Election 2012

It's Raining Cats and Dogs (and Chickens and Cows)

Do airborne animal parts suggest an emerging front in the War on Terror?

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We have less than three weeks to go before the election, yet not once have the candidates brought up one of the gravest threats facing the nation: falling chicken parts.

A few days ago Cassie Bernard was on a horseback ride in Accomac, on Virginia's Eastern Shore, when she was struck on the head by a foot-long piece of raw chicken that fell from the sky. Fortunately, she was wearing a helmet. But those riding with her said several other chicken parts also rained down, so it is a lucky break indeed that no one got winged.

How could this happen? Explanations vary. A bird expert blames seagulls. Others say it was vultures. The chicken might have been improperly composted, according to officials who think "compost pile" is a synonym for "catapult." An investigation also has been launched.

Meanwhile, the authorities have arrived at some preliminary conclusions. Drawing on years of expertise – backed by two centuries of scientific progress and the collective wisdom of a regulatory agency with a $150-million budget – the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality's Milton Johnston feels confident in declaring: "We can't have pieces of chicken falling out of the sky."

Granted, that might sound counterintuitive. But it makes sense the more you think about it.

Oh, but if only it were just chicken parts. If only.

In fact, this is but the latest in a string of disturbing animals-falling-from-the-sky incidents. Last year, roughly 2,000 blackbirds – i.e., more than 80 times the standard four-and-twenty – fell dead from the sky onto the streets of Beebe, Ark. Two years ago hundreds of spangled perch rained down out of the clear blue upon Lajamanu, Australia. And in 2007, Linda and Charles Everson were driving through Chelan County, in Washington state, when a 600-pound cow slammed down on the hood of their minivan. Copy desk editors across the nation were delighted ("Holy Cow!" "Udder Disaster!"). The cow's name was Michele, kid you not.

It's pretty clear what's going on here: Al-Qaida terrorists are probing our defenses. Since 9/11, Americans have gone on high alert against airplane hijackings, cyberattacks, suicide bombers, and chemical, biological, or nuclear threats. The terrorists know this. And so, in their diabolical genius, they have devised a new method of mayhem: animal flinging. Once again it appears our public officials are unable to "connect the dots."

It wasn't always thus. A little over a decade ago, two swimmers were attacked by sharks in quick succession off Virginia's coast. The governor at that time, Jim Gilmore, a former Army counterintelligence agent who chaired a congressional panel on counterterrorism, promptly empaneled a task force to study the issue. People made fun of him, but there has been only one shark attack since.

So what are our elected officials doing about falling chicken parts and other WRMDs (Weapons of Rapid Mammallian Descent)? Apparently nothing. The website of the Virginia Department of Emergency Management contains no advice on how to prepare for such eventualities. The federal Department of Homeland Security has nothing, either. Gov. Bob McDonnell has not assembled a task force, and apparently will not. In fact, McDonnell spokesman J. Tucker Martin laughs the whole thing off: "We're looking into every animal issue facing the Commonwealth," he says, "including unverified reports of a rollerblading alpaca in the greater Lynchburg area." Very funny, sir.

This insouciance seems ill-advised, when you reflect that Virginia's Eastern Shore, where the chicken attack took place, is home to the Wallops Island Spaceport – a crucial piece of the nation's transportation infrastructure.

What's more, a highly placed official, speaking on condition of anonymity, notes that back in March a group of high-school students in California used a helium balloon to launch into the eye of a solar radiation storm nothing less than  . . . a rubber chicken. (The rubber chicken is the mascot of NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory. Its name is Camilla, kid you not.)

We're through the looking-glass here, people.

Let us hope the preceding paragraphs rouse the nation's guardians from their torpid slumber, and alert them to the peril that threatens the very fabric of our nation. Let us hope.

Yet one cannot avoid the nagging doubt that even now, the warning may come too late. Last month a beaver bit 83-year-old Lillian Peterson in Fairfax. Six days later, according to eyewitness accounts, another beaver approached a group of children at the Hidden Pond Nature Center in Springfield and staggered toward them in a most menacing manner.

Terrorism, like a virus, mutates. The beaver incidents could represent a fearsome new tactic in the ever-evolving battle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness.

Let's be careful out there.

This column originally appeared in the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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