Bigfoot researchers weed through hoaxes
By Michael Machosky for the TRIBUNE-REVIEW - Tuesday, September 20, 2005
If there's something strange in your (remote, forested) neighborhood -- who're you gonna call?
"I get maybe three or four reports a week," says Eric Altman, 35, of Jeannette, director of the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society. "Some are current, some are older, from the '70s, '80, '90s. People are finally finding the website on the Internet. People say, 'You're the first person I've ever been able to contact about it.'"
Since 1998, the Bigfoot Society has stalked the state's gamelands and wooded wilderness, checking the tracks and trails for telltale signs of Bigfoot. According to Altman, they're getting closer every year.
Bigfoot researchers from across the country will converge in Jeannette this weekend for the annual East Coast Bigfoot Conference. They feel they're a misunderstood lot, but that comes with the territory. This crew is nothing if not persistent.
"It's been 'The Year of the Hoax,'" says Altman. "One came out of a wildlife magazine in Indiana -- two state police officers chased down a group of young men that were dressing in a bigfoot costume, and running across the road in front of cars."
"It's become pretty easy to weed out the bad stuff," he says. "'Bigfoot was walking across the street with TP (toilet paper) stuck to his foot.' 'I heard strange noises coming from our outhouse last night -- strange grunts and groans.' 'Bigfoot was seen carrying off my daughter.' Et cetera."
Conventional wisdom still comes down on the debunkers' side, of course. University of Florida anthropologist David Daegling speculates that the bigfoot myth persists because it represents where we came from -- our wild, untamed natural state.
"I think Bigfoot depicts the wild and uncultured side of who we are, a side that we are both attracted to an repulsed by," Daegling says.
But peel away the silliness, and there are some compelling arguments to keep looking, Altman argues. There's too much that can't be explained away.
On a tip from a hunter in Bradford in 2001, Altman pursued a report that convinced them that something was out there.
"While we were up there, an unknown animal circled us through the woods, staying out of our line of sight," he recalls. "It let out very unusual sounds -- grunting, mumbling -- it sounded like it was trying to talk with a mouthful of cotton. It growled, screamed a couple of times -- which is very uncommon for a bear.
"We got to a point where, 'OK, we don't know what this is, but it's getting a little creepy. It's time we got back to the truck where it's safe.' It eventually did stop following us. It went on for 45 minutes -- you could hear heavy footfalls, and they were bipedal footfalls. In other words, an animal on two legs, not a bear or deer."
One of the dominant theories among Bigfoot researchers is that he's an undiscovered primate, related to Gigantopithecus blacki, an upright primate that existed thousands of years ago in northeast Asia.
"We have proof that this animal existed," Altman says of blacki. "I think Bigfoot is a descendent that evolved over time."
The Internet has helped the Bigfoot Society expand from three people in 1998, to more than a hundred a year later. It's still growing, and the conference is a chance to check their progress.
"With our conference every year, we try to educate the public," Altman says. "There is something going on out there that needs further study, and further evaluation. For those who are seeing these things, it's OK to come forward and report them. We aren't going to ridicule them."
Skeptics still abound, even in Altman's own family. So there's plenty of work to do.
"My wife supports me and what I do. She's the secretary of the group. She goes on the outings with me -- we go on camping trips. But she's on the fence as far as whether it exists. My family -- they all know I'm not crazy," says Altman, laughing.
"At least, the doctors haven't proven it yet."
Some people who believe they may have seen "the creature" turn in reports to the Pennsylvania Bigfoot Society, who in turn investigate possible sightings. Examples of some of the reports:
- March 2004, Freeport: A man driving on a back road reported that he saw a tall, hair-covered figure standing on the left side of the road. As he got closer, it crossed the road in three steps, stepped over a 3-foot-high guardrail, and disappeared down an embankment. He claims he found a four-toed footprint on the berm of the road.
- August 2003, Monroeville: A man was driving on a back access road when he came across what he first thought was a man wearing a fur coat. Upon driving closer, he discovered it was a creature sitting on a pile of rocks.
- Nov. 28, 2003, Forbes State Forest: Two men hunting from tree stands report that they saw a large, upright, hair-covered creature walking out of the bush. One man shot the creature in the shoulder; it ran and screamed in pain.
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