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Atlanta SF Calendar

Institutional Member of SFWA

All original content is 

John C. Snider  

unless otherwise indicated.

No duplication without

 express written permission.

The Joe Nickell Files: Cryptozoology

by John C. Snider 2004

Originally published March 2001 - Revised July 2004

 

Throughout history there have been certain creatures which persistently crop up in the popular mind, yet defy conclusive verification.  Dragons, unicorns, and mermaids have been "seen" since ancient times. In the modern era creatures like the Loch Ness Monster, the sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest, and a host of other weird fauna have been spotted.  Yet no one can lay hands on a corpse; alleged photos and videos are persistently sketchy at best.

 

The study of such animals is called "cryptozoology" - the study of hidden creatures.  Is cryptozoology complete poppycock, or a serious endeavor?  We talked to Joe Nickell about some of the most famous incidents, as well as his experiences - including his recent trip to Australia, where he investigated some unusual cases.  

 

scifidimensions: Joe, how are you?

 

Joe Nickell: Fine!

 

sfd: Tonight we're going to talk about a subject with which most people are passingly familiar, but may not have heard this particular term before - cryptozoology.  It means, more or less, "the study of hidden animals."  And I think that means animals for which we don't yet have specimens.

 

JN: Yes, that would be a good way to put it, because when we do get a specimen it's no longer cryptozoology - it's just ordinary zoology.  It's the study of animals that are rumored to exist, or are thought to exist.  And to the credit of cryptozoologists, to give them their due, there have been animals thought to be purely legendary that have turned out to be factual.  For example, the discovery of the long-thought extinct prehistoric fish, the coelacanth, which was discovered in the 20th century.  The mountain gorilla was discovered, showing the legends of a hairy man-like monster were true.   And there are new species of flora and fauna being found in places like Australia from time to time, or in other areas.  But they're not usually the kinds of fascinating, legendary creatures that we think of when we think of cryptozoology. 

 

sfd: There are two common categories of animals in cryptozoology that I wanted to talk about specifically: first, the lake monsters and second, the so-called "hairy man-beasts" (like sasquatch).   So let's start with lake monsters.

 

JN: Well, the most famous, of course, is Nessie, as she's affectionately known, the Loch Ness Monster.  That case goes back, allegedly, to the 6th century, when Saint Columba, in a pious story about him, supposedly saved a man's life by commanding this sea serpent to leave the man alone.  Some of us suspect that that's just pious legend-making, and has nothing to do with any kind of real monster.  Really, the story is silent from the 6th century on up until the 20th century.  Attempts to find any long tradition for the Loch Ness Monster have not fared well.  But in 1933 begins the "modern wave" - several stories, one of them of a monster waddling across a roadway, probably a seal or some other animal.  The most famous incident was in 1934 - and almost everyone is familiar with that famous Loch Ness Monster photo, the typical picture with the long-necked, plesiosaur-like creature, which has been reprinted many, many times.  What people may not know is that that was made in April of 1934 - probably on April 1st.  Many years later - not too long ago, in fact - it was revealed as a hoax.  The monster was just a small model.  For a long time, skeptics had thought that it looked like something very small filmed close-up, rather than a large model, due to the texture of the photo, the size of the ripples, etc.  It was hard to prove without a scale, but it looked like a small object - which would give the lie to the photographer who claimed to have been shooting it from a great distance.  The report was that the base was from a toy submarine, to which had been added a monster neck made out of "plastic wood", and then floated in the water. 

 

sfd: Did the person who actually made this thing confess?

 

JN: I forget the details, but someone came forward who knew about it and revealed it recently, a few years ago, and it's pretty credible that it was a hoax. 

 

sfd: There was an expedition of scientists who went out there, in the 70s or 80s, and took that famous "fin" photo.

 

JN: Yes, a man named Robert Rines headed an expedition using a type of sonar.  That picture has pretty much been discredited.  It was heavily enhanced and is not a credible picture of a monster.

 

sfd: The trouble with these pictures - associated with a lot of creatures, not just lake monsters, and just like UFOs - is that they're so often very poor quality, and open to interpretation.

 

JN: That's right.  But in general, the lake monsters are not very credible.  You get something called "expectant attention" - which means that, once you get the idea that there's a monster in the lake, almost anything you see, whether it's a floating log, or otters swimming in a line, looks like a multi-humped creature.  If you're thinking "lake monster" and you're seeing something floating or swimming out there, you'll tend to see it as a monster.  In fact, it's very unlikely that even a large lake like Loch Ness could support such leviathans, because you need a population of such animals.  You can't have one animal that will reproduce itself.  It's not reasonable to think, if it's a real flesh-and-blood creature, that it would exist by itself for centuries.  What you need is a breeding herd.  If we had a group of Loch Ness Monsters, then sooner or later a carcass would wash up on shore, or we'd have some other proof of the actual existence of such a herd.  It's unlikely that they exist, because we don't have such evidence - other than hoaxed evidence.  We're also faced with the fact that there's probably not enough food in Loch Ness to support a herd of such large monsters.  So, really, while it might sound like a possibility at first thought, when you look at it more analytically it's not likely that Loch Ness has the requisite breeding herd.

