I became the “skeptic” member of the local Bigfoot group almost by chance. I owe the offer to join to the reality TV show “Finding Bigfoot” (they never actually do). The show, featuring perennial Bigfoot personality Matt Moneymaker, has a skeptic, Ranae Holland. She's a scientist who seems to serve the function on the show of saying “I'm still not convinced,” while scratching her head at weird howls and mysterious smears on glass doors.
Since the advent of reality TV Bigfoot hunting shows, local groups have popped up all over the country. While I have only scant hope a Bigfoot exists, I think like most people I believed the only possible location for Bigfoot was the Pacific Northwest or perhaps a Yeti population in the Himalayas. Bigfoot TV contends that these bipedal ape-like hairy creatures can be found almost anywhere.
The local Bigfoot group I work with was born when a group of local hunters were watching “Finding Bigfoot” on TV at a local bar and one of them said those prophetic words “Well heck, we could do that!”
The only problem was that they needed a Ranae. This is probably one of the most positive aspects of the new generation of Bigfoot shows. The need for a skeptic, to question things and to have someone to prove Bigfoot to, means most of these groups now have a lone voice of skepticism.
The problem for the “Bigfoot Club”—it's not a creative name but it works—was where to find a skeptic. They tried calling local colleges and asking for a biologist that might want to help out. The problem is that biologists are usually doing biology. They are doing real science, and the thought of tromping around the woods looking for a large unknown creature doesn’t often appeal to them, especially when there are still lots of small unknown creatures to be found. Scientists like to do science. They have paid jobs, and this was not only an unpaid job, it didn't even come with a TV contract.
I am known in our small community as the skeptic. Small towns are like families. You aren't just known by your name, you are also known by some peculiarity. My husband is “that guy who used to work at the nuke plant.” My daughter who graduated from MIT is “that really smart girl.” I am that “nice lady but she doesn't believe much of anything!”
I received a phone call from one of the Bigfoot club members asking if I believed that Bigfoot was walking around in the woods where we lived. I was slightly surprised when my reply of “Of course not!” made him so happy. I was then asked to be the skeptic of the group.
I pointed out I had no training in biology and probably knew less about what lived in the acres of forest behind my house then the local Cub Scouts. I was assured “We don't have anyone else, you'll have to do.”
I felt a bit more reassured about joining when I read an interview with Holland on theShewired online site. She spoke about her trepidation about joining “Finding Bigfoot”:
Initially, I was very resistant to doing this because, I am a young scientist that studies aquatics and fisheries, and the last thing I wanted to do was be affiliated with belief in Bigfoot. So it actually took me a while to come around.
If a scientist that studies aquatics and fisheries feels she can look for a large unproven land mammal, so can I. The point is not do you know anything about Bigfoot biology. Despite the tone of the show, no one knows anything about Bigfoot biology. I think the Bigfoot community is pretty shaky even about Bigfoot behavior in general since there is such a lack of video, photographs, or decent DNA results of any hair, skin, or scat samples.
I however, am not a TV skeptic. I don't just go out on a hike looking for Bigfoot and say “Well, I'm still not convinced.” Instead, I demand a two way exchange of information. They try to convince me that every little thing is proof; I try to convince them that an oddly broken tree limb up high is most definitely not proof Bigfoot was scratching his back and accidentally broke it off. It's far more give and take, and I consider my job to be one of education. I was a teacher for years, and I find teaching critical thinking skills the most important part of my job as a skeptic. Saying “I'm not convinced” over and over isn't enough.
I have spent much time educating the group on just constitutes proof. What do we need to find to actually prove there is a Bigfoot in the woods. The group has had personal experiences, vague sightings of furry creatures, unknown howling calls, sounds of something running in the woods, but nothing to be seen. This has convinced many of the members Bigfoot is real. That's fine, but I have helped educate them about what is scientific proof. The group at first was fond of bringing up “If this were a court case, all this testimony would be proof there is a creature out there!” Now the group is “We need good clean DNA, and better photographs and video.” We'd like a dead body of course!
Just a side note about the “kill or capture” Bigfoot controversy. I was very pro shoot and kill, until I found out many teens think it's hilarious to fake Bigfoot calls and leave fake prints. Costumes are also surprisingly popular with an age group too young to truly understand that people with guns would love to bag a Bigfoot. So now the group policy is not to shoot unless we are 100% sure it's a Bigfoot. Hunting season brings enough human accidental deaths; we would hate to be the cause of some dumb teenager in a Gillie camouflage suit. This is just one of the topics as a skeptic I've discussed with the group. As much as we'd love to have one for “scientific proof,” we'd hate to shoot a hoaxer. Well, a few were for shooting hoaxers, but I managed to talk them around.
So what does a Bigfoot skeptic do? My duties include attending our Skype meetings and online chats. We also meet in person every month or so, usually at that same bar where the club was founded.
