What if all the spooky monsters and wild creatures you heard about on Halloween actually existed? As the director of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, world-renowned cryptozoology expert Loren Coleman spends his life investigating which legendary animals might be real. Cryptozoology is the pseudoscience of undiscovered animals, creatures whose existence is reported and passed down through legends but never confirmed. Legends like Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster are popular examples of cryptids (cryptozoological creatures), but Coleman's museum displays evidence and replicas of a wide variety of purportedly undiscovered creatures—everything from the bright orange Tatzelwurm found in the Swiss Alps to wood with the teeth marks of the elusive North American black panther.
The museum started as Coleman's collection of over 40,000 books and personal artefacts, and later expanded to the public space in Portland. "It's the people's museum now," Coleman tells Broadly. "That's how all natural history museums start, with a cabinet of wonders. The personal that becomes national becomes international."
To understand the field of cryptozoology, Coleman says museum visitors must differentiate between cryptids and mythical creatures. "Mythical creatures are ones from human imagination," he explains. "What cryptozoologists look for are legendary creatures, creatures that are based on fact. Lots of times I'm asked, 'Do you consider unicorns and fairies and vampires to be real?' Those are all imaginary, mythical creatures that really aren't in the realm of cryptozoology."
Along with Bigfoot and other Weekly World News cover stars, cryptids can be animals that scientists have yet to officially discover or animals thought to be extinct who later reappear. Coleman says that the most common cryptids spotted in the US are mystery cats like black panthers, which some people claim they have seen even though the species does not live in North America.
Coleman finds that museum visitors are more obsessed with Bigfoot than any other cryptid. "It's because of human narcissism," he says. "They enjoy the one that's most human like." The museum features a life-size Bigfoot replica that attracts both tourists and selfie-takers. "A lot of people who understand that they'll never see a Bigfoot in life appreciate seeing something lifesize."
Along with replicas, the museum also features alleged fecal matter samples of the Himalayan Yeti brought back by the Tom Slick-F. Kirk Johnson Snowman Expedition of 1959. In his museum, Coleman likes to remind naysayers that many animals were once the cryptids of the past. The kraken turned out to be the giant squid. Most recently, a fifth species of tapir was found in the Amazon. "The American Museum of Natural History actually has a mounted specimen of this that had been killed 100 years earlier and put in their collection," Coleman says. "They ignored it because they thought the person that had caught it happened to be telling travelers' tales. That person happened to be Teddy Roosevelt, and he brought back things from Brazil and the Amazon, and people thought he was exaggerating."
Coleman's job also involves dispelling a lot of false cryptids. He says, "People send me a lot pictures of dead animals that they find on the road." A lot of "monsters" discovered by the media are animals suffering from diseases that make them look unrecognizable; in Maine, stories came out in the news about a mutant dog that Coleman later identified to be a Chow hit by a car. Almost all sightings of the mythical El Chupacabra have turned out to be coyotes suffering from mange. "It's exaggerated because the media love a monster story," Coleman says. "They love a picture that identifies these monsters."
Coleman's ultimate goal is to introduce cryptozoology to a wider audience and to diversify the field. "I was very aware that all of the Bigfoot books, all of the cryptozoology books beforehand had talked about this field as a white, male field," he says. "When I wrote my book, Cryptozoology A to Z, I made sure that it was gender balanced, international, and culturally diverse. If we're going to try to get girls, boys, African Americans involved in cryptozoology, you have to talk about the models like [explorer] Ruth Harkness, who is the one who [brought the first] giant panda [to the West]. How many people know that the giant panda was discovered by a woman? Or [naturalist] Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer, who discovered the coelacanth. In other words, the women had been left out of cryptozoology."
Coleman hopes that the Cryptozoology Museum will be a gateway for new generations to get involved in the discipline. "We're not evangelical, we're very open-minded and skeptical. We really reinforce critical thinking. A lot of people in the 50s came into science because they were interested in dinosaurs. Today a lot of people are coming into the life sciences being interested in cryptozoology first." What's the appeal of the field, and what keeps visitors coming back to his museum again and again? "Our museum is really based upon the future," he says. "People love animals and people love mysteries. So people come into our museum to be entertained, but also to have some awareness that cryptozoology is not creepy, it's not scary. It's just a new way to look at animals and to hope for new discoveries."