“It has a head like a deer, stands upright like a man and hops like a frog,” reads an account of an unknown creature by 1700s explorers. “It sometimes sports two heads –- one on the shoulders, and one on the stomach.”
Can you picture such an animal? It would look super weird. Claims of having seen it were widely ridiculed.
That is, until Europeans discovered the kangaroo.
On a timeline of the Earth’s existence splayed out like the wingspan of a person holding their arms up to the side, humanity actually takes up less than a fingernail. We haven’t been around very long.
In Bill Bryson’s popular science book A Short History of Nearly Everything, he talks about how museums and governments used to finance expeditions to the far corners of the Earth to seek out a new animal or plant species.
Earlier in our history, people generally had an easier time accepting the possibility that we don’t know everything. Ergo, let’s trek around and find things out. New creatures were discovered in droves.
In Yann Martel’s novel Life of Pi, the main character wonders how a Bengal tiger could hide in a city without being sighted. His zoologist father answers that animals are better at hiding than people would ever guess — if you took the world and shook it out like a bed sheet, animals unlike any we can currently imagine would fall out of even the most populated metropolises.
A good number of the animals that we take for granted were discovered only about 100 years ago. The mountain gorilla was not discovered until two were shot in 1902. No one had seen a living giant panda until the very end of the 1800s. In the last 10 years, 400 new animals larger than household cats were found and classified.
In my head, I picture a young Loren Coleman, the expert who runs Portland, Maine’s Cryptozoology Museum, like Nickelodeon’s Nigel Thornberry; a safari hat on top of his tiny head and a magnifying glass bigger than his scrawny arm.
Loren is currently the world’s leading living cryptozoology expert. He’s written 35 books in the field. He’s consulted on movie sets. His museum contains 2,300 items from a collection 51 years in the making.
What is cryptozoology? Loren describes it as “the study of hidden or unknown animals,” which on its face, sounds like a perfectly reasonable scientific endeavor. But cryptozoology is both immensely popular — and wildly contentious. The people that love it really love it and the people that hate it really hate it.
Cryptozoologists study cryptids, or creatures that have not been proven to exist. Some “celebrity cryptids” include Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and the Chupacabra. Hence, the widespread ridicule attached to the field. “For one thing, the names don’t exactly help,” Loren later says.
Loren’s personal favorite is the Yeti, because it sparked his interest in cryptozoology when he was just 12 years old in March of 1960. On TV one night was a Japanese mockumentary called Half Human that followed the discovery of abominable snowmen or Yetis. Loren was transfixed. He watched the movie again when it re-aired the next morning. On Monday, he went into school where he lived in Decatur, Illinois and asked his teacher about the Yeti. She said three things: they don’t exist, go do your work, and stop bothering me.
Undeterred, Loren went to the library and asked the librarian the same question. She came back with a stack of books.
“I found out there was this whole world that no one in school was talking about,” he says. Cryptozoology quickly became Loren’s passion. When he was named “paper boy of the week,” he talked in his interview about his dream of going to the Himalayas to search for the Yeti. Needless to say, his dream got some attention in Decatur, which is described on its website as a “classic Midwest small city.” I ask if he was a weird kid.
“I wear the word ‘weird’ like a badge of courage or a badge of honor,” he says. “Being weird opened a new world for me.”
By the time he was 14 years old, Loren was Decatur’s go-to person for cryptozoology. His parents, a firefighter and a homemaker, allowed him to go on expeditions with game wardens.
“I was a good kid and very bright,” he says. “…My parents were like, ‘As long as you don’t get hurt, it’s fine.’”
Even within cryptozoology, Loren is somewhat of a controversial figure. In one of his books, he explores what the sex lives of the Bigfoot might be in a chapter cheekily called, “Sex and the Single Sasquatch.” His argument was that Bigfoot is not a noble, romanticized savage; it’s an animal and it deserves to be studied. “People refuse to listen to research like that,” he says, “because they’re prudes, I guess.”
Let’s get some basic facts out of the way: There is not one Bigfoot. You did not see the Bigfoot; you saw a Bigfoot. The name was coined by a group of construction workers’s wives in a 1958 newspaper article about sightings. Bigfoots are also not Yetis. Yetis are apes and Bigfoots are humanoids; they have different footprints. The famous 1967 footage of a Bigfoot walking into the forest, called the Patterson-Gimlin footage, has not been debunked; there was no deathbed confession of inauthenticity from anyone involved and claims to have been “the person in the suit” are currently unfounded.