During meetings we brainstorm ideas, and I am usually asked to give a small skeptic presentation. One recent lesson was how to collect a sample for DNA analysis. I did not know the best method for this until fellow skeptic Sid Rodrigues from the UK shared his knowledge with me. I brought along baggies, cheap gloves, and also face masks in case anyone had a cold. The point was that the current collection method of just putting it in your pocket greatly increased the chance of contamination. As a skeptic, you have to ask your fellow skeptics for help when you don't know the answer. A good Bigfoot skeptic says “I don't know, I'll find out” a lot.
A good Bigfoot skeptic team member is also a good sport. This fall the group thought up a wonderful plan. Bigfoot snow scanning was born! The thought was that since there are snow prints of the Yeti online (or prints of something at least), and considering we live in New Hampshire, where there is snow cover on the ground for most of the winter, why not look for Bigfoot prints in the snow? I had to agree this was an excellent suggestion. Why do other Bigfoot groups only look and find prints in mud and soft dirt? A Bigfoot would leave tracks all over the snow cover in winter! These tracks would stay for months.
I also played my role as skeptic. I pointed out that saying “Well, Yeti and Bigfoot are related, so they must also leave footprints in the snow!” is like saying “Well unicorns and Pegasus are related.” I often have to remind them we're talking about something not proven, and in this case, two things not proven. I get some eye rolling, but I try to use humor and not lecture. Just a simple reminder every now and again.
The group divided up local areas to be covered by a group member every day. No excuses. We all agreed to cover assigned areas of others if there were a need such as illness or a vacation. There were also weekly trips to our local large state park for viewing on more remote trails. My area was simply my back yard, several acres where one of the Bigfoot Club members saw something “furry and large out of the corner of my eye.” It was a simple task for me to go upstairs, pull out my binoculars and look for new tracks. I never missed a day, except for an illness, and then my yard was covered by another member.
The results were rather disappointing. I was the only member of the team that found “unknown” tracks. This was during one of the trips to our local state park. I photographed odd prints, not on a trail but going to a small stream. These were large, not bear, but also not human. We're still investigating these tracks, I called in other team members to photograph and measure the snow prints.
While this did not prove the existence of Bigfoot, it did prove that the skeptic of the group was “on board.” I found my suggestions and skeptical comments treated with more respect after I proved my willingness to be a team player. It has become a joke that the one that will prove Bigfoot will be “the one that doesn't believe!”
I give the group homework, for instance they are studying why there are no really good clear photographs or videos of Bigfoot. The odd thing about the Bigfoot community, and this overlaps with paranormal things such as UFOs and ghosts, is that a very clear photograph of video is almost always considered a hoax. It is the fuzzy unclear videos and photographs that gain the most acceptance. It's as if what a Bigfoot video or photograph would truly look like, meaning in focus, is often too considered a person in a costume or someone trying to make money.
Bigfoot Club is in the process of once again putting out trail cameras. I helped with choosing placement sites. I asked a real biologist friend for suggestions. His response was to think of where real animals would travel. Putting the cameras by quiet spots with fresh water was one suggestion I passed on to the group. We have limited cameras so it's best to make the most use out of them. We debated, as a group, the best height for the cameras. Last year’s trail camera photographs were of a lot of deer, rabbits, opossums, and skunks. It's rather fun to talk about the height of what I consider an imaginary creature.
I recently challenged the group by posing this question: “Just when do you decide there is no Bigfoot living in our area and stop looking?” This was something they had not considered. Those with personal experience, and as a skeptic I find personal experience is bitch to overcome, believe they will find proof. It isn't a matter of quitting, it was a matter of simply finding proof for the rest of the world. They don't need to find any more proof; they know.
The others were more practical, they still had many ideas they wanted to try. The latest, based on my challenge as to why there were not Bigfoot photographs from the trail cams last year, is to try photographing Bigfoot with a camera “without a battery.” Perhaps, Bigfoot can sense batteries.
I am of course getting all the skeptic help I can from those with expertise in batteries and can animals “sense” them. Meanwhile I am also participating in the great Bigfoot hunt with old fashioned cameras without batteries. We will be in the woods, no cell phones, no hearing aids (sorry Tim), no one with a pacemaker (sorry Jim), and no GPS (we might get lost, so Bigfoot hunting is indeed dangerous). It's a creative plan, and they understand they will have to listen to my lecture on why animals can't sense batteries, as soon as my skeptic friends come through with good expert advice I can then relate.
However, I have to admit the truth about why I am a Bigfoot skeptic. It's actually a lot of fun. I'm going to enjoy going about the woods with a vintage Brownie camera that I have to wind by hand to advance the film. I plan to take photographs no matter what we see. If nothing else, it's lovely here in the spring. It's also fun to be part of a team, and to be given respect when I speak. I'm very clear my job is not for them to convince me, my job is to convince them that critical thinking skills should always be applied. Things they learn, about being careful what website you get information from, using common sense, looking for alternative and more simple explanations, can be helpful not just when hunting Bigfoot but in everyday life.
They are a wonderful group, very tolerant to not only the only skeptic member but also the only female member. We both learn a lot from each other, and while I may never say “I believe in Bigfoot,” I am learning how to better reach and interact with any group of believers in something that is probably not true. That said, if one of the group collects the evidence that proves the reality of Bigfoot, carefully using his glove and plastic bag of course, besides being very surprised I will also be very proud.