My love affair with crypto zoology began our the grade school library in Owatonna, Minn. While my cronies scanned National Geographic for glimpses of Masai boobage, I found a book in nonfiction reference that prompted a different kind of fantasy. The book, titled The Maybe Monsters, suggested a world more lurid and titillating than even a Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition. Whoever shelved this book under nonfiction reference had a delicious sense of irony; but for me, it lent credence to the incredible.
The Maybe Monsters was my first foray into contemporary myth—that wacky netherplace where popular culture collides with junk science: Bigfoot, the abominable snowman, Nessie, sea serpents…they were all there, their early sightings documented, their furtive habits artfully explained. I thrilled to the accounts of eyewitnesses, to the multi-sensory overload that accompanied an encounter. People who confronted skunk apes and Scottish “water horses” were not just bewildered, they were flummoxed. They had a spiritual epiphany—and I envied them for it.
That is why, some 40 years later, I have become a habitual watcher of Monster Quest on the History Channel. The program is my guiltiest television pleasure; it serves as and a kind of time machine, transporting me back to those halcyon grade school days. Monster Quest teases, titillates, and frustrates in equal measure; inflicting the same adrenal torment people get from playing the Power Ball lottery. You hear about winners, they are known to exist, but most of us never actually see one.
As with the lottery, there is a persistent cycle of futility on Monster Quest. The series just broadcast its 44th episode and over that time, over the dozens of woodland stakeouts, of camera-trappings and heat-signature surveillance they have seen…nothing. The rotating cast of crypto-adherents has photographed nothing untoward; their retinue of lab geeks and DNA gnomes has isolated and identified…almost nothing. The many remnant follicles, the traces of blood evidence and curious bits of crypto-fluff gleaned in the course of each investigation invariably become, under lab scrutiny, painfully mundane.
Mind you, the Monster Quest presentation is never mundane. The show—which has a narrator but no real host—draws you into the mystery with some witness sound-bites: “…I smelled it before I ever seen it…it broke the surface about 100 yards from shore…it chucked a rock at me the size of bowling ball…” From there, show producers set the scene; the wilds of Ohio (Who knew?), the bayou backcountry, the Indonesian rain forest. And then they introduce the exotica with CGI: the Jersey Devil, Hogzilla, Chupracabra, the Black Beast of Exmoor...all artfully rendered in lurid 3-D.
After the creature dujour takes its CGI bow, Monster Quest dispatches a crack team of trackers, technicians, and crypto-scientists to interview witnesses, set camera traps, collect a stray follicle or two, and make plaster casts of footprints. There is great urgency in their efforts and lots of gadgetry bustle, with each segment book-ended by a graphic that I call the “snarling eye.” The eye, rendered in extreme close-up CGI, has a malevolent, furrowed brow that twitches in sync with snarling audio, suggesting some predator poised to attack. This “snarling eye” cue is very effective in segments relating to hairy, land-based legends and critters. However, it seems wildly out of context when the subject at hand is, say, giant octopi, freshwater bull sharks, or the aquatic denizens of Lake Champlain. But not matter; Monster Quest always snarls its way back from commercial breaks with the promise of mayhem to come.
My wife, first among skeptics and an avowed monster-debunker, notes that there’s never any mayhem on Monster Quest because there are never any encounters. And I, first among believers and an avowed monster-hugger, assert that the crack field teams don’t get any documentation solely because they’re not on site long enough. Because Monster Quest is a weekly series, because they have limited resources and a schedule to keep, they are forced to hit it and quit it before anything mythical happens.
Take, for instance, the compelling case of the Snelgrove Sasquatch: unlike the many drive-by, run-and-gun sightings that comprise the bulk of modern Bigfoot lore, the Snelgrove case was nicely localized and actually yielded some physical evidence. To set the stage (Snarling eye!) you have a fly-in fish camp just south of the arctic circle with a lone cabin on an otherwise uninhabited lake. But the groups who are flown into this enclave by seaplane have been tweaked and harassed by an unexplained intruder. The fishermen are awakened in the wee hours by cordwood and equipment cases being chucked at the cabin. Bears, the obvious culprit, are disqualified from these hijacks because they have no hands, and thus, can’t effectively chuck anything. Throwing things to warm intruders away from one’s turf is, however, a classic behavior of major primates. (Snarling eye!)
The Snelgrove case really got interesting in the off-season, during those frozen months when no fishermen visit and—most significantly—bears are hibernating: The cabin was systematically trashed, Keith Moon style, over one winter. Sinks were pulled from walls, all kinds of large caliber-mayhem occurred. It wasn’t a raccoons or wolverines, or—most likely—bears. Bears were also ruled out of a second off-season intrusion, when something with a 14-inch foot impaled said foot on a booby-trap; a square of plywood festooned with the pointy ends of wood screws. Whatever stepped on the trap hit several screws and left behind blood and tissue evidence. By the time that evidence got to a DNA lab it was—you guessed it—too degraded to provide any conclusive evidence of an “unknown primate.”
