KEY LARGO -- Authorities are investigating why the bodies of decapitated animals are being found in a Port Largo canal.
More than two dozen birds, including chickens, and at least one goat body was found in the Port Largo Villa's canal, according to property officials.
"This was really freaking out our guests," said manager Marcy Myers.
Two weekends in March, Myers was alerted by patrons that animals' bodies were floating up near the docks. In one instance, the body had been placed in plastic bags. She suggested the actions could be linked to Santeria, a religious practice that employs the sacrifice of live animals.
Santeria has West African origins and a heavy following in the Caribbean.
Myers described the bodies as fresh and not bloated, suggesting the slaughter was recent.
Monroe County Sheriff's deputies responded to the canal, but told Myers there was nothing they could do.
"They were a bit nonchalant with the whole thing," she said.
Sheriff Rick Ramsay and Capt. Don Fanelli did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Myers said she noticed Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission investigators knocking on doors along her street. The resort manager described some of her neighbors as strange, and has warned a few about trespassing onto the property, she said.
Rehabilitators at the Florida Keys Wild Bird Center say they occasionally treat birds suffering from wounds suggestive of Santeria.
In fact. Amanda Margraves, the center's hospital manager, said she witnessed a man trying to decapitate a duck a few months ago not far from the bird center. When she tried approaching him, she said the man fled, but not before leaving behind evidence of his actions.
The practice of Santeria is more common on the mainland, where some stores in Florida City sell birds and ducks for that purpose alone. A 1993 Supreme Court ruling recognized Santeria as a religion and established its practitioners' right to sacrifice animals without torment.
"It's really disgusting," Margraves said. "I hope it's not coming down here."
Though not very prevalent, these ritualistic sacrifices are not altogether uncommon in the Upper Keys.
In 2007, a severed goat head found in the Marine Mammal Conservancy canal was linked to the death of a dolphin calf.