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Bigfoot Lookalikes: Tracking Hairy Man-Beasts

Investigative Files

Joe Nickell

Volume 37.5, September/October 2013

Although Sasquatch—after 1958 generally called Bigfoot—is most associated with the Pacific North­west (a region loosely ranging from northern California to Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and southern Alaska), sightings are reported throughout the United States and Canada (Bord and Bord 2006). Many of these turn out to be hoaxes—notably Roger Patterson’s filming of “Bigsuit” in 1967. (He used a gorilla suit purchased from costume-seller Phil Morris, converted it to Bigfoot by modifying the face and adding pendulous breasts, and enlisted a man named Bob Heironimus to wear the suit [Long 2004; Nickell 2011, 68–73].) Many other Bigfoot sightings are no doubt misperceptions resulting from expectation and excitement (Nickell 2011, 94–96).

But misperceptions of what? Over my years as a skeptical cryptozoologist, I have looked for real, natural lookalikes to explain various reported “monsters.” For example, the round-faced, gliding, “Flatwoods Monster” of 1952 with its “terrible claws” seemed almost certainly to be a barn owl, just as “Mothman” of 1966, with its large, shining red eyes, could be identified as a barred owl (Nickell 2011, 159–66, 175–81). Again the legendary “giant eel” of Lake Crescent, Newfoundland, was probably inspired by otters swimming in a line (who are also known to be mistaken for some lake and sea monsters) (Nickell 2007; 2012a). Given these and other examples of monster lookalikes—I think of my work in this regard as that of a paranatural naturalist—we may ask: Are there animals that might be mistaken for Bigfoot?

A Candidate

As it happens, there is one especially good candidate for many sightings of Bigfoot—even for some of the non-hoaxed imprints of his big feet. The earliest record of potential Sasquatch footprints comes from an explorer named David Thompson, who while crossing the Rockies at what is today Jasper, Alberta, came upon a strange track in the snow. Measuring eight by fourteen inches, it had four toes with short claw marks, a deeply impressed ball of the foot, and an indistinct heel imprint (Green 1978, 35–37; Hunter with Dahinden 1993, 16–17).

The claws do not suggest the legendary man-beast. Indeed, John Napier, a primate expert at the Smithsonian Institution and author of Bigfoot (1973, 74), thought the print could well have been a bear’s (whose small inner toe might not have left a mark). Thompson himself thought it likely “the track of a large old grizzled bear” (quoted in Hunter with Dahinden 1993, 17).

But what about sightings? It is not uncommon for eyewitnesses to state that at first impression their Bigfoot looked like a bear, thus proving the similarity (see Figure 1). Yet many go on to rule out that identification, based on some aspect of appearance or behavior. However, as considerable evidence in fact shows, many Sasquatch/Bigfoot encounters may well have been of bears. Mistaken identifications could be due to poor viewing conditions, such as the creature being seen only briefly, or from a distance, in shadow or at nighttime, through foliage, or the like—especially while the observer is, naturally, excited. Non-expert observation is also problematic, as is expectancy, the tendency of people who are expecting to see a certain thing to be misled by something resembling it (Nickell 2012b, 347).

Comparisons

A published compilation of 1,002 American and Canadian Sasquatch/Bigfoot reports from 1818 to November 1980 is instructive (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310). Analysis of the cases (which are presented as brief abstracts) reveals that not only general anatomy but also color variations, footprints, behavior, and geographical distribution of Sasquatch/Bigfoot are often quite similar to those of bears.

Anatomy. Bigfoot is typically de­scribed as a large, hairy man-beast. It is said to walk on two legs, to have long arms, large shoulders, and, often, no neck. Although it is frequently likened to an ape, it has been reported many times to have claws (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310; Wright 1962).

Like Bigfoot, bears can appear as large, big-shouldered, hairy, manlike beasts. Their anatomy is consistent with bipedal standing (hence the long “arms”) though much less so with walking—and, according to the Smithsonian expert John Napier (1973, 62), “At a distance a bear might be mistaken for a man when standing still. . . .” Consider this incident of a creature on the porch of a ranch house in western Washington State in 1933 (related at second hand, years later, by the daughter of the woman who observed it):

It was moonlight outside, and at first she thought it was a bear on the porch, but this animal was standing on its back legs and was so large it was bending over to look in the window. She said it appeared over 6 feet tall and it didn’t look like a bear at all in the moonlight. She said in a few minutes it walked over [no doubt only a couple of steps] and jumped off the porch and started around the house. She went into the kitchen so she could get a good look and she said it looked just like an ape. (Lund 1969)

Ape, Bigfoot, bear? You decide, but remember, this was bear territory. And a standing black bear can be up to seven feet tall (Yosemite 2013).

