Loren Coleman, Loch Ness snowman of cryptozoology

In the magical land where all things are possible, he's a god, who insists that his adopted field is not just a cataloging of myths.

Published August 16, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Starting a new scientific discipline? That's easy. Say you want to turn lead into gold -- well, who's stopping you? Knock yourself out. But perhaps years of lonely, fruitless research are not enough -- maybe you also want to be taken seriously. That's different. For that, you need a good name. Lead into gold? That would be the ancient and very august-sounding science of alchemy. Personality typing through analysis of head-bumps? Not quackery, my ignorant friend -- phrenology.

Now comes perhaps the cleverest tag of all: cryptozoology. It refers to the search for new animals, animals dwelling in unexpected places, and most importantly for "X-Files" scriptwriters, "cryptids" -- legendary creatures such as the yeti. As Loren Coleman and Jerome Clark argue in their new book, "Cryptozoology A to Z," there are, obviously, undiscovered creatures on this planet. Surely the search for them is a legitimate scientific pursuit?

Surely. But before you start addressing mail to Coleman and Clark at the offices of Scientific American, check out the book's subtitle: "The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras, and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature." Or at the very least, authentic episodes of "Unsolved Mysteries."

Jerome Clark is the author of "Unexplained!" and several other books, but it's Coleman who is clearly the Loch Ness Snowman of the field. (The pecking order is established right there in the encyclopedia. Check the listings under C -- Coleman gets an entry. Clark doesn't.) "Cryptozoology A to Z" is Coleman's second book this year alone (following "The Field Guide to Bigfoot"). On the Internet, the magical land where all things are possible, the 52-year-old University of Southern Maine prof is a god. A Loren Coleman search turned up 3,780 matches. (Interested parties may want to check out cryptozoology themselves.) Coleman, who has a master's in social work and a B.A. in physical anthropology, insists that his adopted field is not just a cataloging of myths. "When the native peoples or the locals see these things, the natural process is to have mystification," he reasons. "The mythical comes from the real."

"Cryptozoology A to Z" is definitely an equal-opportunity reference book -- the authors mix accepted facts with campfire tales in one indistinguishable gumbo. Bored with the report on recent legitimate zoological discoveries in Vietnam? Skip over to the entry on Momo, the Missouri Monster.

On August 13, 1965, a similar-looking huge, dark, hairy creature attacked Christine Van Acker as she sat with her mother in their car near Monroe, Michigan. A picture of Christine's face with its highly visible black eye appeared in many newspapers around the country the next day.

This is science at its most inclusive. Damn it, if Christine's black eye is proof enough for Christine, it's proof enough for these intrepid crypto-boys. "Well," Coleman reasons, "the limitations of publishing allowed us only 200-and-some pages. Cryptozoology really deserves a 10-volume set. But you can't do that, so you work with what you've got ... That case was very deep in terms of that woman having interaction -- her mother was in the car, and tracks were found by the police, and all kinds of stuff that we can't really sketch out in a little book like that."

Throughout their encyclopedia, Coleman and Clark show a touchingly supportive nature all too rare in scientific circles. "We accentuate the positive," they cheerfully admit in the introduction. And why not? Science would be a lot more interesting without the spoilsports who insist on scientific rigor. Check out the tale of Mokele-mbembe, the lost dinosaur of central Africa:

(It) reportedly does not like hippopotamuses and will kill them on sight, but it does not eat them. Perhaps lending credence to this allegation, cryptozoologist Roy Mackal has found that hippos are curiously absent from areas where Mokele-mbembe is said to live. [Case closed!] Pascal Moteka, who lived near Lake Tele, said his people had once constructed a barrier of wooden spikes across a river to keep the giant beasts from interfering with their fishing. When Mokele-mbembe tried to break through the barrier, the assembled villagers managed to kill it with spears. [Note to self: Antonio Banderas to play head villager.] Celebrating their triumph, the people butchered and cooked the carcass, but everyone who ate the dinosaur meat died shortly afterwards. [Further note to self: think Blair Dinosaur Project. Good angle for the Spielberg pitch.]

