Bigfoot Encounters

"Tracking Bigfoot on the Internet"
By Dr. David Matthew Zuefle, Ph.d. --- Issue: May-June, 1999 © Skeptical Inquirer

Two years of "hunting" Bigfoot in cyberspace tells you little about the never-confirmed giant bipedal creature but a lot about those who hunt for it. Some are sincere searchers; for others, the idea is a complex and flexible belief system that serves multiple needs and roles.

I was exploring the Web in the fall of 1995 when I came across the opportunity to sign up for a new listserver. I was already a subscriber to a couple of academic lists, but this was something different. I was surfing the latest sites when I found a "Bigfoot" listserver and discussion group (actually, there are dozens of other sites on this topic that are also currently accessible). That's right, Bigfoot, also known as Sasquatch. I thought twice about signing up, but I plunged ahead, justifying it to myself by thinking of the opportunity to simultaneously observe a small subculture within the raging paranormal community and to hone my own skills of critical thinking and skepticism.

My interest in this particular subject goes back to my youth. I had always heard tales of Bigfoot and similar creatures as a child in southern Ohio (I think the term for our local equivalent was the "woollybarger"), and I remember the anxiety I felt on camping trips, wondering if Bigfoot might show up around the campfire. I had seen the documentaries and read the stories as a kid. Years later, as a more skeptical adult working in the natural resources field in upper Appalachia, I heard plenty of stories from park visitors about Bigfoot and its buddies: hoop snakes (they bite their tails to form a wheel, then chase you around), milk snakes (those are the nocturnal ones that surreptitiously drink the milk from cows' teats - udderly ridiculous), phantom panthers, and mothman (that's a whole other story). The stories went further than the classic "urban legends" invariably related by a friend-of-a-friend; these folks often claimed to have seen these critters firsthand - and they were adamant about their stories. Now here I was as a young academic, confronted with the phenomenon again, right on my office computer. At least, I thought, it would make for interesting reading. It did.

Eavesdropping on the Bigfoot Bunch
For the first year or so I mainly laid low. I did manage to pick up on some information that became one of the seeds for an earlier SKEPTICAL INQUIRER article (D. M. Zuefle, "Swift, Boone, and Bigfoot: New Evidence for a Literary Connection," January/February 1997), but mainly I just read and deleted a lot of posts - sometimes I just deleted. The frequency of the posts was an interesting aspect of the list. Unlike the several academic listservers I subscribed to, where posts were sometimes few and far between, these folks really participated. Both the frequency and content of these posts clearly fluctuated with the airing of topically related television programming (e.g., The X-Files, A & E documentaries).

Although I never saw a list of the subscribers, there must have been many. Even more interesting was the kind of folks who were participating. I would have guessed that the majority of the subscribers might be overly imaginative teenagers (and perhaps many were), but at least a few participants were more sophisticated. Undoubtedly, given the environment of the Internet, some of the list members were kooks or pure hoaxers, but it was usually possible to identify many of these persons in short order. Among the rest of the members with verifiable identities, who seemed to compose the majority, one could find nurses, businessmen, attorneys, and professors. Some of the academics were just curious; others were social scientists and folklorists, probably doing some research of their own. But some were research scientists, anthropologists, and biologists. The credulity evinced by some members of this group intrigued me the most. Most list members admitted that they had never actually seen Sasquatch, but several told of "strange sounds and odors" they had experienced out-of-doors that had convinced them of its existence.

Bigfoot Camps
Before I subscribed to the list, I had assumed that most of the participants believed that Bigfoot represented the vestigial population of an as-yet-undiscovered species of the Pacific Northwest. True, this was one of the theories circulating, but as far-fetched as it seems, it was by far the most believable. It turns out that there are two main "camps" in this debate: those adhering to the aforementioned "biological entity" position, and those who believe in a "paranormal Bigfoot." Many of those who support the "biological" view apparently believe the creature is one of cosmopolitan distribution - with reports from practically every state (my native southern Ohio is high on the list). This school of Bigfoot-naturalists also follows the reports of many other similar creatures from around the globe, such as the Almas of Asia, the Yowie of Australia, and, of course, the famous Yeti.

Paranormal Bigfoot enthusiasts are also a bit divided. There are those who believe that Bigfoot is a super-shaman who has been known all along to Native Americans. This "medicine man" is capable of "shape-shifting" into various forms, one of which we call Bigfoot. There are also the folks who believe Bigfoot to be an "extradimensional" (or is that interdimensional?) creature. This perspective explains why Bigfoot apparently dematerializes in some sightings, or why its tracks suddenly stop in the middle of a field. Still another angle on the phenomenon from this side of the debate is the "Bigfoot as extraterrestrial" position (some Bigfoot sightings are supposedly accompanied by UFOs). But even this sub-position still suffers from internal dissonance: some believe that Bigfoot is an extraterrestrial, while others think that it may merely be manipulated by the extraterrestrials, or that it may even be an android or a robot that serves as a companion.

Of course, once extraterrestrials have been invoked, conspiracy theories cannot be far behind. So it is in the humble cryptozoological field of Bigfoot study. List members suggested several times that Bigfoot information is being suppressed by the federal government. Some conversation centered around the usefulness of the Freedom of Information Act for obtaining data. Other discussion, including sighting reports, mentioned the infamous and ubiquitous "black helicopters" and government "black operations" of contemporary paranormal lore. The most fascinating suggestion was that one list member had obtained information from a government informant about impending volcanic activity in the West that could flush Bigfoot from hiding, thereby staging an opportunity for Bigfoot investigators en masse to observe the entity in an open situation that could never be concealed by the government. Still another enthusiast apparently wrote to officials in Washington, D.C., asking for protection for himself and a Sasquatch family he was concealing (he was afraid they might be harmed by representatives of timber companies anxious to conceal yet another endangered species needing habitat protection).

