The Hidden Files #2: Bigfoot

This is the second installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

Bigfoot is, undoubtedly, the most famous cryptid in Western culture. It is an iconic and instantly recognisable legendary figure – a primate measuring more than 7 feet and making its home in the dense forests of the Pacific Northwest.

But how did Bigfoot make its way into the popular imagination? Why do we pore over every blurry photograph and shaky piece of footage?

In the 1920s, the accounts of J.W. Burns were compiled and published. These detailed his interviews with the indigenous people of Chehalis, British Columbia, and recorded their belief in giant “wild men”. Burns used the term sásq’ets to describe this race of hairy hominids, a word he borrowed from the Halkomelem language. Sásq’ets would later be Anglicised and become Sasquatch, a synonym of Bigfoot still used today. For many white Canadians and Americans, Burns’ compilation was their first brush with Bigfoot.* “Wild men” commonly feature in Native American and First Nations mythology,  and the white settlers who liaised with indigenous North Americans often found that the tribes had very clear ideas of where “Bigfoot territory” was – whether that was in the mountains or in a certain section of the forest.

According to Doubtful News, there were 3,313 sightings of Bigfoot between 1921 and 2013. This data was compiled by Josh Stevens, a PhD candidate, into an infographic which you can see here. The sightings span America, with a particular density of sightings along the West coast. However, the most famous piece of Bigfoot evidence is probably the Patterson-Gimlin film. Even if you don’t recognise the names, you’ll likely recognise this iconic still from the footage:

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Frame 352, Patterson-Gimlin film (1967)

For many people, this is the image that springs to mind when you think of Bigfoot. Filmed in 1967 in Humboldt County, California, by Roger Patterson and his friend Bob Gimlin, the footage is alleged to show a female Bigfoot. Since it was released to the public, the film has been stabilised and analysed. Despite extensive investigation, the Patterson-Gimlin film has never been definitively proven to be a hoax, unlike other Bigfoot “evidence”.

Although no Bigfoot specimens, living or dead, have ever been found, sightings persist and the numbers keep growing. The towns and counties said to harbour Bigfoot populations encourage this. In Skamania County, Washington, it has been illegal to kill a Bigfoot since 1984. To do so would incur a $1,000 fine or a prison sentence of up to a year. Although the Skamania authorities neither confirm nor deny the existence of the creature, they believe the law promotes other types of conservation via public awareness. Furthermore, the town of Willow Creek in Humboldt County – on the border of the Six Rivers Forest, where the Patterson-Gimlin footage was filmed – has built a roaring tourist trade with more than a little help from Bigfoot. The town is known as “the Bigfoot capital of the world” – it is home to a Bigfoot museum and even a Bigfoot restaurant. If you wanted to be cynical, you could argue that this is obviously big (pun fully intended) business, but it’s also a testament to Bigfoot’s legacy. The creature has become part of the fabric of American society. Bigfoot is as All-American as any cryptid could be.

On a personal level, I think Bigfoot is the most likely of all recorded cryptids to exist. Maybe that’s the result of growing up in the UK rather than within the culture that fostered the Bigfoot mythos. However, the standard Bigfoot description – that of a large primate – seems plausible to me, a layman (or laywoman, as it happens).

*Note: we could have a much longer discussion about how Native and indigenous mythology is appropriated, misinterpreted and downright falsified by some cryptid enthusiasts, but I’ll save that for another article. The current Bigfoot “mythos” (for want of a better word) owes a lot to indigenous tribes who are rarely credited for much of the information.

Further reading:

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The Hidden Files #1: British Big Cats

This is the first installment of The Hidden Files, a series of articles based upon my research of cryptids.

What secrets do the forests, fields and moors of Britain hold? Could the British countryside be home to creatures roaming far beyond their natural habitat?

Since the 1950s, many eyewitnesses have asked themselves these same questions.

You wouldn’t think the quaint countryside of the south of England could shelter such mysterious creatures, but Devon and Cornwall made the Big Cats in Britain list of the top 10 counties with the most sightings. The most famous sightings of British big cats are arguably the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin. Sightings of the Beast of Exmoor began to be reported in the 1970s, although it wasn’t until 1983 that the beast achieved a degree of infamy: a farmer, Eric Ley, reported that he had lost over 100 sheep over the course of three months. Each had been mutilated and had had their throats torn out. In 1988, the complaints about the number of livestock deaths prompted the Ministry of Agriculture to send Royal Marines into the area to seek out the Beast of Exmoor. Several men believed they had spotted it, but no conclusive evidence was ever found. Similarly, the Beast of Bodmin made headlines in 1992 as the alleged culprit of livestock mutilations. Both creatures were described as panther-like or puma-like, despite neither of these cats being native to Britain.

