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
Joe, how are you?
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
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.
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.
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
monsters are not just a "Scottish loch" phenomenon - there are claims of such
creatures in America, right?
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]
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.
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?
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]
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.
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.
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
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