Posted by: Loren Coleman on July 31st, 2008
In the otter competitive battle between the forces of good and evil, the following is the clip from CNN’s “Paula Zahn Now,” for June 1, 2007, on Nessie, which was run in the final moments of her program. It was originally scheduled to be five minutes long.
At the time, my author friend Jerry Clark noted that what was operating here, in counterpoint to my view, was: The Nickell principle: “We will take up an existence by its otters.”
Coincidentially, another good friend, Patrick Huyghe emailed me: “Joe was otterly ridiculous.”
Bigfoots and Yetis and Champ, oh my!
Written by Matt Kanner, The Wire
Wednesday, 30 July 2008
cryptozoology: New England’s animal underground
Probably the most famous Bigfoot sighting in New Hampshire occurred in Hollis in May 1977. A Massachusetts man and his two young sons were sleeping in a camper on the side of the road when he awoke around 11 p.m. to find his vehicle rocking from side to side. When he stepped outside, he found himself face to face with a hairy, bipedal, brownish-blond beast that stood at least seven feet tall and smelled like rotting fish. The man quickly retreated to his truck and sped off with his children yelling.
That account of the incident came from reputed anthropologist Dr. Carleton Coon, who investigated the report and interviewed the witness while working at Harvard University. Coon found the witness to be highly credible and located unusually large footprints near the site of the incident. The man and both his sons passed polygraph tests about what they had seen, and Coon agreed that the creature could not easily be written off as a misidentified bear or deer.
Two days after the first incident, two separate women spotted the creature in Hollis. “I saw it face to face. It was all hairy, brown colored and eight or nine feet tall with long arms, long hair,” Gerald St. Louis later told the Nashua Telegraph. [St. Louis was the first, male witness. - LC.]
Portland, Maine-based author and cryptozoologist Loren Coleman later interviewed Coon about his investigation. The fact that a well-respected anthropologist was mystified by the event lent extra credence to the sighting and made the Hollis Bigfoot incident more significant than many other local sasquatch reports.
Coleman, who operates the International Cryptozoology Museum out of his Portland home, has investigated countless sightings of hybrid mutants, lake monsters, forest creatures and other mysterious animals. What is cryptozoology? Coleman describes it as the study of hidden, unknown or unverified species or animals that have not officially been discovered or classified by conventional zoologists.
“If someone sees a dark shape in a lake and it seems to be animal-like, it is a ‘cryptid,’ or something of interest to cryptozoology,” Coleman said in a recent interview with The Wire. If such a creature is officially discovered and legitimized by zoologists, it ceases to be a cryptid.
The so-called “big three” of cryptozoology are Bigfoot (or Sasquatch), the Abominable Snowman (or Yeti) and the Loch Ness Monster. But the field encompasses some 200 mystery species, ranging from Skunk Apes and Nandi Bears to Horned Serpents [a/k/a Lake Monsters] and Lizard Men.
Thousands of cryptid sightings have occurred all over the world, and cryptozoologists feel that where there’s so much smoke, there must be a fire. But paranormal detective Joe Nickell disagrees. “I’m mindful that there could just be smoke,” Nickell said.
Based in New York, Nickell identifies himself as the world’s only full-time, salaried paranormal investigator. He has been referred to as “the real-life Scully” (from “The X Files”), and has authored numerous books, including 2001’s “Real-Life X-Files: Investigating the Paranormal.” After exploring hundreds of cryptid sightings, ghost stories, UFOs and purported miracles, he has never come across a single case that could not be explained by conventional science or a deliberate hoax.
Nickell recently joined a group of Bigfoot hunters for an expedition in upstate New York, but he “found them a rather silly group of people, with much more sophisticated equipment than they had good sense,” he said.
You might call Nickell and Coleman arch nemeses. Although they respect one another, they are the foremost figures of two different schools of thought on cryptozoology. Coleman wrote the forward to Nickell’s 2006 book, Lake Monster Mysteries, and the two have even debated on CNN about the Loch Ness Monster.
Nickell theorizes that many sightings of lake monsters or sea serpents can actually be attributed to river otters. When several otters swim together in a line, their up and down swimming motions can give the appearance of a single, multi-humped, undulating creature, he says. Recalling the debate on CNN, he said Coleman called that theory “otter nonsense.” Nickell countered by quipping that Coleman “otter know better.” [This was very funny, on Nickell's part!-LC.]
