TAMPA — Animal lover Lisa Hayworth stopped near the Courtney Campbell Causeway boat ramp Monday evening looking for stray cats to feed.
Instead, she made a grisly discovery that disturbed her but didn't surprise her: Several beheaded chickens and, later that night in a different spot on the causeway, a beheaded goat and duck.
Hayworth had found headless birds on the causeway about 20 times in the past. This time, she called Tampa police, which has launched an investigation.
"It just made me mad," the 54-year-old Safety Harbor resident said. "You come to the point where you've had enough of something and that's where I was. It needs to be documented so know the volume we're dealing with."
Hayworth was on her way home after volunteering at the Animal Coalition of Tampa's Spay Day when she decided to stop about 6:30 p.m. and leave food for cats along the causeway that people dump there. In the sandy area of brush, she came upon two sets of three beheaded chickens. One set was decomposing, the second was fresher, with the heads nearby along with flowers and fresh pineapple, watermelon and apples.
She called Tampa police and an officer came and wrote up a report.
After he left, Hayworth saw several people carrying bags down to the water near the boat ramp. She asked them what they were doing. One of the men said something about frogs. She didn't see any animals, live or dead.
"I said, 'I don't believe you, I know what you're doing and you better stop right now,'" she recalled. "Everyone started speaking in Spanish and got in their cars and left."
She called police again for that incident. The responding officer mentioned he saw a kitten farther east along the access road.
She went to look and smelled her next discovery before she saw it: a small, multi-colored goat, a duck head and some roosters and chickens lying among the rocks. All the animals had been decapitated. She called police again, and two officers came out to take the new information.
Hayworth said it seems clear the animals were killed as part of a religious sacrifice. Tampa police spokesman Steve Hegarty said investigators agree that's a solid theory but were working to find out more.
The fruit and animals are the kinds of offerings made by followers of Afro-Caribbean religions such as Santeria and Palo Mayombe to deities called orishas, said Tori Lockler, a visiting instructor in the University of South Florida's Department of Religious Studies. But Lockler said it would be too hasty to conclude the culprits are practicing those religions.
For one thing, true practitioners would not leave offerings in such a public place, where they could be desecrated by being found and disposed off, Lockler said.
"There's a high amount of regard for the animal before and after the sacrifice, so to just discard the animal like that would be seen almost as sacrilege," she said. That said, though, she acknowledged that some could opt to practice their faith in ways that don't strictly align with tradition.
The U.S. Supreme Court has given some level of protection to sacrificial activities, but it's far from absolute, Lockler said. Governments can still pass laws requiring religious practitioners to do sacrifices humanely and dispose of carcasses safely.
Those are the types of considerations police have in mind, Hegarty said.
"If you have some sort of ceremony that involves sacrificing a chicken, you can't just drop the carcass in the park," Hegarty said. "It could possibly be animal cruelty or some sort of safety issue, like improper disposal."
For Hayworth, it's another disturbing front in Tampa Bay's problem with animals and bridges. The Florida Highway Patrol is investigating a spate of cats thrown onto the Howard Frankland Bridge. Hayworth's fellow animal lover and Dan Hester, founder of Meow Now, has offered a $5,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Hayworth is an active volunteer for the group that works to spay, neuter and vaccinate stray cats in Pinellas County to control population.
As for the causeway, Hayworth implored the culprits to stop leaving animals for other to find.
"People are out there to relax and have fun," she said, "and you don't expect to come upon decapitated animals."
Times staff writer Sara DiNatale contributed to this report. Contact Tony Marrero at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374. Follow @tmarrerotimes.