Guests staying at the Port Largo Villas have been making macabre discoveries over the past three weeks -- decapitated animals floating in the canals at the resort at mile marker 100 oceanside.
Marcy Myers, Port Largo Villas manager, said staff and guests have found 16 dead animals, including birds and one pygmy goat, floating in the water with their heads lopped off.
"My guests going to the dock trying to get to their boats have been finding them, and it's freaking them out," Myers said this week.
The birds include mainly chickens and roosters, but pigeons and even a headless osprey have also been found.
Myers called the Upper Keys Animal Shelter, which operates as the county's Upper Keys animal control agency. Marsha Garrettson, who leads the shelter, said she had one of her officers conduct a door-to-door investigation. The officer also removed the dead animals from the water.
"He let people know what was happening and how we don't tolerate animal cruelty in the county," Garrettson said.
The culprits behind the animal deaths are likely practitioners of Santeria, a religion originating out of West Africa that includes elements of Roman Catholicism. Its name means "way of the saints."
Santeria came to Cuba during the slave trade and has since spread to other regions, including South Florida.
According to a BBC report on the religion, animal sacrifice is one of its central practices. In 1993, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Santeria practitioners are within their constitutional rights to sacrifice animals.
Still, Garrettson warned that anyone caught sacrificing animals in Monroe County would be prosecuted.
"It's against the law to torment and torture an animal, and there is no proof of religious activity," Garrettson continued. "All you have is proof that an animal is tortured, tormented and killed. We see that as animal cruelty, a violent act."
Deputy Becky Herrin, Monroe County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman, said she has heard about and seen animals that appear to have been sacrificed, but the problem is far from widespread.
"I would say I have seen what might have been Santeria sacrifices a small handful of times in the county in the years I have been here, but I certainly would not call them common," Herrin said. "And discarding the remains in a waterway would not be the proper way to dispose of them."
Even for animals killed for food, Garrettson said there are state and federal laws mandating they be slaughtered humanely and quickly. But even those laws are not applicable in Monroe County since people cannot keep livestock here.
"It's just not accepted," she said. "Livestock cannot be owned in Monroe County.