 

sfd: Lake monsters are not just a "Scottish loch" phenomenon - there are claims of such creatures in America, right?

 

JN: Yes, there are a number of places: Lake Champlain has a legendary monster called Champ.  There's one dubious photo showing Champ.  I investigated a case in Wyoming County, New York a few years ago, actually a very old case from the mid-19th century.  The legend was that this was a hoax perpetrated by a hotelier to bring in business to his resort.  But the story was so elaborate, of the mechanism for an inflatable serpent that worked on pulleys and so forth, that I doubted it.  I concluded, as I traced it back, that it was probably just a rumor that was magnified in the retelling.  If you go back to the original accounts, the inflated serpent tail was seen in multiple places simultaneously, sometimes miles away from where this apparatus was supposed to be set up.  My thought is - and this is a good explanation for a number of these lake monsters - that they were probably due to families of otters.  A couple of years ago I investigated Lake Utopia in New Brunswick, Canada.  Like many lakes, you find that where lake monsters reported existed where also at the time the habitat of otters.  Otters have this habit of swimming in a line.  I interviewed a wildlife expert who was hiding in a duck blind early one morning, waiting for the ducks to come in, and he saw this "great sea serpent" coming right toward him.  He said it was very frightening, very startling, until he realized it was some otters!  He said it made a believer out of him, that people could be so easily fooled.

 

sfd: Moving on from lake monsters, we have the hairy beasts that look like men - sasquatch or Bigfoot is the most common in America; in the Himalayas it's the yeti. 

 

JN: Yes, and I just came back from Australia, where I spent some time looking for the fabled "Yowie" - which is Australia's version of Bigfoot.  It's a legendary animal attributed to Aboriginal legend (I don't know how reliably; I'm still investigating the Yowie).  There are people who claim sightings, just as there are in the United States.  There are the proverbial plaster casts of sasquatch-like feet - all looking very dubious to me.  Just the kind of evidence you'd expect: everything but the creature itself.  I think most Australians tend to laugh at it.  I went on a two-man expedition into the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, up to a place called Katoomba and took an inclined railroad down into Jameson Valley into the rainforest, and walked along the trails past the old coal mines.   I regrettably report that we saw neither hide nor hair nor even footprint of the legendary creature.  That's an area where the Yowie might have existed, if it existed at all.  We searched another area of the mountains, near the Jenolan Caves, and again I have to report we found nothing other than real wildlife. [Laughs]

 

sfd: Has anyone presented any photographs of what they claim is a Yowie?

 

JN: I'm not sure of all the details.  I'm still researching that, but I suspect there's just the same kind of evidence that we have of Bigfoot - everything but the animal itself.  But Australians in general seem to dismiss it.  When we talked to people in these areas, they just made fun of it and didn't take it seriously.  They might refer us to a person who was writing stories about it, keeping the story alive.  In fact, the Cadbury chocolate people have produced these chocolate eggs wrapped in gold foil, with pictures of cartoon Yowies on them.  These are no longer hairy man-beasts; these are Disney-esque cartoon characters, friendly-looking, goofy monsters.  Inside these chocolate shells are a little plastic animals - Australian wildlife like kangaroos and other animals, but also some Yowies. 

 

sfd: In America, is sasquatch or Bigfoot just something in the Pacific Northwest?

 

JN: No, it's all over the United States.  The remote areas of the Pacific Northwest would make more sense, and yet there are reports in every state of the union.  Let me mention two or three historical events; one in 1930, one in 1967 and another in 1982.  In 1930 in Mount Saint Helens, Washington, some people out gathering berries saw these giant tracks.  It turns out, we learned years later, that a retired logger confessed that he and a friend went out and strapped on these cut-out wooden feet and made those tracks.  If he had not come forward and told the story, we might still wonder about it.   In 1967 we have the Roger Patterson film, in which a sasquatch was caught on film.  The problem is, once again, that we have film but not an actual creature.  Not a single carcass has ever been found.  Patterson was what we call a "repeater" - he'd reported previous sightings and had announced he was going to go out and get a film of one.  So the story sounds a little too good to be true.  It's difficult to prove or disprove a film - it could be a real animal or it could be a fake.  I liked the comment from one expert at the Smithsonian who said "I can't see the zipper."

 

sfd: So some experts thinks it looks too much like a human being in a suit.

