Santería or voodoo, they’re used to headless chickens at Tampa cemetery

Animal sacrifice for religious purposes is a protected right, but leaving the carcasses behind is not.

Tampa Bay Times/November 28, 2019

By Paul Guzzo

Tampa — Angela Alderman made a trip to the Centro Español Cemetery last week to visit aunts and uncles buried there.

It is usually a peaceful journey for the former star of the Ghost Hunters International television show. She brings flowers, sits by their graves and talks to their spirits.

But during her latest trip to the cemetery, 2504 E 21st Ave., she was shocked to find three headless chickens outside the gate. The heads lay beside the carcasses. The legs were wrapped in ribbons.

“Those poor chickens,” Alderman said.

She wondered, Was it a religious ritual? Was it legal?

Religious, likely — maybe a Santería or voodoo plea to aid someone who’s sick, said Tori Lockler, a professor of religious studies at the University of South Florida. But probably not legal.

“When people think of the dark side, they are thinking of the pop culture version of these traditions,” Lockler said. “In reality, they are asking for help.”

They’ve seen chicken sacrifices before at the cemetery, said John Rañón, president of Centro Español social club.

“It happens intermittently,” Rañón said. “Sometimes every three months, sometimes every six months.”

Typically, he added, the chickens are left at the gate but sometimes at a grave.

“Whenever an incident is reported, we make arrangement for the caretaker to dispose of the material from the premises,” Rañón said. “We would prefer that it doesn’t take place. I can’t imagine the majority of the families who have loved ones there would find favor with the practice.”

Santería, Spanish for “worship of saints," is a blend of the African religion of Yoruba and the Roman Catholic faith. Animal sacrifice to help cure a love one’s illness is among the religion’s practices.

“They believe that by offering the blood or energy from an animal that the animal is taking on the illness of that individual,” Lockler said.

The sacrifice is performed in a private place.

There was no blood around the chickens — two brown and one white — left at the Centro Español Cemetery. They were likely beheaded elsewhere.

Still, while Santería practitioners might bring the sacrifice to a cemetery, they typically deliver it to a particular grave to ask for that ancestor’s help.

“The fact that it was left at the gates is a more general call for help,” Lockler said. “That would be calling on the dead or working with the dead for help” in curing someone’s illness.

That’s more of a voodoo tradition, she said.

“Don’t think that means it is dark,” Lockler said. "That is a misnomer. When we think of dark, we think of people causing harm on another person. This is meant to help someone.”

The Tampa Bay Times called four local shops that specialize in Santería and similar religions. None would comment.

Lockler said that is common among followers of the religion.

“The traditions that are most open to the public, like Christianity, are looking to bring in followers,” she said. “Santería is not. So they are quiet. There is no reason to talk, especially when it can bring negative press because people don’t understand.”

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1996 that animal sacrifice for religious purposes is protected from prosecution. Still, governments can require that a sacrifice is performed humanely and that carcasses are properly disposed of for health reasons.

“The court case recommended that they do not leave the animals out in open spaces,” Lockler said.

According to Florida statute, “It is unlawful to dispose of the carcass of any domestic animal by dumping such carcass on any public road or right-of-way, or in any place where such carcass can be devoured by beast or bird.”

The state considers all poultry to be domestic animals.

The infraction is a second degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail, six months probation and/or a $500 fine.

The Times asked the city of Tampa and Tampa Police Department whether they enforce the law. Neither agency had an immediate response.

Still, Lockler said, those visiting the cemetery should not be afraid.

No one is cursing the cemetery or trying to raise the dead, she said. Rather, someone believes the sacrifice can bring cure a loved one.

“It must be for something serious,” Lockler said. “They wouldn’t do this for bronchitis."

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