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Photograph showing a large cat which is believed to be the Beast of Exmoor

The earliest cases in the 1950s include the Surrey Puma. The Surrey Puma was first seen in 1959 and by the mid-1960s, the police had developed specific records for big cat sightings – a collection which included a plaster cast of a paw print and a photograph of a remarkably long cat taken by Ian Pert, a police photographer. Another interesting case from the 1980s is that of the Fen Tiger, a big cat (unlikely to be an actual tiger!) which had apparently made its home in Cambridgeshire. The first sighting was in 1982, but it wasn’t until 1994 that actual evidence was supplied by William Rooker. He had captured two minutes of footage which appeared to show a large feline with black fur and, in his words, “a flat face”.

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Copyright to British Big Cat Society & William Rooker (1994)

The image above is a still from William Rooker’s original footage. If you scroll down to the end of this article from BBC Cambridgeshire, plenty of people have added their own accounts in the comments section, the most recent comment dating from 2009. Clearly, the Fen Tiger, along with big cat tales nationwide, are still present in the public imagination.

So how might we go about explaining these cats’ peculiar choice of home? The most plausible theory is that the presence of larger cats – especially those which are not native to Britain – is the result of new regulations introduced in 1976 under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act. Prior to this, it was ostensibly legal to own wild animals in this country without any kind of training or licence. The act declared that owners of certain types of exotic animals, particularly big cats, now required a permit. Perhaps some owners simply released their pets into the wild to avoid having to apply (and pay) for an ownership licence. Alternatively, owners may have released big cats they had been keeping as pets when the animals grew too large for their enclosures or became too difficult to handle.

Near where I live, a local man by the name of Lew Foley was well-known for keeping a pride of lions at his home in Cradley Heath. Last year, his friend Norman Catton claimed in the Birmingham Mail that Foley had released his lions over the Malvern Hills and in addition may have helped other people release their animals – possibly other big cats –  after the 1976 act. I must stress that this story remains unconfirmed, but it’s possible. In 2009, a statement from Big Cats In Britain made it clear that “There’s probably more than one up on the hills.” Without knowing how many other big cats may have been released, the Birmingham Mail suggested at least four or five felines could be prowling in the hills. Either way, I think it’s an interesting piece of local history and I like that it has taken on a “local legend” quality.

These cats are often called “phantom cats” and it’s been noted that these stories descend from the tradition in British folklore of the Black Dog, a ghostly canine who roams the moors and is an omen of ill fortune. Sightings of big cats are not generally considered supernatural in the way that the Black Dogs of the past were – instead, the idea of the cats having escaped from captivity bolsters people’s beliefs.

I think it’s entirely plausible that small numbers of big cats were released in the 1970s and might have survived in the countryside, but it’s also important to note that the big cat craze has resulted in several hoaxes, including a toy tiger being left in a field (prompting panic and a police helicopter search) and a cardboard cut-out of a panther being photographed and presented as evidence.

 

Draw whatever conclusion you like from reading the anecdotes and accounts of sightings, but you might want to take care if you’re walking alone across the moors or the hills of England – just in case. You never know what’s out there.

For more:

Please be aware – both documentaries briefly show images of the mutilated livestock in some “big cat” cases.

Could This Be A Tasmanian Tiger?

The thylacine – also known as the Tasmanian tiger – was the largest modern carnivorous marsupial. Having evolved 4 million years ago, it was hunted to extinction in 1936. It went extinct on the Australian mainland prior to this, but it survived for some time on the island state of Tasmania.

In the 1960s, searches conducted by Dr Eric Guiler and David Fleay resulted in the discovery of footprints and scat, as well as hearing vocalisations which matched those of the thylacine. It was not declared officially extinct until the 1980s, as the criteria stated that it could only be considered an extinct species if there were no confirmed sightings for 50 years. Despite its well-documented and lamented extinction – there has even been discussion of using DNA samples from thylacine remains to “resurrect” the animal – reports of thylacine sightings still flood in every year.

This YouTube video was published yesterday. Filmed by Paul G Day in Yorke Peninsula, South Australia, it appears to show a dog-like animal bounding across a field.

Compare the video with this short clip of the last pair of thylacines living in Hobart Zoo in 1933:

Day claims it was neither a fox, a dingo nor a dog. It was mentioned in the comment section that its strange bounding gait could be attributed to a limp. I would be tempted to suggest that this video is cleverly animated and that the animal has been edited in. It’s an interesting piece of footage nonetheless.

What do you think?

For more about the thylacine, check out this episode of Animal X: Natural Mystery Unit.