A mysterious dead animal that was first spotted July 31 on a Douglas County road in Minnesota. Photo: KSAX-TV

Last week workers at Prince George’s Hospital Center in Maryland found a strange, nearly hairless animal described as “a kangaroo, dog, rat mix.” X-ray technician Joe Livermore said “It’s got a rat tail and a head like a deer. I don’t know what it is.” Even though no one knew what it was, they knew what to call it: “Prince Chupa,” after the mysterious vampire chupacabra (the world’s best-known monster after Bigfoot and Nessie). The animal has been tentatively identified as a fox with mange.

About a month ago a Texas boy shot and killed a weird-looking animal he claims is a chupacabra. Carter Pope saw the four-legged, dog-like animal walking across an open field before he opened fire: “It had no hair at all on it,” he said. “Its back legs were shriveled up. I honestly think it’s a chupacabra.” DNA results are pending, though it’s likely a coyote or dog.

And just a few weeks ago a strange animal was found on a rural Minnesota road, described as “ghostly white and hairless, its neck bloated out of proportion with the rest of its limp body” and “half human.” There was a lot of speculation about the monster (which turned out to be a badger), including, you guessed it: chupacabra. Earlier chupacabras found in Texas and elsewhere have all turned out to be known animals like dogs and coyotes.

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What’s going on? Chupacabras in Maryland, Minnesota, and Texas? Are we in the midst of a national invasion of Hispanic vampires? How can badgers, coyotes, foxes, raccoons, dogs, and other animals all be (at least temporarily) called the chupacabra? How is it that chupacabras can be everywhere and yet their existence remains unproven?

Shifting Definitions

The answer lies in the lexical evolution of both the word “chupacabra” and the public’s understanding of what it means. In the mid-to-late 1990s, chupacabra referred to a very specific, unique creature: a bipedal animal that stood about 3 to 5 feet tall; had long arms and legs; a large oval-shaped head; alien, wraparound eyes; and a distinctive row of spikes down the spine. This was the original description given by the world’s first chupacabra eyewitness in August 1995 in Puerto Rico. The creature was said to suck the blood out of livestock and small animals (“chupacabra” means “goat sucker” in Spanish).

Later research, published in my book “Tracking the Chupacabra: The Vampire Beast in Fact, Fiction, and Folklore,” revealed that this original chupacabra report described a monster in a science fiction film, not anything in real life. Thus the whole origin of the monster is based on an eyewitness’s mistake.

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That original version and definition of the chupacabra largely faded away by about 2000, and a completely new and different version of the chupacabra emerged in the mid-2000s. The two-legged, spiky-backed, blood-sucking alien-type chupacabra all but ceased to exist, replaced by the hairless doglike animals we see today. A string of dead animals were found, most of them in rural Texas. The finders, not knowing what else to call them, used the name chupacabra though the animals had no connection to the Puerto Rican monster at all. This new chupacabra even lost its famous appetite for blood: None of the chupacabras found have any proven connection to blood-drained animals.

In the years after the creature’s first appearance in 1995, the word chupacabra lost whatever original meaning it had, and became a catch-all pop culture term for any strange animal seen or found. This broadening of definition is nothing new; language evolves along with culture. Words are often used incorrectly and far removed from their original meanings.

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Many trademarked names, for example, are (incorrectly) used generically, from Jet Ski to Rollerblade to Kleenex and Wite-Out. These words, which originally described very specific, unique products, became so widely used that their informal definitions broadened—much to the annoyance of these company’s trademark lawyers. People use “jet ski” to refer to a wide variety of personal watercraft; “rollerblade” to mean any inline skates—and “chupacabra” to mean any weird animal.

Why does it seem like chupacabras are everywhere? Because neither the general public nor most journalists know enough about the history of the chupacabra to understand that the word doesn’t mean what they think it means. They use the word as if it refers to a particular vampire monster, whereas in fact today in common usage it just means “weird animal.” If people find a strange animal they suspect might be a chupacabra, I have created a fairly scientific, valid list of ways to identify the beast.