Tuesday, July 12, 2011

#35. LOREN COLEMAN - “A cryptozoology expert.”

Loren Coleman

“It has a head like a deer, stands upright like a man and hops like a frog,” reads an account of an unknown creature by 1700s explorers. “It sometimes sports two heads –- one on the shoulders, and one on the stomach.” Picturing such an animal brings up some pretty weird images. Claims of having seen it were widely ridiculed.

That is, until Europeans discovered the kangaroo in 1770.

About a month ago, I finished reading Bill Bryson’s popular science book ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything.’ In it, he talks about how museums and governments used to finance expeditions to the far corners of the Earth to seek out a new animal or plant species. On a timeline of the Earth’s existence splayed out like the wingspan of a person holding their arms up to the side, humanity takes up less than a fingernail. We haven’t been around very long.

In the era Bryson’s writing about, people in general had an easier time accepting our small place in our planet’s autobiography. We don’t know everything the vast Earth has to offer, ergo, let’s trek around and find out. Explorers sought to catalog every living being on Earth. New creatures were discovered in droves.

In Yann Martel’s novel ‘Life of Pi,’ the main character wonders how a Bengal tiger could hide in a city without being sighted. His zoologist father answers that animals are better at hiding than people would ever guess — if you took the world and shook it out, animals unlike any we can imagine would fall out of even the most populated metropolises.

A good number of the animals that we take for granted now were discovered only about 100 years ago. The mountain gorilla was not discovered until two were shot in 1902. No one had seen a living giant panda until the very end of the 1800s. In the last 10 years, four hundred new animals larger than household cats were found and classified.

So why is it so hard to believe there are still animals we have yet to discover?

In my head, I picture a young Loren Coleman, the expert who runs Portland, Maine’s Cryptozoology Museum, like Nigel Thornberry; a safari hat on top of his tiny head, a magnifying glass bigger than his scrawny arm.

Loren is currently the world’s leading living cryptozoology expert. He’s written 35 books in the field. He’s consulted on movie sets. His museum contains 2,300 items from a collection 51 years in the making. He’s hoping to expand in three months because the back of the bookstore that the museum is currently in has gotten too small.

But what is cryptozoology? Loren describes it as “the study of hidden or unknown animals,” which on its face, sounds like a perfectly reasonable scientific endeavor. But cryptozoology is both immensely popular and wildly contentious. The people that love it really love it and the people that hate it really hate it.

Cryptozoologists study cryptids, or creatures that have not been proven to exist. Some “celebrity cryptids” include Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster and the Chupacabra. Hence, the widespread ridicule attached to the field. “For one thing, the names don’t exactly help,” Loren later says.

His personal favorite is the Yeti, because it sparked his interest in cryptozoology when he was just 12 years old in March of 1960. On TV one night was a Japanese mockumentary called “Half Human” that followed the discovery of abominable snowmen or Yetis. Loren was transfixed. He watched the movie again when it re-aired the next morning. On Monday, he went into school where he lived in Decatur, Illinois and asked his teacher about the Yeti. She said three things: they don’t exist, go do your work, and stop bothering me.

Undeterred, Loren went to the library and asked the librarian the same question. She came back with a stack of books.

“I found out there was this whole world that no one in school was talking about,” he says. Cryptozoology quickly became Loren’s passion. When he was named “paper boy of the week,” he talked in his interview about his dream of going to the Himalayas to search for the Yeti. Needless to say, it got some attention in Decatur, which is described on its website as a “classic Midwest small city.”

By the time he was 14 years old, Loren grew into Decatur’s go-to person for cryptozoology, once called “romantic zoology.” His parents, a firefighter and a homemaker, allowed him to go on expeditions with game wardens. He wrote to famed naturalist and cryptozoologist Ivan Sanderson seeking advice. Sanderson wrote back and took Loren under his wing. Loren wrote to many others interested in the field, at one point communicating with 400 people around the world. Pre-Xerox machines, if he wanted to send copies of an article out, he would have to buy as many newspapers as he needed and meticulously cut them out to mail.

“I was a good kid and very bright,” he says. “I was the oldest of four and the only one that went to college. My parents were like, ‘As long as you don’t get hurt, it’s fine.’”

Loren attended Southern Illinois University because he’d heard reports of swamp apes being studied by a folklorist down there. He majored in anthropology and zoology and interned with an archeologist, which he found boring. After graduation, he went into social work but continued to investigate on the side.  

“I was a hippie and I had long hair and went hitchhiking around, investigating,” he says. “Some people say I couldn’t be called a hippie because I was always working.”

Loren also became Decatur’s first Vietnam War conscientious objector. Sanderson personally wrote him a letter for his FBI file. Loren was arrested and had his hair cut off. He spent two years doing alternative service in the States. I immediately start drawing parallels to his fringe interests when it comes to zoology too; he’s a loner, Dottie. A rebel.

“I’ve always had a personality for questioning authority,” he says, when I make the connection. It’s one he’s made as well. He says his passion for cryptozoology definitely links with his political radicalism. Other jobs have included draft counseling for soldiers and creating a union for a mental health hospital.

