By Jack Ashby, on 17 November 2011
I am very fond of cryptozoologists. I’m not one myself, but I think they are great. I spent Saturday at the Fortean Times’ annual symposium, UnConvention 2011. This is a weekend of talks about all things paranormal, organised by the magazine Fortean Times (The World of Strange Phenomena), but cryptozoology is the reason I went. Well, the reason I went is because two dear friends of the Grant Museum were speaking and I rarely get to see them. One is Richard Freeman, Zoological Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (the world’s largest professional cryptozoological organisation) and the other is Brian Regal, an academic historian of science interested in the relationship between science and pseudo-science and the history of Big Foot.
Cryptozoology, for those who don’t know, is the study of hidden animals, or cryptids. The bread and butter of it is animals unknown to science like yetis, sasquatch and Nessie; but also includes animals that are considered extinct, like thylacines; and animals beyond their normal ranges, like big cats on Dartmoor.
As conventions go, UnCon was pretty UnConventional. The audience is extremely engaged, which is unusual for conferences. To generalise horrifically, it also contains a fair few more beards, pony tails, leather jackets, t-shirts with mystical beasts on and purple hair than your average conference demographic. Essentially the rejection of the assumption that Big Foot isn’t real isn’t the only non-mainstream view of many “Forteans”. About the worst insult you could throw at someone here would be a narrow-minded rationalist.
It certainly isn’t the case that everyone (or even most people) here believes in ghosts or dragons, but it is the only conference I’ve been to where I found a man shaving his chest in the bathroom.
The reason I love cryptozoologists is that against all odds they are so fantastically passionate about what they do. Richard Freeman, for example, spends a fair bit of time wandering the globe in search of cryptids. Recent expeditions have been in search of the Mongolian death worm, yetis and Orang pendek, a purported ape/man from Sumatra (Richard thinks it’s a third extant species of orang utan). He himself has been to Sumatra four times, each time returning with a bit more evidence that it exists. I remain respectfully sceptical, but one day it is perfectly possible that he will return with irrefutable evidence that they do exist. So far they’ve got footprints, hair that isn’t a known ape and possibly some DNA.
The simple fact about cryptozoology is, however, that in the search for “hidden animals” so far it has a 0% success ratio.
Some may say that this is unfair, because there have been many exotic animal discoveries resulting from reports from local people (which we call folklore). At first, before they had been seen by “science”, they would be considered cryptids and in the realm of cryptozoololgy. As soon as they are officially “discovered” (by which I mean described by scientists) they become zoology. However, the big cryptids – anomalous primates (yetis, sasquatch etc), death worms, extant thylacines, giant anacondas and sea monsters – are so far conspicuously absent.
In his UnCon talk, Brian told the tragic tale of the death of Grover Krantz, an academic palaeoanthropologist who spends his career trying to convince his colleagues of Big Foot’s existence. In good films and stories, he said, we are told the account of the whacky professor who dedicates his life to proving something that all around him ridicule and dismiss. On their death-bed, however, a young disciple runs into the hospital to tell their dying mentor that the final piece of evidence has been uncovered and their life’s work has been proved right – they die happily vindicated. In the case of Krantz the same plot is followed all the way to the end, except that no young student ever comes bursting in.
I am making no claims to its veracity, but to date plenty of evidence has been presented for the existence of very many cryptid species including video footage (everyone has seen the Patterson Big Foot film), hair samples, bone fragments, dung, footprint casts. However, it is never taken seriously.
The cryptozoologists I know are among the most well-tempered people you could hope to meet. This could be because time after time they have come across something which they believe will convince the world of the existence of a cryptid, and yet in the end the scientific establishment doesn’t listen. To go through this again and again, I surmise, only drives them to return to the jungle and one day return with the irrefutable proof of their quarry. Speaking to Richard, Orang pendek sounds like a pretty reasonable bet, and I hope one day he is proved right.