No one yet knows exactly what that footage is showing, though Loren points out a few specifics I’d never noticed before: 1) the creature has breasts and is a female, unusual for an ape costume at the time 2) the creature walks the way an ape does, with limited mobility to the hips and neck and 3) its thigh muscles are visible and moving.
“We have enough evidence to keep our minds open,” Loren says.
Loren’s museum is small, but not lacking for items. There’s an 8 foot tall taxidermy Bigfoot in the front of the store (“Scares every UPS delivery guy,” Loren says), a Fiji mermaid movie prop in a cabinet, a replica of the Minnesota Iceman, a 150-year-old ostrich foot-turned-ashtray, and a photo of three fishermen with what looks like a sea serpent.
The other people touring the museum are a woman wearing large ’80s glasses and a legit wolf t-shirt and a bigger guy with an eyebrow piercing who treats Loren as a revered celebrity.
One thing that strikes me during the tour is that Loren is not trying to prove anything to his visitors. I had imagined some quack with a taxidermied ape’s foot trying to prove to anyone who would listen that he’d snared a Bigfoot. Loren is incredibly pragmatic; he’s got a “Tower of Hoaxes” at the museum where he illuminates any fake cryptids of the past and makes very clear which popular sightings were debunked. Loren’s not interested in proving anything to anyone; he’s just interested in the truth.
“People always ask me, ‘You don’t really believe in this, do you?’ And you know what? There are two types of people I distrust; true believers and true debunkers,” he says. “I always say, ‘I don’t believe in cryptozoology, no. Belief gets in the way.’ I do not believe in Bigfoot, because belief is based in religion. What I do is I explain scientifically or I denounce scientifically.”
Loren has two sons. When they were young, he took them on a summer vacation to Loch Ness in Scotland to look for ‘Nessie’ with an expedition team. He later got a call from the older son’s teacher saying he’d been claiming he searched for the Loch Ness monster during summer break. Loren told her that was quite right, “and then I educated her on cryptozoology,” he smirks.
Out of 100 sighting claims made, Loren says, 80 are misindentifications. For example, someone sees a coyote and thinks it’s a Chupacabra. One percent are actual, crafted hoaxes, like 2008’s Georgia Bigfoot costume, “which get 95 percent of the media attention,” Loren laments.
Loren was on the forefront of another media storm: the Montauk Monster, a supposed new creature that turned up dead on the shore in Long Island in 2008. He coined the name and was one of the first to say it was just a raccoon corpse.
“It’s a very long term situation,” he says, noting that it took 55 years to discover the mountain gorilla. “This Twitter generation wants everything instantly but that just doesn’t happen with the discovery of an animal.”
I don’t know if I believe in cryptids, but I do think not everything that can be explained has been explained. I enjoy the possibility, the excitement. The discovery of a celebrity cryptid, a Bigfoot or a ‘Nessie,’ would open so many scientific doors. It would make us all re-imagine reality.
Does humanity really think we’ve discovered all there is to discover? Are we so arrogant as to presume we’ve seen it all? It feels like we’ve entered a lull period, where our imaginations have dulled lest we look stupid — publicly, let’s say, on the Internet — by being wrong.
But people have always been wrong before they were right. The timelines drawn up by our history textbooks eliminate the clutter — the debunked theories and unsuccessful test runs — that led to life as we now accept it.
If Bigfoot is real, then what else is out there in the world — beyond the accepted walls of your city’s Museum of Science? What else are we wrong about? It would cause a re-examination of just about everything. It’d be fantastic.
“If Bigfoots exist, why do you think so few people have actually seen them?” I ask Loren over dinner later. He goes on about how their numbers are limited, how they’re a very intelligent primate, how 95 percent of where they live is trees, great for hiding. I press, “But why has no one seen one?”
Loren gets a certain look in his eye. “They’re seen all the time,” he says. He tells me his museum has been visited by workers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control, and from Homeland Security, all of whom tell Loren they’d face flack at their jobs if their office-mates knew they’d gone to a cryptozoology museum.
“No one says anything because people will think you’re crazy. People have lost jobs, have lost lovers for what they’ve seen,” Later he says, “You’d be surprised what people admit. People have these experiences and they don’t say anything because nobody’s ever asked them.”