Even within cryptozoology, Loren is somewhat of a controversial figure. In one of his books, he explores what the sex lives of the Bigfoot might be in a chapter cheekily called, “Sex and the Single Sasquatch.” His argument was that Bigfoot is not a noble savage like people prefer to romanticize; it’s an animal and it deserves to be studied as one would study other animals. “I’m a radical in a field that’s already radical,” he says. “People refuse to listen to research like that because they’re prudes, I guess.”

I ask if he was bullied as a kid for his interest in cryptozoology, if it made him an outcast causing him to identify strongly with fringe movements. Loren says he was in the science club, but he liked baseball and was never bullied. He later sat on his high school’s reunion committee and was an honored guest, a reward he finds amusing considering he wasn’t a popular kid.

"It didn’t matter to me that I didn’t go to homecoming. As a kid, my interests were weird but my dress and behavior weren’t weird at all," he says. "And anyway, I wear the word ‘weird’ like a badge of courage or a badge of honor. Being weird opened a new world for me."

Let’s get some basic facts out of the way now: There is not one Bigfoot. You did not see the Bigfoot; you saw a Bigfoot. The name was coined by a group of construction workers’s wives in a 1958 newspaper article about sightings. Yetis too are often mistakenly referred to in the singular; “the Yeti” instead of the correct “a Yeti.” Yetis are apes and Bigfoots are humanoids; they have very different footprints. The famous 1967 footage of a Bigfoot walking into the forest, called the Patterson-Gimlin footage, has not been debunked; there was no deathbed confession of inauthenticity from anyone involved and claims to have been “the person in the suit” are currently unfounded.

No one yet knows exactly what the footage is showing, though Loren points out a few specifics I’d never noticed before: 1) the creature has breasts and is a female, unusual for an ape costume at the time 2) the creature walks the way an ape does, with limited mobility to the hips and neck and 3) its thigh muscles are visible and moving. He also notes that 1967 was the first year an Oscar was awarded to a film for “Outstanding Makeup.” That film was ‘Planet of the Apes’ in which nothing is as advanced as what would have been needed for the Patterson-Gimlin footage.

"We have enough evidence to keep our minds open," Loren says.

Therefore, the footage is prominently on display, but Loren allows visitors to draw their own conclusions. The museum itself is small, but not lacking for items (which Loren calls “popular cultural artifacts”). There’s an 8 foot tall taxidermy Bigfoot in the front of the store (“Scares every UPS delivery guy,” Loren says), a Fiji mermaid movie prop in a cabinet, a replica of the Minnesota Iceman, a 150-year-old ostrich foot-turned-ashtray, and a photo of three fishermen with what looks like a sea serpent; Loren blew up the original so that anyone coming through the museum could see their faces, recognize them and provide more information.

Loren gives Josh and I a tour of the museum, along with a few other people, one woman in ’80s glasses and a legit wolf t-shirt and a bigger guy with an eyebrow piercing who treats Loren as a revered celebrity. (My friend Charlie nearly drove off the road when I mentioned I was meeting “some cryptozoology guy…Loren something.” Apparently, he is pretty famous.)

Loren and I had communicated via email after Josh went to the museum while in Portland for a comedy show in February. Though the museum is only two rooms, there’s a lot to be said on the tour; Loren makes corny jokes but does a good job explaining his collection. He describes himself as “very serious but also with a sense of humor.”

One thing that strikes me during the tour is that Loren is not trying to prove anything to his visitors. He’s not defensive and he’s not a lunatic. What I had imagined was some quack with a taxidermied ape’s foot trying to prove to anyone who would listen that he’d snared a Bigfoot. Loren is incredibly pragmatic; he’s got a “Tower of Hoaxes” at the museum where he illuminates any fake cryptids of the past and makes very clear which popular sightings were debunked. He’s an intense researcher (in fact, when he first greets me, he knows entirely too much about me already). Loren’s not interested in proving anything to anyone; he’s just interested in the truth.

"I’m not evangelical about it," he says. "I’m skeptically open-minded, and I think everything needs to be examined scientifically with the data coming first." Later he calls himself "passionate, but not emotional."

"Western science decides if animals exist or don’t exist," he says, during the tour, and later refers to himself as a "scientist" because why shouldn’t he? "Every history museum starts out as someone’s private collection," he says. Later he tells me, "It doesn’t bother me if people snicker at it. Let them snicker and move on. I’m not defensive."

Loren’s collection ended up in Portland after his second marriage. He divorced for the first time in San Francisco, moved to Cambridge with a woman he was seeing where he attended graduate school at Simmons College. Then, he met his second wife and the two moved to Portland where they later divorced. Loren has two sons; one of whom works for the Red Sox. When they were young, Loren took them on summer vacation to Loch Ness in Scotland to look for ‘Nessie’ with an expedition team. He later got a call from the older son’s teacher saying he’d been claiming he searched for the Loch Ness monster during summer break. Loren told her that was quite right, “and then I educated her on cryptozoology,” he smirks.

