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This is for a story I'm working on. These creatures are what the Native American myth of the Wendigo originated from. Their origins are a mystery, but they need to feed on human flesh at least once a month to survive. They are indistinguishable from humans except during feeding or hunting when they essentially transform their bones and muscles at will to grow structures like claws and fangs for tearing flesh, spider-leg-like appendages for climbing and pinning down prey, etc. They originated in North America and over the centuries began to live among humans. Some still hunt humans while some have learned to process dead humans to provide sustenance without risking hunting humans in large cities.
My question is, in the scenario where these creatures live in groups inside large human population centers and develop networks of front businesses to facilitate obtaining and processing human corpses, can they realistically keep their existence a secret from the general public?

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    $\begingroup$ Most "Is it possible for X?" questions are easy to answer: Yes, many things are possible. However, secrets are very, very hard to keep. You need to build a conspiracy to hide (or explain) why Grandma is having a closed-casket funeral after her "heart attack." $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 28 '19 at 22:59
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    $\begingroup$ Related: How could a species survive on just luring in and eating humans? $\endgroup$ – Renan Dec 29 '19 at 0:36
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    $\begingroup$ Aren't werewolves and vampires already shape-shifters? Are you asking for yet another evil night-stalker? Seems like that many species will run short of human prey.... $\endgroup$ – user535733 Dec 29 '19 at 4:14
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    $\begingroup$ “Is it possible” usually should be read as “how is it possible (because I know it is improbable)...” $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 5:49
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    $\begingroup$ Duplicate of every identical question about vampires. All you've done is changed the name of the creature. $\endgroup$ – Graham Dec 29 '19 at 18:29
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Individuals: Yes. As a Species: No.

If we are talking about an individual wendigo, sure. Other answers have given many examples of how one might blend in fairly well. If you mean as a species, the answer is almost definitely not. It only takes one wendigo getting sloppy one time to blow the lid off the whole masquerade, and in modern society with both physical and technological forensics being what they are, some wendigos will get caught.

A wendigo coroner might take a few bites out of a corpse thinking he's done with it when opposing counsel demands the body be reinvestigated. A wendigo funeral director might have a family change their mind last minute about an open vs closed casket funeral. One feeding on homeless people might accidentally nab an undercover cop or eat someone in front of a security camera that they did not notice. One might get arrested for something unrelated to cannibalism, but once in jail, there is no way to eat without getting caught.

This inevitably means society as a whole will know that wendigos exist, and investigators will be well versed in hunting them down. I suspect this will probably result in one of two outcomes:

A - People will do everything they can to drive the wendigos to extinction. You will need special licensing to work anywhere you might have access to corpses to make sure you are human. Wendigos will need to stay constantly on the move. If they are able to take on multiple human faces, they may be able to remain mostly hidden from society, but if they only have 1 human face, facial recognition technology and social media will drive them out of developed nations because staying ahead of law enforcement indefinitely is unfeasible, and getting harder each passing year. Otherwise, they will probably stick to countries with unstable governments and join up with Cartels and other criminal organizations which are already in the habit of getting away with murder.

B - They will get mostly wiped out until some government declares it unlawful to kill them. If the government recognizes wendigos as sentient beings with all the rights and privileges of personhood, citizenship, or an endangered species then the government might portion rations of human remains to registered wendigos basically feeding them the leftovers of registered donors after all transplantable organs are removed. In this case, the species will mostly survive in the light of day, but a small minority may choose to hide what they are for fear of a genocide. This small minority would be those individuals who feed on the homeless and already dead in the previously addressed methods to stay undetected.

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    $\begingroup$ I’d bet on genocide happening before any zoo or ghetto can be established. And make no mistake: they would be ghettoized entirely. Humanity doesn’t brook predators in its midst well, even with tracking collars. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 14:50
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    $\begingroup$ Your argument about how one careless Wendigo could easily ruin the whole masquerade reminds me of how I felt when I was reading Anne Rice's vampire novels way back when. I could swallow the idea that once upon a time there had been just two or three vampires living quietly in New Orleans, but in the scenes set in "modern times" it seemed as if every major city in the USA had dozens of vampires running around at night, and my suspension of disbelief was collapsing under the weight of the implied assumption that modern scientists still had no clue about the existence of any of them. $\endgroup$ – Lorendiac Dec 29 '19 at 16:21
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Absolutely. Let's discuss this in points.

