A MONSTER IS winging its way over Tucson. It's out there, prowling the night sky, ready to strike without warning.

Or so say excited reports from various quarters of the city over the last few weeks, reports that have enlivened local news coverage and the police beat alike in the normally lackluster days of early summer.

The sightings of this monster have been few but consistent, yielding descriptions of a creature that combines the features of vampire bat and kangaroo, with just a hint of armadillo thrown in for good measure. Said a Mexican search-and-rescue worker who spotted it at a reservoir near Agua Prieta, Sonora, in a splendid instant of non-Linnean classification, it was "like a turkey or a kangaroo, but it had a beak because it flew."

Until recently, the creature kept itself south of the border, busily doing unholy damage in the Republic of Mexico. In one place it visited recently, the small town of Villalba, Veracruz, 20 roosting chickens were found slaughtered, their chests perforated as if by some huge talon. Victor Santiago, Villalba's chief of police, said, "We have no explanation, because it is difficult to catch a chicken that's asleep in a tree. It's a very strange case. A very complicated case."

In the neighboring barrio of El Tuque, 16 ducks were similarly massacred, while farmers throughout the Pacific coast state of Jalisco have been reporting animals slaughtered by the hundreds in the last few months.

Just weeks ago, the monster was reported to have been captured in the tiny ejido of Alfonso Calderón, Sinaloa. When a team of government researchers arrived in the remote hamlet, the creature had disappeared, but not before biting a young woman on the arm. It flew away, the villagers said, north toward Arizona.

It didn't waste any time buying trinkets in Nogales. El Chupacabras, as the creature is known, supposedly made its evil way to Tucson, where it reportedly landed behind a small rise off Tanque Verde Road. According to a spokeswoman for the Tucson chapter of MUFON (the "Mutual UFO Network"), the monster was observed coming out of the sky one mile east of Wentworth Road. It had an "eight- to 10-foot wingspan, a two-foot beak, was about five feet tall, and looked furry," she said.

It was also blue.

Image The beast quickly went to work elsewhere in the Old Pueblo, attacking the Espinoza family of North Palomas Avenue. "It had big red eyes, a pointy nose, pointy ears, and a wrinkled face," said Joe Espinoza, after the beast allegedly hopped in an open window and sat on his son--and, he added, it "smelled like a wet dog." An aunt was called in, aunts being the ghostbusters of choice in Mexican American households, and she immediately identified the footprints as those of a chupacabras. Tucson Police officers were more skeptical: They said the prints were those of the three-year-old boy himself.

Chupacabras means "goat sucker." (Miami Herald columnist Dave Barry suggested it was also Puerto Rican slang for "attorney.") On the island of Puerto Rico, where stories of its activities first arose, it has been held responsible for a bloody wave of nocturnal terror, slaughtering whole herds of cows, chickens, and sheep. Last Halloween, as reported in the daily tabloid El Vocero, the beast "sucked dead" 20 parakeets. In an assault reminiscent of that on the Espinoza household, the monster was also reported to have jumped in a window and "murdered" a stuffed teddy bear, which it then covered in a "puddle of slime." Before escaping back out the window, the chupacabras left a "rancid piece of meat" on the sill.

Lately, it appears, the chupacabras has acquired a taste for human blood as well, giving the tale--one that has quit Puerto Rico for the broader climes of continental North America--a dark new twist.

Tokyo has its Godzilla, Loch Ness its sea serpent. And now Mexico, and lately the Sonoran Desert borderlands, has a monster all its own, giving joy to demonologists, UFOlogists and teratologists throughout the region.

AS IT TURNS out, the chupacabras--or something very much like it--has been seen in Tucson before.

Native Tucsonan Rick Scherb, the owner of R&P Auto, recalls, "When I was a kid in the '50s, we used to hear all these stories about a Goatsucker thing, only this one was half kangaroo rat. It supposedly would come up the Santa Cruz from Nogales and get anyone out wandering at night. The story disappeared in the '60s, but now it's back."

While it was around, other stories have it, the "goatsucker thing" chewed up flocks across southern Arizona, leaving carnage in its wake.

Joe Urrea, a lifelong resident of the Tucson area, had a run-in with the creature in the 1950s, when his family was homesteading outside of Oracle. One day when he was playing in the yard, Urrea says, the door of the outhouse creaked open. There, to his surprise, lurked a tall kangaroo. It peered out around the edge of the door, then beckoned him to come forward. Urrea believed the creature meant to do him harm. He ran, and never saw it again.