"I have a very thick skin about this stuff," he says. "People always ask me, ‘You don’t really believe in this, do you?’ And you know what? There are two types of people I distrust; true believers and true debunkers. I always say, ‘I don’t believe in cryptozoology, no. Belief gets in the way.’ I do not believe in Bigfoot, because belief is based in religion. What I do is I explain scientifically or I denounce scientifically."

I tell Loren I’d assumed he went to college for science and was unable to major specifically in cryptozoology. I’m right. The first college classes on cryptozoology weren’t taught until 1989. Loren says that during his education from 1960 to 1969, there were five people in the entire country studying cryptozoology at college. Today, there are thousands. “It turned from a handful of us to a phenomena,” he says.

"When I started, a professor would scratch their head and give me a B- on a paper I’d written and someone else would write the same paper, with the same amount of sources and research and get an A," he says, "but now people like me are the professors," he smirks, "We’ve got people on the inside."

Loren says he gets about 750 emails a day; he follows up on just 20. Many are young people just getting into the field. Loren says he always answers those because “I used to be there.” Often, too, parents will contact him, concerned that their child will grow up to be a “freak” because of an interest in cryptozoology. Loren reassures them that for most people, cryptozoology is a gateway interest. “Maybe it means he’ll grow up to be a marine scientist the way a child with an interest in dinosaurs may grow up to be an ecologist,” he says. “It’s a way to deal with being interested in animals.”

Loren says as a child, he always believed he’d be a naturalist of some sort. He describes himself as a “pacifist and a vegan, who advocates for the live capture of cryptids.” One recent email he answered had to do with rumors of two Bigfoot being shot. The idea concerned him. Another crytpid investigation Loren was on the forefront of was the Montauk Monster, a supposed new creature that turned up dead on the shore in Long Island in 2008. Loren coined the name and was one of the first to say it was just a raccoon corpse.

He estimates that out of 100 claims made, 80 are misindentifications. For example, someone sees a coyote and thinks it’s a Chupacabra. One percent are actual, crafted hoaxes, like 2008’s Georgia Bigfoot costume, “which get 95 percent of the media attention,” Loren laments. (He later says the hoax drew 1.9 million viewers to his website so he couldn’t be too angry.)

"New animals are discovered all the time," he adds. "Real discoveries get no attention. Mysterious ones linger. Fake ones get all the news."

In 1999, Loren co-authored a masterwork called ‘Cryptozoology A to Z.’ It was published as an overall look at the field for modern readers. Where once museums funded expeditions, Loren says most of the money for new investigations today comes from documentary film companies.

"It’s a very long term situation," he says, noting that it took 55 years to discover the mountain gorilla. "This Twitter generation wants everything instantly but that just doesn’t happen with the discovery of an animal."

So here’s where I feel like I missed something. I understand the reluctance to associate science with fantasy, but does humanity really think we’ve discovered all there is to discover? Are we so arrogant as to presume we’ve seen it all? It feels like we’ve entered a lull period, where our imaginations have dulled lest we look stupid by being wrong. But you know how most everything was first figured out? By intrepid pioneers willing to, at first, look dumb. The timelines drawn up by our history textbooks eliminate the clutter — the debunked theories and unsuccessful test runs — that led to life as we now know it.

I don’t know if I believe in cryptids, but I do think not everything that can be explained has been explained. I enjoy the possibility. The discovery of an exciting celebrity cryptid, a Bigfoot or a ‘Nessie,’ would open so many scientific doors. It would make us all re-imagine the reality we perceive. If Bigfoot is real, then what else is out there beyond the accepted walls of your city’s Museum of Science? What else are we wrong about? It would cause a re-examination of just about everything. It’d be fantastic.

The next big discovery on the horizon, Loren says, is the Orang Pendeck, a crytpid that may soon (re: in the next 20 years) be discovered to be real and living in Indonesia. Loren says confidently that it “will happen” when I ask about the chances of discovery. The Orang Pendeck would be a brand new primate, “as good as Bigfoot,” in Loren’s opinion because it opens the door for Bigfoot to exist.

"If Bigfoots exist, why do you think so few people have actually seen them?" I ask. Loren goes on a bit about how their numbers are limited, how they’re a very intelligent primate, how 95 percent of where they live is trees, great for hiding. I press on, "But why has no one seen one?"

Loren gets a certain look in his eye. “They’re seen all the time,” he says. “But no one says anything because people will think you’re crazy. People have lost jobs, have lost lovers for what they’ve seen. It’s something I call the ‘ridicule curtain’ and it slams down around anyone who talks about something outside the norm.”

He tells me his museum has been visited by workers from the Environmental Protection Agency, the Center for Disease Control, and from Homeland Security, all of whom tell Loren they’d face flack at their jobs if their office-mates knew they’d gone to a cryptozoology museum.

"But why though?" I ask. "Why is this something that people are so adverse to?"

"They’re scared of the unknown," he replies. "They like the status-quo equilibrium and anything else makes them feel uncomfortable."

He tells me he went on a puffin watch — boarded a boat to look for puffins. On board, he couldn’t help himself and started asking the weathered sailors if they’d ever seen a sea serpent.

"You’d be surprised what people admit," he says. "People have these experiences and they don’t say anything because nobody’s ever asked them."

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