The spookiest discussions centered around whether or not it would be morally acceptable to kill a Bigfoot in order to present incontrovertible proof of its existence to the scientific community. Aside from the fascinating ethical discourse (the usual utilitarian versus Kantian stuff one would expect here), the frightening part was when group members began discussing appropriate rifle calibers (most opted for at least a .300 or .338 magnum) and the field trips of several individuals that were designed to "hunt" the creature down. Hunting a bipedal creature in the forest with guns - I don't know about that. I myself hunt, but that gives me pause when planning my next backpacking trip.
Speaking of ethics, a number of list members assailed any and all scientists and skeptics who suggested that Bigfoot phenomena might have pedestrian explanations. These people asserted that research positions and educational credentials (such as an advanced degree) were meaningless symbols of a privileged class whose members probably were "given" these "gifts." Yet, some of these same people apparently touted fake credentials of their own, and others openly defended the practice. I anticipate soon seeing "Certified Bigfoot Investigator" becoming available as a new professional certification (for a nominal fee, of course).

Toward the end of 1997, I grew bored with the nonsense on the list and planned my exit. But before I left, I decided to get bolder and come out of the shadows of the group. I began to post to the list frequently. At first, I politely noted inconsistencies in stories or factual errors in reports. Later, I began to suggest that perhaps there were alternate explanations for the phenomena: misidentification of known animals, wild imaginations, hoaxing, and the like. Finally, after long listening to questions between group members such as "Why won't the scientific community take this subject seriously?" I leveled a series of challenges to their "field." Along with the expected ones about the phenomenon itself (Where's the hard evidence? How could a reproducing population of large primates go officially uncatalogued in relatively populated areas?) I pointed out that science isn't much interested in exploring untestable existential hypotheses. Scientists aren't obligated to "check out" (as some list members suggested) any and all claims of laypersons, no matter how preposterous; furthermore, disinterest in claims of a phenomenon is not tantamount to a "conspiracy" or a coverup.

It was at this point that the religious nature of many Bigfoot enthusiasts on the list emerged. I was now a heretic, and many of the list members became dogmatic and defensive. Seldom did any of the members address these challenging posts in any substantive way, but the chorus of the "defenders of the faith" rang loudly, and the devout recited their Sasquatch mantras back and forth to bolster their beliefs against this heterodoxical assault. Some were angry; some disappointed; a few supportive, but the group went on, seemingly tin razed and immune from outside challenges. After these postings, I also began to receive electronic mail from individuals I had never beard of and was subscribed to other list-servers against my wishes. It was time to wrap up the expedition. By late December 1997 I was completely tired of the spectacle and unsubscribed from the list. I was surprised to hear that soon thereafter its supervisor suspended the listserver and took some time off (I've heard it's now back online).

What did I learn from my two years of hunting Bigfoot in cyberspace? Not much about Sasquatch, but plenty about those who have extreme beliefs in the paranormal. First, never underestimate how strange and complex the beliefs of those in the paranormal community are. I thought the idea of an undiscovered giant bipedal primate in North America was bizarre, but it paled next to the theories of Sasquatches as shape-shifting shamans and trained pets of extraterrestrials that some believers embraced.

Second, do not underestimate the extent to which theories can be permeated by believers to avoid testing. I think that the notion of Bigfoot as an extradimensional creature is an example of a convenient immunization of a theory to make it more resistant to possible refutation (i.e., a Bigfoot has not been found because "any attempt to catch it or shoot it will fail because it will simply escape into another dimension"). This sort of flexibility in thinking seems to be a common and necessary form of defense against skepticism.

Third, one cannot ignore the social and perhaps even spiritual needs that are fulfilled by belief in such phenomena. In particular, Bigfoot represents a form of "unspoiled being" to many of the list members I observed. Many members see this creature simultaneously as a symbol of wilderness and a connection with primitive knowledge. Several times list members spoke of Bigfoot as a "wisdom keeper" who could "teach us (humans) much" if we could just listen; thus imbuing Sasquatch with the qualities of a primeval savior.

Lastly, while many of the participants were so-called true-believers, whose opinions were formed hard and fast, there were a number of apparently intelligent and less-credulous persons on the list who were open to skepticism while remaining intrigued by the subject at hand. I think that these people deserve more respect than they sometimes receive from the skeptical community.

Are the Bigfoot promoters right? Does Sasquatch exist? No, I don't think so, and I've seen no credible evidence to support that hypothesis. I am open-minded, but pretty skeptical; I think that is a desirable and potentially consistent position. The hunt is off for me. I didn't find anything, but I didn't really expect to either. Still, it was a successful hunt. All nimrods know that the best of the hunt is in the hunting; the consummation is not in securing the object of your quest. Perhaps that's the secret behind the motivations of these Bigfoot fans - it's the ultimate hunt, they stalk the perfectly elusive quarry. No one ever has to wrap things up, no one ever has to call the dogs home. But for me, the knowable world is sufficiently and completely fascinating - and deserving of our study. Just remember to wear bright orange when hiking through it in Sasquatch-hunter country.

Dr. David Matthew Zuefle, Ph.D., was an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro; is currently Park and Recreation Management Program,Department of Health, Exercise Science and Recreation Management at The University of Mississippi, -- University, Mississippi 38677.

COPYRIGHT 1999 Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal
COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group

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