Image Killer kangaroo sightings continued through the '60s and '70s here and elsewhere. (A photograph of one standing in a Nebraska cornfield made the rounds of strange phenomena publications a few years ago.) These sightings are not isolated; in fact, evil 'roos are a lesser-known staple of American folklore, and they crop up with remarkable regularity across the decades, as in the case of the blood-drinking kangaroo that supposedly terrorized southern Tennessee in 1934. The creature's depredations were eerily similar to el chupacabras', marked by dead cattle, mutilated animals and other victims of its frightening nocturnal forays. It munched on scores of dogs before bounding away "as fast as lightning," as one eyewitness reported.

That the creature has not been spotted for so long does not much bother devotees of cryptozoology, the supposed science of "hidden biology." One member of MUFON cheerily remarked that the creature has a 30- to 70-year life cycle, which would handily explain its intermittent comings and goings--and its sudden reappearance as well.

That reappearance in the form of the chupacabras has led to much talk within the UFO community, some of whose members see in the creature the hand of some special evolutionary power that may or may not have extraplanetary origins. John Green, speaking at a recent MUFON gathering in Tucson, believes that within "the hoaxing, hysteria, and exaggeration, there is a core of fact" in the matter of the chupacabras. Green, who holds a doctorate in plant genetics, postulates there are several possible sources for the chupacabras, a creature whose reality he does not doubt.

The first is in genetic mutations--"the raw tools of evolution"--among bird species, which he believes have already yielded such creatures as the gryphon, a four-legged mutant raptor immortalized in heraldic crests and coats of arms. (Someone in the audience was heard to say, "It's a pissed-off bat.") The second is in a weird race of aliens who are just beginning to make themselves felt. "If humans descended from killer apes," he asked, "is it possible the chupacabras is their killer ape?" Still another is the pterodactyl, the prehistoric winged creature that, so some fans of bizarre phenomena maintain, survived the worldwide demise of the other dinosaurs. "Bats and pterodactyls," Green comments, "could live together in the rainforest canopy, and most people wouldn't know the difference."

With pterodactyls, Green hits on a magic word. Pterodactyl stories have long punctuated the folklore of the American Southwest, emerging long before scientists had even given a name to the long-extinct flying reptile. On April 26, 1890, for instance, the Tombstone Epitaph reported two cowboys had discovered and shot down a creature, a "winged dragon," resembling a pterodactyl, but on a massive scale. The cowboys said its wingspan was 160 feet, and that its body was more than four feet wide and 92 feet long. The cowboys cut off the end of the wing to prove the existence of the creature, but the rest of the body apparently disappeared--as, evidently, did the wingtip.

On September 14, 1983, a paramedic named James Thompson was driving alongside the Pecos River Gorge of West Texas when a creature buzzed his car. It had, said Thompson, "a five- or six-foot wingspan and a rough gray hide," much like, yes, a pterodactyl. Local legends have sprung up along the Rio Grande of a "Big Bird," one that matches Thompson's description of the creature.

And in 1990, a 21-year-old woman from Mesa, Arizona, awoke in the night to discover she had half an ear missing. Rising from her blood-soaked sheets, she saw what she called a flying reptile winging its way across her lawn. Mesa police had no comment, except to say "there was just no logical explanation" for her misadventure.

LATELY, IT WOULD appear, the pterodactyloid kangaroo creature has been on the move--but only where people speak Spanish.

The folk origins of the chupacabras are murky at best, but they seem to emerge from the collision of indigenous Taino Indian myths about a vampire-like reptile with ancient European stories about the Goatsucker, a kind of bird that at night would descend to drink the milk of sleeping ruminants, spooking the flocks in the process; shepherds in antiquity would attribute a goat's non-productivity during the day to this nocturnal milking. (For unknown reasons, ornithologists have named a set of bird species caprimulgidae, meaning "goatsuckers" and including nightjars and poorwills, among other non-demonic birds.)

The chupacabras legend was first related in the Puerto Rican hamlet of Orocovis. From there the story made its way to the market town of Canóvanas, and thence to the Dominican Republic and, carried by immigrants and travelers, to Colombia, Venezuela and Costa Rica. It traveled as well from rural Puerto Rico into borriqueño urban centers, and thence to the off-island communities of Miami and New York.

There the story collided with long-circulating tales of the Jersey Devil, a creature originating in Lenape Indian myth. The Jersey Devil's favorite haunt appears to be the backwoods Pine Barrens of New Jersey. That legend had enough currency that an enterprising businessman made a small fortune at the beginning of this century exhibiting a supposedly captive Jersey Devil to crowds of eager onlookers. It developed, however, that the Devil was actually a kangaroo painted green, with false wings attached to its shoulders.

