Police receive their first call about ritual animal sacrifices as neighbors become aware that Santeria is being practiced in their town.
A Miami Lakes resident trimming branches hanging over her yard from a neighbor’s tree one recent Saturday saw a large white goat in a cage in her neighbor’s yard.
That Sunday, as she was again trimming branches, she caught a glimpse of a large white cross and heard singing — ”mumblings” — and the clucking and crowing of a rooster.
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She also saw a severed goat’s head on the neighbor’s pool deck.
For Susan Weber, it was confirmation that an unfamiliar religion was being practiced in her neighborhood.
‘I went to tell my husband about it all and he said, `They’re probably going to have a sacrifice,’ ” Weber said.
But to Weber, a 14-year resident of the 15200 block of Northwest 88th Avenue., the unusual sights and sounds were more than part of an exotic and unfamiliar religion; they could mean illegal acts were being committed.
‘When I saw the goat head, I said, `I’m calling the police,’ ” Weber, 52, said.
Whether the activities that Weber observed were strange or, at least, out of place among the expensive, pastel-colored stucco homes in the relatively newer sections of Miami Lakes depends on who is asked. Whether they are legal is not in dispute.
Two Miami Lakes police cars responded to Weber’s call at 3:25 p.m. March 21, and officers questioned the owner of the home in the 8700 block of Northwest 153rd Ter.
When police confirmed the resident had killed a goat and a rooster in a religious ceremony, they left, Miami Lakes Town Cmdr. Frank Bocanegra said in an interview.
The homeowner — a babalawo or high priest in the Santeria faith — asked that his name not be used, saying he wants to keep his religious beliefs private because people don’t understand them.
Ritual animal sacrifice has been constitutionally protected for at least 10 years.
In a landmark religious freedom case, in which the city of Hialeah attempted to ban the practice among followers of Santeria, the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993 ruled that animal sacrifice is a religious right contained in the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.
The case did not say that religious animal sacrifice was protected from governmental regulation, only that it could not be prohibited solely because of its use in religious ceremonies.
In 3-year-old Miami Lakes, where county zoning ordinances apply while the town’s own codes are being written, Assistant Town Manager Ralph Casals said as far as he knows, the only issue is keeping of goats and fowl in residential areas, which is not allowed in the county code.
Casals said the city’s legal department is still investigating the matter since the resident who made the sacrifice apparently had kept a goat and a rooster on his property, albeit for a short time.
”If it’s a code violation, we will take appropriate action,” Casals said. The city could issue a warning against the homeowner.
Legal issues aside, residents in the west Miami Lakes neighborhood differed in their reaction to their neighbor’s ritual sacrifice of animals.
For Ruben and Olga Gacet, it was a happy coincidence when they moved about a year ago from Hialeah to a home in the 8700 block of Northwest 153rd Terrace. Their home is next to that of a babalawo: They, too, practice the Afro-Cuban faith.
”He can do it [animal sacrifice] any time he needs to,” the Cuban-born Ruben Gacet said. “He’s a very good neighbor.”
As recently as February, the Gacets said, they, too, sacrificed a small goat in the side yard of their home in an offering to the Santeria god Elegua, an annual New Year’s ritual. Their neighbor, they said, sacrificed the goat and the rooster as an offering for the health of his young son, who had recently immigrated from Cuba and had hepatitis.
Mercedes Sandoval, an anthropologist and social scientist who has studied Cuban culture, estimates that more than 70,000 South Floridians practice Santeria, a fusion of Roman Catholicism and the Yoruba religion that African slaves brought to Cuba in the 19th century.
Because Santeria has no formal church registry, it is impossible to get an exact count of the followers, Sandoval said.
According to the Gacets, Miami Lakes has a number of Santeros — members of the faith — living within its boundaries.
Among their friends alone, 15 practice the religion, a few of them living in the Gacets’ mostly Hispanic neighborhood, they said.
While the call to police over the goat’s head was believed to be the first of its kind for Miami Lakes, law enforcement agencies in some other cities frequently get animal cruelty complaints from people who witness a sacrifice or see a decapitated animal.
”We don’t even document them,” said Dierdra Jorgensen, an investigator with the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Animal Services Unit.
”We average about three calls a month, which is quite a bit because it’s a pretty secretive religion,” Jorgensen said.
In the police department’s Northwest District Station, Officer Linda Magley, who has served in the area 19 years and has worked in the crime analysis unit for a decade, said it is the first time she has heard of such an incident in Northwest Dade.
Some Miami Lakes residents said they knew Santeria was prevalent in other cities, like nearby Hialeah, but were surprised to learn it was practiced in their town.
Candido and Cathy Segarra, 11-year residents who live two doors from the Gacets, were both disturbed and amused.
”Having chickens, goats and farm animals in a $275,000 neighborhood is unusual — to say the least,” said Candido Segarra.
Nebil Batarseh, a Roman Catholic who lives next to the Gacets and has attended parties in their home, said he knew of their Santeria practices, but he didn’t like the killing of animals for any reason.
But he said he respects the Santeria faith and any other that subscribes to a belief in God.
Others were reluctant to comment, saying only that they honored the privacy of their neighbors and expected the same from them.
That’s fine with Ruben Gacet.
Santeros take care not to offend anyone — they conduct rituals away from the public view, he said. His babalawo neighbor had not been careful enough to keep the goat’s head out of an area where Weber could see it, he said.
Some people, Gacet said, were scared of Santeros, and he blamed a popular fascination with animal sacrifices, curses and witchcraft for a misunderstanding of Santeria.
”All we want is for people not to be afraid of what we do,” Gacet said. “We are good people and we love everyone and, like Jesus said in the Bible, there is a place for everyone in God’s kingdom.”