During several days in April 2013 in New York State’s massive Adirondack Park, where there are scattered Bigfoot encounters, I talked to hunters and others who had witnessed standing bears. One man, at whose remote home I boarded for an evening, told me of once standing face to face with a black bear: it was on its hind legs looking in the window at him!

Bear vs. Bigfoot comparison drawingFigure 1. Split-image illustration compares a standing bear (left) to the creature it is often mistaken for, Sasquatch/Bigfoot (right). Drawing by Joe Nickell.

The often-reported action of Bigfoot running on all fours is entirely consistent with a bear, as in a case of late April 1897. Near Sailor, Indiana, two farmers witnessed a man-sized beast covered with hair walking on its hind legs, but it “afterwards dropped on its hands and disappeared with rabbit-like bounds” (Bord and Bord 2006, 23, 221). No doubt the “hands” were really paws. Again, in 1970, a Manitoba man saw a seven-foot, dark Bigfoot “stand up” by the roadside at night. And in 1972, at an Iowa state park, a seven-foot brown Bigfoot was shot at and “ran away on all fours” (Bord and Bord 2006, 260, 264; see also Green 1978, 246, 178).

One Bigfoot report was inspired when, in April 1978, a Maryland farmer saw a “bear” walking upright across a field, followed by two “smaller creatures on all fours” (Bord and Bord 2006, 300). This is consistent with a mother bear in alert mode with cubs. Bears often stand on their hind legs to look and to sniff the air, and black bears usually have a litter of two, born in January or early February (“Black Bears” 2013; Whitaker 1996, 703). And so, apparently, a stated bear encounter was converted by enthusiasts into a sighting of “Bigfoot.” Some months earlier, in the fall of 1977, two South Dakota boys (ages twelve and nine) saw only “long hairy legs” in the bushes (Bord and Bord 2006, 294), and that likely bear became another “Bigfoot.” Reports of Bigfoot’s gait as “peculiar” or the like (Bord and Bord 2006, 290, 291) could be consistent with the awkward gait of an upright bear.

Coloration. Like descriptions of Sasquatch/Bigfoot, black bears can not only be black but also dark brown, brown, cinnamon, blond, off-white, and white (Herrero 2002, 131–34). The same is true of grizzly (brown) bears (Ursus arctos), which—just like a Bigfoot reported in northern California (Bord and Bord 2006, 246)—often has dark-brown, silver-tipped hair (Herrero 2002, 133; Whitaker 1996, 706).

“To confuse the novice further,” states a noted authority, “there are also variations in color patterning on the coats of each species.” This is due to genetic factors and to molting. With most bears, a lightening in the color of the coat occurs between molts (Herrero 2002, 133, 134).

In nighttime sightings, color may go unreported, but the animal’s eye-shine is frequently described. There are numerous reports of “gleaming eyes,” “large glowing eyes,” “green shining eyes,” “glowing amber eyes,” and the like, including occasionally “red eyes” (Bord and Bord 2006, 259–300). Generally, bear eyeshine is reported as ranging “from yellow to yellowish orange, though some people report seeing red or green” (“Backpacker” 2013). The North American Bear Center mentions a black bear with mismatched eyes, due to an injured eye that “shines red rather than yellow” (“Mating” 2013).

Footprints. Bigfoot has been re­ported to leave tracks that had two to six toes and ranged in length up to twenty or more inches (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310). Of course, many large tracks—like the fourteen-inch ones of Patterson’s “Bigsuit” creature—are hoaxed (Nickell 2011, 66–75; Daegling 2004, 157–87).

As to bears, Napier (1973, 150–51) observes that “The hindfoot of the bear is remarkably human-like,” and that near the end of summer when worn down, the claws “may not show up at all” in tracks. Also at moderate speeds the hindfoot and forefoot prints may superimpose to “give the appearance of a single track made by a bipedal creature” (Napier 1973, 151).

Bears’ five-toed hindprints range from about seven to nine inches long for the black bear to approximately ten to twelve for the grizzly (brown) bear, although some can be more than sixteen inches, and “In soft mud, tracks may be larger” (Whitaker 1996, 704, 707). As bear expert Herrero cautions: “I don’t give measurements because track size varies so much depending on substratum. If a track seems very large, look at other track characteristics.”