Many swear to the Devil's existence, however. One is John Irwin, a summer park ranger in the Wharton State Forest of New Jersey. Irwin was patrolling one night in December 1993 when, he claimed, "He noticed a large, dark figure emerge from the woods. It stood like a human, over six foot tall, and it had black fur that looked wet and matted." The Forest Service report of the incident went on to state, "John sat in his car only a few feet away from the monster. His initial shock soon turned to fear when the creature turned its deerlike head and stared through the windshield. But instead of gazing into the bright yellow glow of a deer's eyes, John found himself the subject of a deep glare from two piercing red eyes."

The Jersey Devil--for such it was deemed to be--seemed to be "contemplating some hellish decision," in the words of the report, but then disappeared into the woods.

Introduce the Jersey Devil to a rural Caribbean vampire, and you have the makings of the modern chupacabras, an astonishing example of ancient folklore dusted off and remade to fit the specifications of the present day. And folklore it is, says Sergio Castillo, a producer for TELEVISA, the Mexico City-based network that has largely been responsible for the goatsucker's current level of notoriety, thanks to its incessant broadcasts of monster-related stories. The whole business of the chupacabras "is pure fairy tale," Castillo remarks--but a profitable one, drawing in hundreds of thousands of avid viewers.

For UA folklorist James S. Griffith, the growth of the legend is a marvelous thing to behold.

"What we're seeing partway through is the start of something new," Griffith says, "and that is folklore or popular belief spreading through electronic devices, something akin to the War of the Worlds business of the '30s. That was a hoax taken literally. This one is a folk invention spread by TV and radio, with or without tongue in cheek. The story is being transmitted all over the Spanish-speaking world, and with it belief--and some panic--is also spreading."

Image Griffith believes the origins of the chupacabras story lie in the mysterious stock killings that occasionally plague herdspeople around the world, killings most often attributed to wild dogs. "Anglo-Americans have mysterious stock killings, too," he remarks, "and we often wind up attributing them to Satanic cults and such. We're comfortable with the notion of things among us that look like us, but are not us. Mexicans and puertorriqueños, I think, are more comfortable with the idea of a mysterious animal that may or may not be extraterrestrial. What I'm interested in seeing is whether the chupacabras in the borderlands is going to join legendary animals like la corua (a water serpent), la onza (a bearlike cat) and el carbunco, a little four-footed animal, sometimes with wings, with a light in its forehead, that a lot of people say they've seen in fields in northern Sonora."

Thanks to heavy-rotation electronic broadcasting, the chupacabras story has taken on a life of its own, and it is sure to spread: first to Hispanic communities in Colorado, Illinois, the Pacific Northwest, and then outward to merge with tales of sasquatch, winnetou, squonk, and whatever else it meets. As it travels, the story will surely acquire all kinds of new twists, an evolutionary mutation all its own.

"Everybody is using the chupacabras for their own purposes and that's just wonderful," Griffith says. "The humorists are having a ball, the journalists are having more fun than anyone, and people are selling T-shirts and souvenirs and making money as the story grows. And the people who want to be scared get to be scared, too."

FAIRY TALE OR no, they're having a field day with the chupacabras in Mexico, where some wags aver the creature is really the disgraced ex-president Salinas de Gortari trying for a comeback after having robbed the country blind during his term.

In Rocky Point, vendors are walking the beaches selling the dried exoskeletons of skates as the corpses of baby chupacabras. In Agua Prieta, where sightings of the chupacabras have been legion in the last few weeks, street vendors are selling blood-red fruit drinks with the winking promise that they contain the vital essence of chupacabras. And the vendors of Mexico City, not to be outdone, are selling "chupa sandwiches," filled with mystery meat drenched in ketchup.

On the East Coast, the chupacabras and the Jersey Devil are now enshrined on T-shirts depicting their joint adventures, a team of anti-superheroes made for the 1990s. There, too, new tales of the Jersey Devil are making the rounds, a phenomenon that seems directly linked not only to the emergence of the chupacabras, but also to an episode of the supernatural TV series The X-Files devoted to the Jersey Devil.

The rest of the world seems eager to catch up. Zanzibar, for example, has developed a particularly horrifying variant on the chupacabras. Known there as the popobawa, the monster seems to be a kind of baboon with bat wings. As reported in The Guardian in October 1995, however, popobawa has two unique features as yet unseen on this continent: He has a single glowing eye and he sodomizes men in their sleep. Zanzibar's men were not amused and went so far as to hack an unfortunate fellow to death when they suspected he was the monstrous creature in human form. In another twist, the island's head minister accused the opposition party of creating the popobawa for political gain, while the opposition immediately accused him of being the monster.

Chupacabra, popobawa, pterodactyl, E.T.: There's much hay to be made in Tucson as well. In a town already full of monsters, the king-hell father of them all has touched down. TW

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