perhaps Mexico's own Carlos Fuentes, to write this country's version of the Crucible - or the Scarlet Letter.

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