TAMPA — A cardboard box filled with headless animals was discovered early Wednesday outside the Falkenburg Road Jail — just a week after a cow's tongue riddled with nails was left in a box near the courthouse.
Authorities say they are investigating whether there is a link between the two incidents.
The other questions they are investigating: Were the carcasses left at the jail part of a ritual animal sacrifice? And how would the cow's tongue fit into the mix?
The Sheriff's Office is looking at whether the mutilated animals might be connected to Santeria, a blend of African religions and Catholicism that uses animal sacrifices as part of its practices.
Deputies believe the box was intended for an inmate at the jail, but have no way of knowing which one, said Hillsborough sheriff's spokesman Larry McKinnon.
"It wasn't left there by mistake," he said.
The white cardboard box was discovered about 4:30 a.m. Wednesday by a Hillsborough jail deputy walking to the parking lot. It had been left near the front entrance of the jail.
Inside were the bodies of a small white goat, two baby chicks, two roosters and a dove, McKinnon said.
"All were headless," he said.
Last week, a deputy saw a suspicious package near the parking lot of the county courthouse, said Tampa police spokeswoman Laura McElroy. The Police Department's bomb squad arrived but discovered the box held something strange, rather than potentially explosive:
A cow's tongue, studded with nearly 100 nails.
She said police are investigating who left the tongue and for what purpose.
Religious groups are permitted to use animals as part of their rituals without risking animal cruelty charges, McKinnon said.
In 2007, Coral Gables officers raided a home where practitioners of Santeria were slaughtering goats, chickens and pigeons. Several worshippers were held at gunpoint and detained for hours.
The next year, a new entry was added to the Miami-Dade police handbook, reminding officers that federal and state laws protect many religious practices.
Some Santeria experts question whether the two incidents have anything to do with religious ritual.
Mozella Mitchell, chairwoman of religious studies at the University of South Florida, said that in Santeria, the animals that are offered up to the gods are typically cooked and consumed after elaborate ceremonies in which the blood is poured onto the ground "to feed the spirits."
Leaving headless carcasses at the jail, she said, "is not a legitimate practice. … It's a prank."
Mercedes Cros Sandoval, a retired anthropology professor and Santeria expert at Miami-Dade College, said the box of animals left at the jail could be part of a voodoo ritual or just an individual acting on his own.
She said it also might be an attempt, however clumsy, at magic: appeasing gods with animal sacrifices in exchange for getting someone out of jail.
As for the cow's nailed tongue left at the courthouse? "Oh, geez," she said.
Sandoval said nails, or anything metal, could be a ritual offering to a mythological god called Ogun.
Or, she said, the more obvious explanation is one that does not require an anthropology degree:
"A tongue with some nails in it," she said, "is 'Keep your mouth shut.' "
Reach Jodie Tillman at email@example.com or (813) 226-3374.