  • In modern time recently deceased humans with no family are an excellent source of human flesh. Whether they are about to be burned or buried. You don't need to bribe the people handling the body much as the low risk of having no one and the vague excuse of medicine is enough. We can also transport dead bodies well enough so you can get a frozen corpse from half way across the country in a good state.
  • Homeless people, the insane...etc also provide a decent and stable flow of actual living people to be used. You can even get them to do what you want with drugs or money. And you can drug them enough so that even if they are caught during transportation they know nothing. And no one would bat an eye if a couple of homeless people disappeared every month.
  • Rich people have access to stuff like yachts with missile defense systems. So having an isolated location in which you can eat the bodies of humans is no big deal. Without the government or an organization of comparable resources looking into them it's remarkable what a rich person can actually do. EMPs, anti photography measures, cameras, former navy seals guards, motions detectors, land mines...etc means you can build a fortress where nobody can know anything that is going on there. If not in a literal island in the middle of the ocean that you control.
  • A well enough connected network of spies and officials can insure that it is simply impossible to be ever discovered. The movies where the young detective overcomes impossible obstacles are just movies. In reality things are a lot worse than they seem. Not that I'm saying mistakes can't happen or things remain hidden. Just look at watergate or Snowden. But this global or national governmental levels crap is completely different from a kinky billionaire that buys corpses every month.
  • This stuff is even easier back in the day. I'm pretty sure that a medieval lord can do whatever he wants with the captives he gets. Better yet if he is a christian/muslim/pagan...etc they can get away with worse stuff against other religious or non religious people.
  • The above is just an example. You can kidnap people from other countries or far away lands. You can round up the insane or beggars, you can get the bandits and outlaws...etc Honestly with no cameras it's very unlikely that they can be discovered.
  • Lastly I'd stress using dead humans instead of living ones. Much easier.
  • The only problem is that if your creatures do something stupid like hunt down a human and eat it in a public square one the fourth of July in the middle of Washington DC or make a lame dungeon and decide to eat alive humans and have a preference for something like virgins and then happen to kidnap the daughter of an a war veteran with something like 30 years of special forces worth of work and she has a sister who is a congresswoman and a brother who is an MMA champion and spend his spare time training with melee weapons and the girl is a half robotic witch.
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Coroner.

Shadow found himself looking away, not from revulsion, as he would have expected, but from a strange desire to get the girl some privacy. It would be hard to be nakeder than this open thing.

Jacquel tied up the intestines, glistening and snakelike in her belly, below the stomach and deep in the pelvis. He ran them through his fingers, foot after foot. of them, described them as ”normal” to the microphone, put them in a bucket on the floor. He sucked all the blood out of her chest with the vacuum pump, and measured the volume. Then he inspected the inside of her chest. He said to the microphone, ”There are three lacerations in the pericardium, which is filled with clotted and liquefying blood.”

Jacquel grasped her heart, cut it at its top, turned it about in his hand, examining it. He stepped on his switch and said ”There are two lacerations of the myocardium; a 1.5 cm centimeter laceration in the right ventricle and they 1.8 cm laceration penetrating the left ventricle”. Jacquel removed each lung. The left lung had been stabbed and was half collapsed. He weighed them, and the heart, and he photographed the wounds. From each lung he sliced a small piece of tissue, which he placed into a jar.

“Formaldehyde,” whispered Mr. Ibis helpfully.

Jacquel continued to talk to the microphone, describing what he was doing, what he saw, as he removed the girl’s liver, stomach, spleen, pancreas, both kidneys, uterus, and the ovaries.He weighed each organ, recorded them as normal and uninjured. From each organ he took a small slice and put it into a jar of formaldehyde.

From the heart, liver, and from one of the kidneys, he cut an additional slice. These pieces he chewed, slowly, making them last, while he worked.

Somehow it seemed to Shadow a good thing for him to do: respectful, not obscene.

American Gods; Neil Gaiman.

Your Wendigos need flesh to survive. It is not the calories they need; they can eat what humans eat. It is the humanity of the flesh. They need it but they do not need much. In their roles as mortician, coroner, diener they have access to the flesh of the dead. They take what little they need from the bodies that they care for. No-one notices.

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    $\begingroup$ See my replies to Thorne. American Gods was published in 2001... ancient by tech and tracking standards. Not viable today. Coroner is even harder to sustain than funeral director because many people will still handle a corpse after the coroner does. Funeral director is at least at the end of the chain. One individual might survive this way, but could not support a family or extended network. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 14:35
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    $\begingroup$ If all that's needed is a little bit, just nibble from corpses about to be burned. Cremation ought to hide the evidence really, really well, especially if you can replace the lost mass somehow. (And I'm not sure even that is necessary.) $\endgroup$ – Matthew Dec 30 '19 at 17:09
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Funeral Directors

If they can survive on corpses, a lot of bits can go missing at a crematorium before the oven. The family still gets a pile of ash with no idea what's actually in the ash or if it's all of their loved one.