 

JN: Yes, it's much debated.  True Believers suggest that the gait is too incredible and so forth.  But I've seen the film a couple of times and I can't see the zipper, either.  In 1982 there was a famous case in the Mill Creek watershed in Oregon.  Historically skeptics have pointed out that sometimes Bigfoot tracks had three toes, and sometimes four toes or five toes, and that they were different shapes, so that if they were all genuine there were all types of Bigfoot out there.  Or it looked like a bunch of hoaxers who weren't coordinating their efforts and producing contradictory prints.    Skeptics had also pointed out that previous prints lacked dermal ridges - the kinds of things that make up fingerprints or footprints.  So sure enough in 1982 up at Mill Creek a creature was allegedly sighted and this forest worker found footprints that indeed had dermal ridges.  Well, now skeptics were getting suspicious that the footprints were getting better as hoaxers were learning more and more about what the prints should look like. [Laughs]  An expert tracker who searched the area found that these were suspicious; for example, he found that the area had been cleaned of pine needles, as if it had been groomed so the prints could be made more neatly.  And the tracks appeared out of nowhere and went nowhere.  They're now generally regarded as hoaxes, as well.

 

sfd: There are a number of creatures that for thousands of years people have believed existed, things like unicorns and mermaids...

 

JN: Yes, I saw a mermaid recently.  I have an affection for mermaids, because while they are clearly legendary beings, and there's a rich lore surrounding mermaids.  Some people think they're due to sightings of such creatures as manatees.  In 1842 the notorious carnival showman, circus man and hoaxer P.T. Barnum came forward with his Fiji Mermaid, and advertised it as a thing to behold.  It turns out it was a hoax made from the top half of a monkey and the tail of a fish.  His banners gave the impression that you might see this living mermaid, but of course, what you saw was this preserved specimen, very grotesque.  There have been many of these so-called Fiji mermaids.  Recently I was at a carnival sideshow, and they had a Fiji mermaid that was alleged to be the original Barnum Fiji Mermaid.  And I said to the carnival showman "I believe that Barnum's American Museum that had the Fiji Mermaid burned."  "Yeah, yeah," he said, "but the story is that this was handed down through the family of a fireman who rescued it."  I said "And you believe that story?"  He said "Joe, I paid $5,000 for it - I have to believe it!" [Laughs]

 

sfd: So the hoaxers are now hoaxing other hoaxers?

 

JN: Yeah, it's all tongue-in-cheek, of course.  This is owned by the legendary carnie showman Bobby Reynolds, who's a friend of mine.  He exhibits such things in great humor.  There's actually a sign outside that, if you read it very carefully, says "P.T. Barnum and Bobby Reynolds Hoax" - so you can kinda figure that one out for yourself.  I like the way the carnies handle some of that stuff.  A kid will come up and say "Mister, is that real?" and the carnie will say "Absolutely real, son" - but as the kid wanders off he'll mutter "but not genuine."  [Laughs]

 

sfd: You mentioned earlier that cryptozoology is not necessarily a branch of zoology that's completely dismissed; in other words, there are plenty of cases where people will see things, and it's documented well enough that they pretty much know it exists - but it's just a matter of time before they get the specimen.

 

JN: Yes, that's right.

 

sfd: You were in Australia looking for the Yowie, but there's another creature down there that really did exist.

 

JN: Yes, it's called the Tasmanian Tiger - not a true tiger, but that's the name of it.  It's a real creature that existed for eons, I guess, then in part due to the importation of the dingo became extinct.  The last known Tasmanian Tiger dates from the 1930s.  I believe it died in a zoo on the island of Tasmania.  Even so, there have been reports, even on the Australian mainland, of the Tasmanian Tiger - but it's probably just this expectant attention that I mentioned earlier.  There was a case some years ago in Holland of an escaped panda, and they put out the alert to be on the lookout, and pretty soon there were panda reports from all over Holland.  It turns out nobody had seen this panda, because it had gone only a few yards to a railroad track and been killed.  How do you explain it?  Well, probably some people saw a dog, something in the bushes, and simply had panda-on-the-mind.  I think the same thing is happening with the Tasmanian Tiger.  What I think is most interesting is that there is a small pickled specimen of a Tasmanian Tiger in an Australian museum, and they're seriously talking about trying to recreate the creature by cloning, by extracting DNA and putting it into some sort of host egg - I'm not entirely sure of the procedure.  It's an interesting possibility.  It's fabulous to think about in any case.

 

sfd: There's also talk of recreating mammoths using similar methods.

 

JN: Yes, but apparently for the Tasmanian Tiger they have good DNA samples.   I did see a Tasmanian Tiger while I was in Australia.  (I know you're probably thinking "Was it real - or was it genuine?"  No, it was real and genuine, but it wasn't alive.  They have a stuffed one in an Australian museum.  That's as close as I got to one.

 

sfd: Well, I want to thank you for your time.

 

JN: Always a pleasure.

 

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