Members of the CFZ outside of Myrtle Cottage. Photo via
In the idyllic English countryside of northern Devon, on Back Street in the little town of Woolsery (nee Woolfardisworthy, population 1,123), sits Myrtle Cottage. For much of its existence, the cottage served as the family home of British Colonial Service Officer J.T. Downes, and was a place of utter normalcy. Now the home belongs to Downes’ son, Jonathan, and since 2005 it has become a rendezvous for people from all over the world to meet and discuss the presence of predatory wildcats on the English moors; proposed expeditions in search of draconic serpents in the swamps of South Sudan; and the validity of a recent spate of anecdotes about Papua New Guinean villagers building stockades to guard against murderous, 30-foot lizards raiding them from the depths of uncharted forests.
Woolsery is now the headquarters for Jonathan Downes’ Center for Fortean Zoology, which operates its museum, library, filmmaking studio, and small on-site publishing house from the cottage. But despite its studious veneer, Fortean Zoology, is not an established and/or respected academic discipline. It’s Downes’s new moniker for cryptozoology, the search for undiscovered and mythical beasts. More colloquially, it’s the world of monster hunters—a world of sincere, often-bumbling believers, but also of hoaxers and profiteers who’ve sullied the title.
The Fortean rebranding is an attempt by Downes and others to distance their approach to looking for unknown species from the spitballing of paranormal studies and give it all the trappings of rigorous, professional modern science. Although he considers himself one of the world’s first full-time cryptozoologists, Downes and his cohort take on methodical, quasi-mundane jobs like debunking monster myths, recording details of rare yet known species, and consulting on animal mutilation cases. Still, for all the debunking and science-talk, the CFZ’s heart is in the sometimes-seedy world of monster hunting. Some of their more notable accomplishments include writing a book on the Orang Pendek (Sumatra’s answer to Bigfoot), making documentaries on the Chupacabra, and leading expeditions to the Gobi Desert in search of the electrically-charged, acid-spitting Mongolian Death Worm.
Jonathan Downes. Photo via
Although they’ve been on the fringe for their entire existence, people weren’t always so wary of cryptozoologists. In the 1950s—an era when the discovery of Mountain Gorillas, Komodo Dragons, and Opkapi were part of living memory—Texas oilman Tom Slick and beloved mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary both launched quests to find the Himalayan Yeti and were met with popular acclaim and anticipation rather than a lifetime of ridicule and obscurity.
While cryptozoologists have had little luck in finding monsters over the last 60 years, hucksters have found all manner of ways to capitalize on their childlike wonder. Ray L. Wallace, for example, left fake Sasquatch footprints throughout the northwest, and skeptic and cryptozoological field investigator Benjamin Radford once found himself trying to investigate an alleged Bigfoot butt print in Idaho owned by a man named Matt Moneymaker (seriously). Moneymaker resisted showing him the site on supposedly scientific grounds while angling for a documentary deal. He is now regularly featured on Animal Planet's Finding Bigfoot.
According to Sharon Hill, the woman behind Doubtful News, documentaries and TV shows like Finding Bigfoot became intensely popular among 18- to 31-year-old males—a key advertising demographic—around the middle of 2012, leading to an explosion in cryptozoological pageantry. Monster hunters invited people to pay their way onto expeditions, billed as scientific, but more often exploitative and misleading. A number of supposed scientific organizations, like the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization, says Radford, are actually just clearing houses for such mystery mongering. Even larger companies have hopped on the cash cow. In August software company PlayMobility advertised a new tracking app by calling for Bigfoot videos, then posted two supposedly genuine sightings on YouTube, earning loads of publicity.
It’s surprising that believers still exist after years of debunkings and legitimate zoological advances, but Hill sympathizes with many who’ve had, “a powerful personal experience that they have interpreted as an encounter with a cryptid. They believe the creature is out there and have an intent to prove it. They interpret every potential anomaly as evidence for their preconceived conclusion that Bigfoot, or whatever, is out there.” The innate human desire to discover new things may also be to blame. Peter Dendle, an associate professor at Penn State Mont Alto, has written about the common urge to be a part of “the courageous first generation of naturalists who traced down strange new species in poorly mapped regions […] to be on to something that even the professors of Harvard do not know about, or to benefit from a cure about which the National Institutes of Health are ignorant.”
These people want to live in a world where the things inside Ripley’s Believe it or Not! are scientific fact—they want to believe in the amazing. Bernard Heuvelmans, the founder of cryptozoology according to Abominable Science!, did his doctoral study on aardvark teeth, became a jazz musician and comedian, escaped the Nazis, and befriended the creator of Tin-Tin. Like Heuvelmans, contemporary cryptozoologists are eager to have uncharted excitement in their own lives, and will often throw all common sense and logic out the window to get it.