A bear’s smallest toe (the innermost one, as opposed to that of humans) “may fail to register” (Whitaker 1996, 704), no doubt explaining many four-toed “Bigfoot” tracks. As well, “In mud a black bear’s toe separation may not show” (Herrero 2002, 178), possibly giving rise to the illusion that—depending on just where there might be a slight separation—a “four”-toed track might appear to have been made with only two very broad toes, or even perhaps three. Rare, six-toed tracks (unlikely for either Bigfoot or bear) were found in Iowa in 1980 after a witness saw a “strange creature on all fours eating [a] carcass” (Bord and Bord 2006, 307). Except for the tracks (which were probably due to some anomaly like the overlapping of hind and fore feet), the creature is consistent with a bear.

None of the tracks mentioned in the 1,002 abstracts under study, representing reports from 1818–1980 (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310), were reported to have dermal ridges (the friction ridges of, for instance, fingerprints). These are common to both apes and man, as well as, presumably, to an ape-man. (Although in 1982, a U.S. Forest Service patrolman discovered such prints in Oregon’s Blue Mountains, in the Mill Creek Watershed, noted Bigfoot skeptic Michael Dennett [1989] turned up evidence that those tracks were part of an elaborate hoax.)

Behavior. Bigfoot’s reported actions are quite varied. Aside from such outlandish reports as of a Sasquatch treating an Indian for snakebite or kidnapping people, numerous acts attributed to the fabled creature again have a ready explanation: bears. For example, Bigfoot often eats berries, fruit, grubs, vegetation such as corn, fish, animal carcasses, and human rubbish. It may be seen day or night. It often visits campsites, like one raided by a “cinnamon-colored Bigfoot” in Idaho in the summer of 1968 that left tooth marks on food containers. It also peers into homes and vehicles, and sometimes shows aggression (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310; Merrick 1933).

Similarly, bears share these and other aspects of behavior with Bigfoot. For example, bears feed on most nonpoisonous types of berries (which they eat by moving their mouths along branches). As well, they tear open rotten logs for grubs, and they feed on fruit, corn, and other vegetation, fish, live or dead mammals, and human rubbish (Herrero 2002, 183, 149–71, 47; Whitaker 1996, 708). Bears likewise are encountered both day and night (Herrero 2002, 170; Whitaker 1996, 703–709). They visit homes, vehicles, and campsites looking for food, and they sometimes show aggression (Herrero 2002, 83–87; Whitaker 1996, 703–709). These and other parallels with Bigfoot are striking.

Then there are Bigfoot’s vocalizations—many of which could well be those of bears. For example, Bigfoot often growls (Bord and Bord 2006, 237, 256, 268). One “snarled and hissed” at witnesses (268), and another “chattered its teeth” (255), while others “screamed” when shot at (247, 252). Similarly, bears growl and snort, and they make loud huffing or puffing noises (Herrero 2002, 15, 16, 115). Their most common defensive display is “blowing with clacking teeth”; as well, they may bawl (from pain), moan (in fear), bellow (in combat), and make a deep-throated, pulsing noise (when seriously threatened). Cubs “readily scream in distress” (Rogers 1992, 3–4).

Distribution. The habitat of Bigfoot in the 1,002 abstracts we are studying—from 1818 to November 1980—is extensive. It includes most continental American states (excepting Delaware, Rhode Island, and South Carolina) and eight of thirteen Canadian provinces. The greatest number of sightings were in Washington State (110), followed by California (104), British Columbia (90), and Oregon (77)—that is, in the Pacific Northwest, the traditional domain of Sasquatch—followed by Pennsylvania and Florida (42 each). It is reportedly seen in woods and fields, along streams, and so on (Bord and Bord 2006, 215–310; Nickell 2011, 225–29).

The distribution of black bears is strikingly similar, as shown by population maps provided by the Audubon Society (Whitaker 1996, 704) and elsewhere (Herrero 2002, 80). America’s grizzly population was once quite extensive and included the western states (Herrero 2002, 4); however, grizzlies are now relegated mostly to Yellowstone Park (chiefly in northwest Wyoming) and its vicinity, and to portions of the northernmost areas of Washington, Idaho, and Montana, as well as most of British Columbia, Northwest Territories, the Yukon Territory, and Alaska (Herrero 2002, 4; Whitaker 1996, 708). Like Bigfoot, bears are also seen in woods and fields, along streams, and so on.

