PARIS (AP) -- Armed with knives, some knowledge of their prey and a large dose of cruelty, attackers are going after horses and ponies in pastures across France in what may be ritual mutilations.
Police are stymied by the macabre attacks that include slashings and worse. Most often, an ear -- usually the right one -- has been cut off, recalling the matador's trophy in a bullring.
Up to 30 attacks have been reported in France, from the mountainous Jura region in the east to the Atlantic coast, many this summer, the agriculture minister said Friday. One attack was registered in February, according to the newsmagazine Le Point. With each attack, the mystery only seems to grow.
"We are excluding nothing," Agriculture Minister Julien Denormandie said Friday on France-Info, before heading to a riding club in the Saone-et-Loire region, in east central France, where a horse was attacked a day earlier.
"Ears are cut off, eyes removed, an animal is emptied of its blood ...," he said, spelling out the morbid fates befalling one of France's most beloved animals.
"All means are in motion to end this terror," the minister tweeted.
After the first solid sighting of an attacker, gendarmes in Auxerre, in Burgundy, released a composite sketch this week based on a description by a man who wrangled with two attackers at his animal refuge in a village in the Bourgogne-Franche-Comte region.
"I used to have confidence putting my horses out to pasture. Today, I have fear in my gut," Nicolas Demajean, who runs the refuge, Ranch of Hope," said Thursday on regional TV station France 3.
Alerted by his squealing pigs, Damajean faced down two attackers last Monday. He himself was injured in the arm in a struggle with one intruder wielding a pruning knife as the other slashed the sides of two ponies, now recovering but "traumatized," he said. The men fled in a vehicle.
The following day, an attacker or attackers bled a young pony in the Saone-et-Loire. In another case, some of a horse's organs were removed.
A donkey who reportedly participated in the past in the Christmas market in Paris was killed in a gruesome attack in June.
Theories abound as to whether the acts are a morbid rite of an unknown cult, a chilling "challenge" relayed by social media or copycat acts. Speculation is widespread as to how barbaric acts, some surgical, could be perpetrated without solid knowledge of equine anatomy or on a horse in a pasture presumably able to flee.
"A fearful horse in a pasture won't get caught. The horse who feels confident with people ... he'll come, find it normal that you put a harness on it or a rope around its neck," said veterinarian Aude Giraudet, chief of the equine division at the prestigious National Veterinary School of Alfort, outside Paris.
"I'm not sure you need great knowledge of horses," Giraudet said in an interview. Knowing how to approach them, from the front not the rear, is important. An ear can be slashed off while the horse is standing, but the animal would need to be prostate for grislier mutilations, she said. The veterinarian stressed that she didn't want to describe how to put a horse on the ground so as not to "give the least sort of tools to make it easier" for those out to kill them.
"If I were in Normandy, I think I would be very very worried about this epidemic," she said, adding that security measures should be taken -- at the very least installing cameras.
Two mutilations have been reported in Normandy, France's horse country. Pauline Sarrazin, the owner of one victim, Lady, mounted a private Facebook group, "Justice for our Horses" after the savage June 6 killing of her horse near Dieppe, on the Atlantic coast. Aimed at sharing stories and advice, the group now has nearly 17,000 members.
France's horse world is increasingly gripped by fear.
The president of the French Federation of Equitation offered on Friday to help police investigating the scattered cases. Serge Lecomte said earlier the federation would be a civil party in each case.
"We're all afraid," said Veronique Dupin, an official of a riding club in the Yvelines region west of Paris, asking that the exact location of the stable not be identified out of caution. Her club installed cameras last year because of intruders, and someone sleeps there nightly.
"Despite that, we're not at ease," she said, stressing how vulnerable horses can be. "They may be big, but they're lambs."