But today even the most desperate believers are often skeptical of doctored videos and photos, so honest seekers and profiteers alike have resorted to what Hill calls “sounding scientifical.” For the CFZ, that means toning down the supernatural, trying to explain animals as displaced species, misshapen or discolored oddities, the products of psychological or sociological pressures and experiences, or totally new finds.
Richard Freeman. Photo via
The head zoologist at the CFZ, Richard Freeman, was part of a 2005 expedition to discover the Mongolian Death Worm, a cryptid that is said to spit lethal acid and have the ability to shoot electric bolts at its prey. Freeman developed a genuine belief in the creature because the stories told amongst Gobi nomads were uniform and mundane (they all denied that the worms shot electric bolts, but believed them to be poisonous), and because he could find a plausible explanation for the creature (likely an unknown variety of rare, non-lethal worm lizard). The CFZ also takes great pains to collaborate with scientists at Copenhagen University and the University of Oxford, analyzing field samples like an alleged scale of the Ninki-Nanka dragon found on an expedition to The Gambia (which turned out to be, most likely, a piece of rotten celluloid film), and bring along naturalists like Jonathan McGowan, to build up bodies of footprint, hair, and fecal evidence. Even skeptics like Radford will admit that some cryptozoologists, like Dr. Karl Shuker, founder and editor of the Journal of Cryptozoology, and Bryan Sykes of the University of Oxford, are dedicated to thorough, scientific work, although those two usually wind up debunking rather than chasing down and peddling proof.
The Mongolian Death Worm. Image via
Scientific language can only go so far, though. Toward the end of 2012, Texan forensic veterinarian geneticist and founder of the Sasquatch Genome Project Dr. Melba Ketchum released a dossier of what she claimed was substantial DNA evidence for the existence of Bigfeet. She believed her research could prove that these creatures were actually a crossbreed of humans and other hominids, were of near-human intelligence, and should be scientifically named, recognized as an indigenous American tribe by the US government, and protected. But no one would publish her research.
Ketchum claims the findings are just too controversial and that the peer reviews of the work (which have been leaked online) were either biased, poorly done, or totally neglected. So instead she just bought an academic journal, DeNovo, and in October 2013 released her research sans reviews as the journal’s first and only article. She, like many turning to science, denies any association with the cryptozoological world and sees herself as an independent scientist. But without work published by peer review, without dialogue and debate in the academic community, without replicating and accumulating evidence from multiple sources—whether that’s absent because of bias and fear as Ketchum claims, or because her work is a ploy for fame and funding as many suspect—all of the high and authoritative language falls short of the actual proof.
While the CFZ flirts with legitimacy and professionalism, some of their members and associates are still involved with the sketchy, paranormal aspects of cryptozoology. The CFZ’s honorary life president, John Blashford-Snell, is a member of the Ghost Club, a paranormal investigatory outfit. And Nick Redfern, a UFO watcher with some theories about Bigfoot and electrical interference that, frankly, elude me, is a constant fixture in the annals of the CFZ. McGowan, who scoffs at some of the creatures other CFZ-affiliates have been interested in, like the giant crested serpent of Thailand, thinks the alliance with fringe paranormalists is logical and inevitable, given the makeup of the cryptozoological community at large and the open-mindedness that characterizes the CFZ. The Center’s members believe, probably naïvely, that their associations won’t damage the validity of their work.
For all the shortfalls of being scientifical, the CFZ is full of serious people. But drawing an income is hard for a full-time cryptozoologist. For now, Freeman says that most of the day-to-day cash at the Center comes from their publishing ventures. The CFZ Press has printed over 50 books, puts out the regular journal Animals & Man, and has started publishing Fortean fiction novels as well. But they sponsor many of their trips by partnering with media and entertainment organizations. In 2004 Syfy channel’s Proof Positive sent Downes and Redfern to Puerto Rico in search of the Chupacabra. Redfern later wrote of the trip—and Downes’s miraculous discovery of feathers from a Chupacabra attack matted in the monster’s saliva, vomit, and/or semen—as a much-needed bit of cash and a paid vacation. Soon, says Freeman, they’ll try out Kickstarter and Indiegogo.
But Freeman’s greatest dream is to get a TV deal. Nothing like Finding Bigfoot or any of those monster hunter shows he sees as exploitative, unprofessional shit. His model is River Monsters with Jeremy Wade. If he ever gets it, though, keeping his niche audience engaged while also catering to mainstream viewers will be a difficult line to toe. Hill and Radford both recognize the need to pay lip service to skeptics and science in most for-profit cryptozoology, but Radford thinks any real attempt to step too far into professionalism and proper science would lose the core devotees.
It’s a frustrating situation for everyone involved. Cryptozoology isn’t inherently absurd and it doesn’t have to be a refuge for profiteers and hoaxters. Critiques of cryptozoologists—like their failure to produce living or dead specimens—often fail to consider the seven years in the field it once took photographers to find and shoot known snow leopard populations. It’s a big world, and while we’re definitely not overrun by blurry, electromagnetic, friendly wood apes, it is entirely possible that some things do exist to be found.