Despite all their differences, Coleman and Nickell share one significant similarity: both believe [???] that any cryptid sighting is worthy of serious investigation. And New England has had no shortage of cryptid sightings. Here are a few notable local examples:
• At about 3 a.m. on May 20, 1968, three young people were fishing from a wharf on Moore Lake in Laconia. As they were casting into the moonless night, they suddenly noticed a red glow on the water and saw what looked like the head of an alligator with glowing, red eyes. Police investigated the report but found nothing. However, several nearby residents reported seeing a strange, red glow on the lake in subsequent days.
• At about 10:30 p.m. on April 21, 1977, three teenagers were driving on Farm Street in Dover, Mass., when one of the boys noticed some movement in the night. The car’s headlights then fixed on a hairless creature with large, orange eyes. Now known as the “Dover Demon,” the creature had a small body with a large, melon-shaped head, unusually long arms and legs and elongated fingers. Another teen witnessed the creature separately about two hours later, although he said it had green eyes.
• Skip ahead to Aug. 12, 2006, when the carcass of a mysterious canine-looking creature was discovered near power lines along Route 4 in Turner, Maine. Baffled by its odd appearance, residents alternately identified it as a hyena, dingo, fisher or coydog, but it did not accurately fit the description of any of those species. DNA samples eventually revealed that the “Maine Mutant” was, in fact, just a dog, but the press coverage brought attention to an at-large mystery creature blamed for killing many pets in the area. [Readers at Cryptomundo are very familiar with this case, and know that I identified this carcass as a dog, almost immediately.-LC.]
There have also been numerous sightings of large mystery cats in New Hampshire. Generally, New Hampshire’s cryptid cats fall into one of two categories: some are described as black panthers and others are said to resemble mountain lions, which are not believed to inhabit the Granite State. One man adamantly swore he saw a mountain lion in Rochester in November 2005.
“To the Department of Wildlife, a mountain lion in New Hampshire is like telling them there’s a Yeti in the state,” Coleman said.
But of all New England’s cryptids, far and away the most famous is Champ, a serpentine monster purported to dwell in the depths of Lake Champlain in Vermont. Champ is easily the most recognized lake monster in North America, and the second most famous in the world after Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster.
Beginning Sunday, Aug. 3, Burlington will celebrate its beloved cryptid with Champ Week at Echo Lake Aquarium and Science Center. The aquarium will hold daily events and programs related to its hometown monster through Saturday, Aug. 9. For more information, go to here.
According to Grace Per Lee, marketing coordinator for Echo Lake Aquarium, events during Champ Week will include storytelling for children and adult programs exploring the facts and legends of the creature. She referred to Champ as “our loveable lake monster” and said area residents take pride in claiming the creature as a Vermont native.
“Just in case Champ is ever collected or captured, he or she is protected by state law,” Lee said, referring to legislation Vermont and New York passed in the 1980s making it illegal to harm Champ.
Also present during Champ Week will be Sandra Mansi, who took the most famous picture of Champ on July 5, 1977, while picnicking on the lake with her family. Mansi had no previous experience with cryptozoological events, but her Kodak Instamatic image of the creature’s grayish-brown head and long, snakelike neck have made her a living legend in the field. She will autograph copies of her famous picture at the aquarium.
The earliest monster sightings on Lake Champlain date back to the 17th century, and Lee said she still commonly hears reports of Champ sightings. Coleman visited Lake Champlain last year with a Japanese film crew that was shooting a documentary about the lake monster. The crew used advanced cameras and sonar equipment to search for the creature, but Coleman said they failed to turn up anything substantive.
Nevertheless, Coleman disputes Nickell’s theory that river otters are responsible for lake monster sightings. “I think it’s a credible explanation for skeptics, (but) it gets to be a universal explanation that is too over-encompassing,” Coleman said.
He admitted that other animals, like turtles or even harbor seals, could be responsible for some lake monster sightings. But there is no single explanation that can account for the hundreds of sightings that have occurred worldwide. “It’s like coming in and saying that everyone seeing a Bigfoot is seeing a bear,” he said.
Nickell said his otter theory was not intended to explain every lake monster sighting. He traveled to British Columbia with National Geographic in 2005 to investigate Ogopogo, the monster believed to inhabit Lake Okanagan. Descriptions of that particular monster as a multi-humped, undulating creature fit the pattern of a row of northern river otters swimming out into the lake in search of a snack, he said.
Nickell has even heard reports of prehistoric-looking lake monsters in manmade bodies of water, or lakes that had gone dry and refilled not long before the supposed sighting. He thinks many people have a natural inclination to believe in the paranormal, and the desire to believe often fuels their illusions.
Nickell is quick to note that he cannot always scientifically explain an individual’s unusual sighting. But, “those cases where we can’t explain them are invariably because there’s very poor evidence,” he said.
Many people tend to jump to conclusions based not on proof but on lack of proof, Nickell said. He refers to that tendency as a logical fallacy called “arguing from ignorance.”
