FRENCH police are hunting an evil group of criminals involved the brutal and barbaric mutilation of horses.
Officers have not announced any suspects or motive, but believe the attacks could be part of a twisted fetish, sadistic ritual, or online “challenge”.
At least 15 attacks on horses and donkeys have been reported across France, with the bodies left discarded and missing parts.
The gruesome attacks date back to at least February this year but have increased in recent weeks, with at least five incidents reported since the start of the month.
On Monday a mare which had previously died of natural causes was found with its nose, ear, and one eye removed in the Jura region.
Another case in Cortambert, a village in the central-eastern department of Saone-et-Loire, involved a horse which had its right ear cut off, one of its eyes gouged out and its genitals cut away.
It came after a horse in the same region was stunned before having its eye gouged out and a piece of bone removed.
The animal later died.
A Paris police spokeswoman said there were similar cases between 2014 and 2016 and mutilations of horses had been reported in the past in Belgium and Germany.
But the high number in France was unprecedented over such a short period.
The spokeswoman added: “We do not understand the motivation. Is it a satanic rite, insurance fraud, some macabre trophy hunt or an internet challenge?”
“We don’t know. It is very traumatising.”
Police also said they had linked the latest horse mutilation to “about 15 other mysterious acts of torture and mutilations of live horses around France these last weeks.”
All types of horses have fallen victim to the twisted attacked, as well as one donkey.
Mutilation of an ear has been reported as a common factor, however no meat had been taken from the carcases.
The attacks are not specific to a region, and have been reported across the east, west and north of the country.
On Tuesday, local media reported that the regional Bourgogne-Franche-Comté Horse Council had called on all farmers and residents in areas where horses are kept to be “vigilant” over inappropriate or suspicious behaviour.
The council said in a statement: “Since the end of 2018, all over France, but also in border countries, very different equines have been the target of barbaric attacks of human origin and have been found dead and mutilated”.
It said witnesses should not intervene directly if they see something suspicious for their own safety but should contact police with any evidence which could help to identify the perpetrators.
“It is the mobilisation of the greatest number that will put an end to these despicable acts,” the council added.
Owner Philippe Boutin told Channel 3 he had seen signs of a struggle in the field of one attack, and that it would have taken a team of people to bring the horse down.
Local investigations are backed by the Central Office on the Fight against Threats to Environmental and Public Health of the French national police.
Cruelty to animals is punishable in France with up to two years imprisonment and a maximum fine of 30,000 euros.