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Among The Bigfooters

Ben Radford

July 29, 2006

“Some are doubters, some believe, the rest of us just know.”

So says the slogan of the first annual Bigfoot Rendezvous conference, held at Idaho State University June 16-18, 2006. Organized by Brandon Tennant, an artist in the college town of Pocatello, the conference featured about a dozen well-known Bigfoot enthusiasts and researchers, including ISU associate professor Jeff Meldrum.

It was a festive, public-friendly event. In addition to the two days of lectures, there were Bigfoot-themed films and musicians singing Bigfoot-themed songs. The weather cooperated, and though the turnout was spotty, the second day drew nearly a hundred attendees at one point, a respectable number given the small-town venue and the topic ("This is more fringe than typical for Idaho,” one local told me. “You're not going to get a bunch of sheep farmers to come out to hear about Bigfoot”).

As for the talks, I was surprised to see how many of the presenations were essentially nostalgia acts. Very little new perspective or information was presented. While most of the talks were interesting, it was hard to escape the fact that they were mostly rehashes of old evidence. For example, the long-disputed, forty-year-old Patterson/Gimlin Bigfoot film was analyzed yet again from a variety of angles by several speakers, and U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Kathy Moskowitz Strain discussed historic wild man stories from Native American cultures. Veteran Bigfoot researcher Rick Noll gave a talk on what turned out to be among the most up-to-date Bigfoot evidence-and even that was six years old. In 2000, Noll, along with the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, found what they claim is a large mud impression of a Bigfoot body. Despite years of study (and DNA analysis of hairs found in it), the cast remains as inconclusive as the rest of the Bigfoot evidence.

I asked David Osborn, a California teacher and Bigfoot enthusiast who attended with his son Jake, why he thought virtually all of the evidence seemed so dated. He said that he also had noticed that, and recently wrote an article for an online forum titled, “Is Bigfoot Dead?” He explained that while there does seem to be a real drought in Bigfoot evidence, it’s possible that better evidence has been collected recently but just hasn't been made public yet. Bigfoot researchers and organizations are notoriously guarded about their discoveries, perhaps fearful that someone else may use their information to finally-finally!-prove Bigfoot’s existence.

In his presentation, Jeff Meldrum responded to skeptical anthropologist David Daegling’s analysis concluding that the Patterson film’s subject is human-like. (See “Bigfoot’s Screen Test” in the May/June 1999 Skeptical Inquirer.) Meldrum (as one of the most prominent scientists examining Bigfoot) was clearly the star of the show, and his talk was interesting but at times heavy going with technical terms and anatomic explanations.

I was not only an attendee, I was also a speaker. As a sort of “token skeptic” at the conference, I had expected a bit of hostility. Not that my position was particularly controversial: I explained the differing standards of evidence between skeptics and believers, why eyewitness testimony is so unreliable, and I debunked popular myths about “skeptics,” including that we don’t do detailed research, and that we refuse to examine evidence. I concluded my talk with the following observation, summing up my position: “Enormous time, money, and energy have been spent trying to find Bigfoot. Today, in 2006, we have more eyewitness reports than ever before. We have more footprints than ever before. We have more photographs and videotapes and film footage than at any other time in history. The problem is not that we don’t have enough evidence; the problem is that the evidence is inconclusive at best. I hope Bigfoot is out there, but I doubt that it is. I believe that 20 years from now, 50 years from now, a century from now we will be in the same position-we'll have more tracks, more sightings, and more photos, but Bigfoot will continue to elude us.”

Instead of jeers, I was pleased to find that the audience was mostly receptive, and after my talk four or five people personally thanked me for presenting. Clearly not all agreed with me, but the Bigfooters-like many communities perceived to be on the fringe-can be very insular, and I think the presence of an overt skeptic was a refreshing change of pace. I was actually hoping for a more lively debate-style discussion, but it didn’t materialize.

Researcher Matt Crowley did not present but informally discussed his recent research casting doubt on the authenticity of some much-touted “dermal ridges,” wrinkles in plaster casts that supposedly reveal Bigfoot’s heel- and toeprints. It seems that in at least some cases, the casting medium itself created wrinkles mistaken for Bigfoot toe prints. An interview with Crowley conducted by Mike Dennett will appear in an upcoming issue of the Skeptical Briefs newsletter later this year.

While some credible researchers have taken up the search for Bigfoot, it is a very diverse community rife with fringe elements and infighting. Many colorful characters showed up, including one researcher who has long insisted that Bigfoot are shape-shifting, extradimensional beings. Another questioned me after my talk, correcting me very matter-of-factly that despite my claims, several Bigfoot bodies have been recovered. Where are they? I asked. Why, the government has them, of course. He didn’t know if the bodies were being kept by the Forest Service, Fish and Wildlife, or the CIA, but in any event, a conspiracy was clearly afoot.

Yet such claims seemed to be in the minority, at least among the group I saw. While most Bigfoot enthusiasts believe that the creatures are out there, they participate largely not out of some monster obsession but because the search provides a sense of community. For most, Bigfoot is a hobby, a pleasurable pastime akin to hunting, fishing, or sports. United by a common interest in the uncommon beast, enthusiasts go hiking or camping for days, enjoying both the outdoors and the camraderie. And of, course, there’s the remote but tantalizing possibility of actually seeing a Bigfoot, or hearing an odd grunt or growl in the night, or finding (seemingly) mysterious tracks.

It is ironic that, if, as Osborn pondered, Bigfoot is dead, we may never know it. The notable lack of good evidence hasn't dampened the enthusiasm of devotees; they have all they need in sighting reports, fuzzy photos, inconclusive hair samples, and footprints to keep the search going. Until better evidence comes along, old evidence will be rehashed and re-examined-and unless Bigfoot is proven to be alive, the search will continue.

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Benjamin Radford, M.Ed., is a scientific paranormal investigator, a research fellow at the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, deputy editor of the Skeptical Inquirer, and author or co-author of seven books and over a thousand articles on skepticism, critical thinking, and science literacy. His newest book is Mysterious New Mexico: Miracles, Magic, and Monsters in the Land of Enchantment. Radford is also a columnist for Discovery News and LiveScience.com.