Circumstances at Snelgrove Lake seemed prime for an encounter, and so Monster Quest dispatched its crack team in 2006 to stay at the lake. The team stayed only three days, but did capture on camera a rock chucked onto the roof of the cabin. This nighttime “attack” could easily be attributed to human hoaxers, except that the logistics of such a stunt would be daunting, Hoaxers would have had to get themselves airlifted onto some adjacent lake, then make their way overland by night, get into position, and chuck the rock without being seen. Then they would have to get themselves extracted by seaplane without being noticed. That left two other possible culprits: bears with hands that could grasp a rock, or some “unknown primate.” (Snarling eye!)
Monster Quest producers deemed Snelgrove Lake to be fertile territory indeed, and so an expanded team returned in June of 2008 to kick ass and take names. They were so overloaded with gadgetry that the seaplane had to make several trips. But when the team was finally in place, there was no area of the cabin perimeter not monitored by motion sensors, camera traps, and night vision video connected to digital recorders. They played recordings of wood-knocking and even baited their quarry with scent—genuine gorilla urine. (How, exactly do they harvest that?) The Monster Quest team even erected a monitoring tent inside the cabin, so that the video sentry would not be invisible to nocturnal Bigfoot voyeurs peering through cabin windows.
They were in place for one full week and saw…nothing…photographed nothing, and were not subjected to any rock barrage. However, there were reported sightings one hundred miles to the south, in an area where the berries had ripened—and therein lay the problem. The cryptos theorized that they had staked out the cabin too early; the Snelgrove berry crop had not yet ripened, and so the Sasquatches had not yet migrated that far north. There was no option of lingering on site, of occupying the Snelgrove fish camp for, say, another month or so, and let nature take its course. The producers had other fish to fry, other monsters to quest, and so, once again, they decamped.
The Monster Quest team also decamped after a short stint on the shores of a volcanic lake, high in the mountains of Indonesia. They were on the trail of another humanoid, called Orang-Pentang; a hybrid of orangutans and man. This elfin critter has been spotted around southeast Asia all the way back to the Vietnam War era, and so it earned a place on the show’s schedule. The research team had to fly halfway around the world, lug their equipment up a mountainside to one of the remotest spots in all of Southeast Asia, just to “hit it and quit it” after three fruitless days.
Notice a pattern here? The producers of Monster Quest are scattering resources all over the planet (and the resources are impressive; they stalked the Ohio Grassman with a helicopter drone that provided a live video feed of heat-sensitive organisms) in hopes of landing The Big One, but because they can’t afford to linger, they are repeatedly, persistently shut out.
My wife—and reasoned skeptics everywhere—would assert that they’re shut out because there’s nothing there to find. Waiting longer would only give hoaxers greater opportunity to impose mischief and contaminate the process. And granted, Monster Quest gives the skeptics their due, the anthropologists who insist that, 1.) To sustain the species, a creature like Bigfoot would need a breeding population that numbers into the hundreds; 2.) There is no fossil record of a giant North American ape; and 3.) Nobody has ever produced the carcass of a dead one.
All excellent points, and I have no cogent response to the first two; on the carcass question however, consider the example of the ubiquitous bear. Fish & Wildlife officers, forest rangers, and zoologists will admit that they do not find carcasses of bears who have died in the wild of natural causes. They find plenty of bears who have died of human causes—shot by poachers or struck by cars. But dead of old age—of a heart attack? Never. Not even the massive Kodiak bears, a behemoth that can weigh 1,500 pounds and stand 14 feet high; even the mighty Kodiak which lives on an island doesn’t just turn up dead. And this holds true across the predator class; rangers don’t find dead wolves, dead coyotes, dead bobcats or dead mountain lions that have not been shot. The ruminants—elk, deer, goats—yes, all the time. But predators, it seems, are very discreet about dying. And nature is very efficient about disposing of remains.I don’t know why there would not be a fossil record of a creature that hundreds of otherwise reasonable people (some of them police officers) purport to have seen. And I don’t know how hundreds of Bigfeet could live out their lives—mating, migrating, nurturing their young and still avoiding detection, classification, and—inevitably, zoos. But I do know that if you’re going to succeed at crypto zoology, if you’re ever going to collect some irrefutable evidence, you’re going to need to linger, to root oneself, to drop anchor, so to speak. The Monster Quest method of “hit it and quit it” will only frustrate the faithful and embolden the skeptics, just like the Power Ball lottery. (Snarling eye!)