Presumably the descendants of the dead villagers survived to provide visiting cryptozoologists with genuine dinosaur scales, cheap. In fact, the book sometimes seems to be a scientific study of tourism strategies. Towns near British Columbia's Lake Okanagan have long used the sea serpent Ogopogo as a mascot -- supposedly glimpsed by natives in the 19th century. It is now frequently glimpsed in promotional brochures throughout the B.C. interior (and of course receives respectful treatment in the book). Other Canadian lakes are understandably envious, and the predictable results are chronicled in "Cryptozoology A to Z": "Manipogo -- a name inspired by British Columbia's Ogopogo -- is the moniker given to the Lake Monster that allegedly roars and lives in Lake Manitoba." And later: "The Lake Monster of Lake Winnipegosis, Manitoba, Canada, is called Winnipogo." It's sort of like what happened after the first Baldwin brother hit it big.

Coleman defends both his positive approach and his chops as a skeptic. "It's very easy to write a book and completely pull apart -- which we do -- 80 percent of the cases that come to me are misidentifications and mistakes ... [But] we tried to look at the core of 20 percent of the cases that seemed to be remarkable enough to be worth mentioning. There are lots of things [in the book] that are said to be monsters and we said, 'No they're not -- they're basking sharks,' or 'This is a mistake -- Jersey Devil is not a devil.'" (It was probably, the authors point out, a real-estate hoax. Look it up under J.)

Reading "Cryptozoology A to Z" can lead to a deep sense of unease -- not about missing creatures, but missing context. Take, for example, the entry for the British Columbia Scientific Cryptozoology Club. Hailed as one of the most credible groups of its kind, the BCSCC, we are told, organizes the International Sasquatch Symposium, "along with the Vancouver Sasquatch Society, Columbia Brewery and the North American Science Institute." Hey, a tip of the hat to the public spirited folks at the Columbia Brewery for co-sponsoring such important research. Come to think of it, the Columbia Brewery has done a lot to popularize Sasquatch lore in B.C.

As brewer of locally popular Kokanee beer, it has for some years been running TV ads with a guy in a big abominable snowman outfit. He crashes weddings and campsites and steals Kokanee, which, according to Columbia Brewery, the big fellah heartily endorses. One ad even featured Rene Dahinden, the actual Bigfoot hunter caricatured in the film "Harry and the Hendersons." The beer commercial showed poor Dahinden skulking about the woods and being asked about the Bigfoot-Kokanee connection. "What do you think I am, crazy?" he replies in wooden cue card-ese. Anything for research money.

Yet overall, things are looking up for a new generation of Nessie- and yeti-hunters -- Coleman may teach a for-credit course in cryptozoology at the University of Southern Maine in the year 2000. (Could prove to be a big boost to the school's athletic programs.) However, mainstream zoologists are predictably uneasy about Coleman's specialty. "It's not black and white," says Dr. Don McPhail of the University of British Columbia's zoology department. "A lot of biologists are romantics. They want to see what's in the next jungle or stream. There's a perfectly respectable scientist over on Vancouver Island who's got a bee in his bonnet over the Cadborosaurus." (A West Coast sea monster -- look it up.)

"Cryptozoology ranges from perfectly legitimate scientific investigation through to the Ogopogo kind of thing, which on first principles is just not possible," explains McPhail, whose specialty is aquatic organisms. "You have a lake scoured by ice -- where would the monster come from? Where would it find food?"

McPhail speculates that Bigfoot and his various worldwide relatives would face a familiar modern problem: How does an elusive cryptid get a dinner date? "They'd have to be in such low density, they'd have real reproductive problems. And they tend to be seen in areas that are not big on food sources."

Still there's one hard truth that will keep cryptozoology running indefinitely. "You can never prove," McPhail admits, "that something doesn't exist."

That's good enough for Coleman. And the tireless dragon hunter believes that academic support for cryptozoology is real and solid. "Scientists are looking for new animals all the time, and there are anthropologists and zoologists and biologists teaching at universities that are cryptozoologists -- they are members of the societies."

In other words -- they're out there.

By Steve Burgess

Steve Burgess is a Salon contributing writer.

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