Assessment

Again and again come eyewitness reports of Bigfoot that sound like misreports of bears. In Washington State, for instance, in 1948, a man saw a “thin, black-haired, 6-ft Bigfoot squatting on [a] lake shore.” In September 1964 a Pennsylvania man spotted “Bigfoot peering in a window of his mother’s home at dusk,” while a man sleeping in his car in northwest California was “woken by Bigfoot shaking it.” In July 1966, a British Columbia woman saw “head and shoulders of Bigfoot above 6-ft raspberry bushes at night.” In June 1976, three Floridians saw a creature “6 ft tall, with long black hair, standing in a clump of pine trees.” In August 1980, two Pennsylvania men “Driving down a mountain, saw husky black hairy creature standing in road.” And so on, and on (Bord and Bord 2006, 230, 241, 244, 287, 309).

Let it be understood that I am in no way saying that all Sasquatch/Bigfoot sightings involve bears. After all, some are surely other misidentifications or hoaxes involving people in furry suits (Nickell 2011, 72–73). As well, Venezuela’s “Loy’s Ape” of the 1920s was identified as a large spider monkey, and two specimens of China’s legendary Yeren, shot in 1980, proved to be the endangered golden monkey (Nickell 2011, 85–87, 96).

I am merely pointing out, what should now be obvious, that many of the best non-hoax encounters can be explained as misperceptions of bears. Of creatures in North America, standing bears are the best lookalike for the bipedal, hairy man-beasts called Bigfoot. Bears also frequently behave like Bigfoot, and they are found in regions common to the legendary creature—no certain trace of which, in the fossil record or otherwise, has ever been discovered.


References

Backpacker Blogs. 2013. Ask a bear: What color are your eyes at night? Online at http://www.backpacker.com/ask_a_bear_night_eyes_shine/blogs/1944; accessed April 2, 2013.

“Black Bears.” 2013. Online at http://www.catskillmountaineer.com/animals-bears.html; accessed March 25, 2013.

Bord, Janet, and Colin Bord. 2006. Bigfoot Casebook Updated: Sightings and Encounters from 1818 to 2004. N.p.: Pine Winds Press.

Daegling, David J. 2004. Bigfoot Exposed. NY: AltaMira Press.

Dennett, Michael. 1989. Evidence for Bigfoot? An investigation of the Mill Creek ‘sasquatch prints.’” Skeptical Inquirer 13(3)(Spring): 264–72.

Green, John. 1978. Sasquatch: The Apes Among Us. Saanichton, BC: Hancock House.

Herrero, Stephen. 2002. Bear Attacks, rev. ed. Guilford, CT: The Lyons Press.

Hunter, Don, with René Dahinden. 1993. Sasquatch/Bigfoot. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.

Long, Greg. 2004. The Making of Bigfoot. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Lund, Callie. 1969. Letter to John Green, quoted in Bord and Bord 2006, 31–33.

Mating Battle. 2013. Online at http://www.bear.org/website/bear-pages/black-bear/reproduction/14-mating-battle-combatants.html; accessed April 3, 2013.

Napier, John. 1973. Bigfoot: The Yeti and Sasquatch in Myth and Reality. New York: E.P. Dutton.

Nickell, Joe. 2007. Lake monster lookalikes. Skeptical Briefs (June): 6–7.

———. 2011. Tracking the Man-Beasts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

———. 2012a. CSI Paranormal. Amherst, NY: Inquiry Press.

———. 2012b. The Science of Ghosts. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books.

Rogers, Lynn L. 1992. Watchable Wildlife: The Black Bear. Madison, WI: USDA Forest Service, North Central Station Distribution Center.

Whitaker, John O., Jr. 1996. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Mammals, rev. ed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Wright, Bruce S. 1962. Wildlife Sketches Near and Far. Fredericton, NB: Brunswick Press. Quoted in Bord and Bord 2006, 35–37.

Yosemite Black Bears. 2013. Online at http://www.yosemitepark.com/bear-facts.aspx; accessed March 25, 2013.

Joe Nickell

Joe Nickell's photo

Joe Nickell, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (CSI) and "Investigative Files" Columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. A former stage magician, private investigator, and teacher, he is author of numerous books, including Inquest on the Shroud of Turin (1998), Pen, Ink and Evidence (2003), Unsolved History (2005) and Adventures in Paranormal Investigation (2007). He has appeared in many television documentaries and has been profiled in The New Yorker and on NBC's Today Show. His personal website is at joenickell.com.