There would be plenty to eat and nobody would go missing.

If they need to eat live prey then you have to worry about missing people.

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    $\begingroup$ ONE wendigo might survive that way. But a network? Those get uncovered: nbcnews.com/id/18724972/ns/health-health_care/t/… $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 14:28
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    $\begingroup$ Another: reuters.com/investigates/special-report/usa-bodies-funeral There are more. Basically, since 2000 ad, USA has enough investigative support and there’s enough tracking systems that this will he uncovered relatively fast if it tries to feed a group of wendigos. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 14:32
  • $\begingroup$ A person dies every 12 seconds in the US. There are around 25,000 funeral directors in the country. Thats a lot of bodies. A meal once a month isn't that much. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Dec 29 '19 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ People get caught when they brag to others. A wendigo isn't going to brag and isn't likely to leave evidence. A family drops off a body and collects an urn. They have no idea if thats all the body or even if that is a body. No complaints means no investigations $\endgroup$ – Thorne Dec 29 '19 at 22:41
  • $\begingroup$ thank you for agreeing with me. One lone wendigo might get away with it. But not a whole network of people smuggling multiple bodies out. Too many places for the chain to break... someone just has to notice the oddity of the refrigerator truck regularly at a place that should be an endpoint. And once any one wendigo is caught, people will investigate all the funeral directors quickly. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 23:54
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All wendigos must flee to war-torn regions.

In the modern era, a pack or society of wendigos could hide out in various conflict zones. But since not ALL will be willing to give up the comforts of modern life, some who try to make modern life work will be caught, and that ends it for everyone.

Syria, Somalia... wherever war has humans dying in large numbers with our civilization tech disrupted, there the wendigos could thrive undetected. BUT it only works as long as no one suspects the existence of wendigos. As soon as two or three get caught in the modern world, people will be on guard even in war-torn areas. We watch for Ebola outbreaks even in the Congo right now. Anything that preys on humans will be terminated quickly, even an intelligent hunter, unless it is truly a lone wolf. But wendigos have families. I don’t see how they can stay hidden.

Your story could be about the extinction of the species.

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  • $\begingroup$ They could live in America and just head south to Mexico. Whole cartel areas where people go missing and nobody knows or even cares. Have a nice big dinner and head home. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Dec 29 '19 at 22:44
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne If they don’t go missing themselves there. Such places are dangerous, doubly so for outsiders. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 29 '19 at 23:56
  • $\begingroup$ Wendigos are hard to kill. They are fast, strong and regenerate. Unless a human hunter is prepared, they'll lose. Different legends say you need silver weapons and others say you need fire. Being shapeshifters they won't be outsiders but locals instead. $\endgroup$ – Thorne Dec 31 '19 at 1:26
  • $\begingroup$ @Thorne I hadn't heard of shapeshifting as a general wendigo ability... the question describes the shapeshifting as happening only when they feed, and then into monsters. If they can truly blend into society, that would change my answer considerably, but the question didn't posit that. $\endgroup$ – SRM Dec 31 '19 at 5:11
  • $\begingroup$ It's in the OP's question. "Is it possible for a race of man-eating shape shifters to live in secret on earth unnoticed by humans?" $\endgroup$ – Thorne Jan 1 at 0:26
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I hope not.

This question and the answers, including mine , might be useful: How can a secret, murderous cult remain secret?1

As we all know, human serial killers are arrested from time to time. And some of those serial killers are at least on and off cannibals. So I can imagine that if the shapeshifters can eat other food but merely prefer human meat, they have code that when one his caught they have to stay in human form and eat normal food in prison and pretend to be human until or unless they can escape from jail. Thus humans will think the shapeshifters they catch are merely human criminals.

I note that the shapeshifters should not have human identities which stand up to close examination since if their biographica information was correct they would have grwon up among humans and become socialized with humans and wouldn't want to treat humans as prey. Thus every shapeshifter that is caught would be known to be using a fake identiy and to be of unknown actual biography.

And I wonder how many, if any, cannibalistic serial killers have ever been caught whose public identities are found to be totally fake and whose real origins are unknown. That should be a very small group of people, which provides some sort of maximum number of man eating shapeshifters that can be caught each year and mistaken for human serial killers.

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