Employees at Denali National Park and Preserve on a geology outing last week made a grisly discovery as they drove along the park road to check a massive landslide below Sable Pass.
At a roadside pullout, the group found a large rodent, charred and apparently partially eaten, a crushed mouse and the severed head of a baby python along with the remains of a campfire and several empty boxes from Petco, a chain pet store with a Fairbanks location.
Baffled park authorities are still trying to figure out what happened -- and why. Park law enforcement officers say they have a suspect on surveillance at a Fairbanks Petco store but haven't been able to locate the man.
Geologist Denny Capps and three colleagues came across the scene on a pre-dawn trip up the park road Thursday.
At first, the items strewn around the pullout at Mile 7 just looked like garbage. Then Capps noticed the remains of an illegal campfire on the asphalt and pulled over.
That's when he saw fresh entrails and the charred carcass of a large rodent that initially appeared to be a guinea pig or a ferret.
Capps saw teeth marks on the rodent, he said by phone from the park Tuesday. He saw the three Petco boxes, the dead mouse, a pair of bloody rubber gloves and wrappers from a bundle of campfire wood and a newly purchased barbecue fork.
"That's when things took a turn for us to be realizing that someone had gone on a pet shopping spree at a box store and came to the park and started to consume them," he said.
The severed snake head on the ground sealed the deal.
"We started looking over our shoulders quite a bit at that point," Capps said, though the parking lot was empty.
Another park employee in the pullout pushed at a big cardboard box with her foot only to realize there was something big inside, not moving. That's when the group called law enforcement.
Jeff Duckett, a law enforcement ranger, opened the box and found a turtle: a red-eared slider. It looked dead. Temperatures in the park overnight had dropped to 15 degrees or so.
Pet-purchase forms from Petco that Duckett found in the pullout identified the purchaser of some of the animals as a man from Phoenix, Ariz., although the zip code appeared to be from Albuquerque, N.M. Much of the writing was illegible, he said.
A Petco sales clerk later told him she remembered a guy who came in Oct. 23 -- last Wednesday -- and bought a turtle, a medium-sized white rat and a baby python. She described him as an average-looking white male in his 20s with a stocky build and close-cropped or shaved head.
His behavior was unusual, Duckett said. He was cagey.
"The snake, the python -- he wanted the cheapest one he could find," he said. "He wanted to get it and get done and get out of there."
The investigation continues, he said; possible charges include animal cruelty and starting an illegal fire.
A manager at the Fairbanks Petco store said he couldn't comment on the investigation except to say the store is cooperating with park law enforcement.
Duckett said the charred rodent found in the pullout was a rat, though Capps said what he saw looked too big to be a rat.
"It heavily colored our day," Capps said. "We discussed it on and off for a big part of the day. There were certainly some strong images that flashed through my head going to bed that night."
This kind of thing doesn't usually happen at the home of North America's tallest mountain. Was it a prank? Some kind of cult ritual? A drug-fueled freak-out?
"I'm afraid to do a Google search to see if there's some unknown trend out there," said park spokeswoman Maureen McLaughlin at the Talkeetna ranger station. "It's a disconcerting story any way you look at it."
There is one silver lining here.
Last week, finished with his investigation, Duckett brought that turtle back to the office. The warmth made it stir.
"He or she started moving," he said Tuesday. "It finally came back."
A park employee's family adopted the turtle.
They named it Lucky.
Reach Zaz Hollander at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4317.