Park policeman Kevin Fornshill was patroling Rock Creek Park on a Sunday this spring when a couple flagged him down to inform him that they had seen a dead bear on a nearby trail. Fornshill investigated but found no bear. What he found was a dead goat, though he understood how the couple had misidentified the furry mass. “The goat’s head had been surgically removed,” he says.

A few days later officers discovered another beheaded goat in a sylvan enclave near the Rock Creek Park Horse Centre. The goat’s hooves had been bound.

And in June, the National Park Service rangers who guide tourists through the 19th-century Pierce Mill just off Beach Drive found something even more primitive to talk about: three mysterious jars, each of which contained two handmade voodoo dolls tied together and bathed in a heavily perfumed crimson potion. A couple of months later, rangers found a “liberated” chicken in a clearing by the mill. “They tend to be dead when they don’t have a head,” observes ranger Richard Quin.

Park police have logged six such incidents in the park so far this year and have reported roughly 50 over the past decade, though “not all involve decapitated animals and things like that,” says officer Mike Horman, Rock Creek’s de facto animal-sacrifice expert.

In his wanderings through the park’s woods, Horman has collected an inventory of altars and animal-sacrifice implements, which he keeps at the park’s headquarters. The people who build the altars, he says, are devotees of Santería, an Afro-Caribbean religion that was imported to New York City in the late ’50s and has since spread nationwide. Santería followers believe in one god, Olorun, who is the source of all life. Animal sacrifice is one way Santería worshipers communicate with Olorun. Rock Creek apparently has all the elements for the occasional alfresco beheading.

Maureen Nelson has been riding horses at the Horse Centre for over 10 years. Now and then she spots a chicken or a brightly plumed rooster clucking around the barn. She assumes the animals have escaped the sacrificial scalpel. “We call them voodoo chickens,” she says. Other riders have heard drums in the woods, seen an assortment of altars on the trails, and found goats “with parts missing.” However, no one has ever caught any worshipers in the act. “They’re very anti-social,” says Susanne Ward, another barn rat.

But sharing the woods with Santería devotees doesn’t freak out the park’s equestrians. “It doesn’t seem weird to us anymore,” says Nelson, adding that chickens have been popping up and drums have been throbbing in Rock Creek Park for years. Horman says the Park Police found a drum set in the woods a couple of years back but don’t often receive complaints about drumming.

Rock Creek Park is a logical spot for sacrifices. It’s just around the corner from what is reported to be a healthy population of Santería followers in Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant. It is full of wooded recesses where animals can be carved up in privacy. And it has plenty of rocks, which are an important element of a Santería sacrifice. Worshipers must pour the blood of the sacrificed animal onto rocks to make contact with orishas, who are Olorun’s emissaries.

I rode some of the park’s trails in search of Santería sites and even staked out the park at night, but found no altars and heard no drumbeats. An outing with Horman, however, turned up remnants of a sacrifice site, which included a bowl and some corn. Most ceremonies skip the bloodletting and celebrate with rituals involving cigars, rum, and fancy foods. Typical Santería altars consist of colored candles, coins, coconuts, fruit, flowers, and feathers arranged in a specific way, Horman says.

Despite Santería’s geographical dispersion, the religion remains so far underground that determining the exact number of practitioners locally and nationally is tough. Ada Luz, a Cuban-born Santería priestess who practices the religion out of her Silver Spring home, estimates that there are between 10,000 and 20,000 devotees in the Washington area, including roughly 100 priests and priestesses. Adherents flock to local specialty stores called botanicas to stock up on Santería ceremonial articles. Botanicas like Adams Morgan’s Botanica San Lazaro have a heavy Catholic flavor, peddling wares common to folk piety such as rosaries, prayer books, medals, and statues.

Blood sacrifice is probably the least understood element of Santería. Mainstream Washingtonians no doubt consider animal sacrifice primitive—if not repulsive—but to Santería’s followers it actually represents a highly cultivated way to show devotion to the orishas.

In Santería, sacrificial animals are never slaughtered in cruel ways. “The cuts are quick and clean,” claims Joseph M. Murphy, who has written a book on the religion called Santería. Respect for life and death are behind the sacrifice, which is reserved for major calamities and events, such as a serious illness or the consecration of a new priest. “Animals die so that human beings may live,” Murphy explains.

In a 1993 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that animal sacrifice constitutes a religious sacrament protected under the First Amendment. So even though it’s not something the Park Police want to promote, animal sacrifice is legal in Rock Creek Park—as long as it’s done in daylight, when the park is officially open. “Everybody who comes into the park after dark is a concern,” Horman says. “You’re just inviting trouble.”

And the Park Police have had little trouble with Santería followers, despite their penchant for leaving gored animal carcasses near picnic sites. “It’s not like you’re finding Satanic cults up here at night,” says Horman.CP