“It means trying to draw a conclusion from a lack of knowledge. You can’t say, ‘I don’t know what the long undulating creature was, therefore it was Champ.’ You can’t say, ‘I don’t know, therefore I do know,’” Nickell said. “The paranormal is characterized by this attitude.”
Nickell recognizes that many honest, sober, sincere and credible people have witnessed things they can’t explain, and their reports are worth investigating. But sightings should be investigated with a view toward solving them, he said, rather than simply propagating the mystery.
“Mysteries should neither be hyped nor dismissed. Mysteries are meant to be investigated and solved,” he said.
If lake monsters actually exist and have breeding populations, Nickell asks, why hasn’t a monster carcass washed up on a lake shore? If Bigfoots have been roaming the woods for decades or centuries, why have we never actually captured one?
Coleman avoids using the word “belief” when describing cryptozoological occurrences. Serious cryptozoologists simply collect data, and they welcome all information, even if it discredits a particular sighting, he said. Coleman personally helped circulate news that a set of Bigfoot prints found in 1958 was a hoax. [This is in reference to my notion that the Ray Wallace hoax prints, not the Jerry Crew cast, are incorrectly promoted as the real Bigfoot tracks.-LC]
“We really are not evangelical. We really don’t feel that it’s necessary for us to want to believe,” Coleman said. “I’ve never seen a Bigfoot. I’ve never seen a Lake Monster or a Sea Serpent. I’m not disappointed.”
Coleman added that new species are discovered by zoologists every year. Already in 2008, he said, some 160 new vertebrates have been identified. “They’re just rolling in all the time,” he said. “It happens with amazing regularity, but it mostly flies under the general public’s radar.”
The cryptid population also includes species that are known to have once existed but are generally thought to be extinct. These species include the thylacine, or Tasmanian wolf, a wolfish-looking marsupial with a striped back that is believed to have become extinct in 1936. Other examples include the megalodon, a giant, prehistoric shark; or the zeuglodon, a prehistoric whale. Even Neandertals are included in Coleman’s 1999 cryptid encyclopedia, “Cryptozoology A to Z.”
A striking victory for cryptozoologists occurred in December 2006, when a giant squid was captured off the Japanese coast. Prior to that date, giant squids existed only in the realms of myth and folklore. Other species of fish, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals are discovered with surprising regularity.
On the opposite end of the crypto spectrum are more fanciful creatures like werewolves, mermaids, unicorns and centaurs, which are usually endowed with supernatural qualities and therefore fall outside most cryptozoologists’ definition of the field. Some popular specimens, like Pennsylvania’s prophetic Mothman [that would be in West Virginia-LC], seem to blur the line between cryptids and mythical creatures.
Nickell considers himself a cryptozoologist, albeit a highly skeptical one. (He sometimes refers to Bigfoot as “Big-suit” and thinks the success of Bigfoot images depends on whether or not you can see the zipper.) But he does not think that unknown zoological species like insects and small fish fall under the crypto umbrella.
“By and large, when we’re talking about cryptozoology, we’re talking about sensational creatures. I have not seen anything that I thought was evidence of that,” he said.
Nickell views his work largely as an exploration into the human psyche. He examines why people are driven to believe in cryptids and what that belief says about humankind. By investigating cryptid sightings, he thinks he stands to discover more than a Bigfoot or lake monster.
“I’m not hopeful that we’re gonna find any of these creatures to be real, and yet I don’t think I’m on a fool’s errand,” he said. “I’m interested in such things because I’m interested in humanity.”
But Coleman accuses Nickell of approaching every cryptozoological case with a debunking mentality. “It’s almost a super paranoid point of view of the world,” he said.
For a glimpse into the dazzlingly diverse cryptid world, Coleman offers all manners of statues, sculptures, photos and cryptid figures at the International Cryptozoology Museum on online (tours of the museum are by appointment only). He opened the museum on two floors of his Portland home in 2003, with a 10-year plan to move it into a separate building.
Financial difficulties have spurred Coleman to accelerate his plan. Issues with the IRS have forced him to bump up his timeframe for a new building to the next 18 months. But in order to fund the move and keep the museum afloat, he needs to raise money. He set fundraising goals of $15,000 by Sept. 1 and $30,000 by the end of the year. As of July 3, he had collected $6,328 in donations.
Coleman hopes to keep the museum alive and continue his work—even if he never actually sees a Bigfoot. “I really don’t consider it a bad thing or a detriment to me that I’m not the one who is going to discover something and write a scientific paper,” he said. “We know that, eventually, new animals are going to be found anyway.”
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