Sunday, January 10, 2016

Full report on the International Cryptozoology Museum conference

International Cryptozoology Museum Conference, Night 1
January 4, 2016

I like cryptozoologists.  Even though I don’t use the term for myself anymore (too much TV baggage), I like the people I meet in the business.  I like their stubborn optimism, their enthusiasm, and their determination. Except for the hoaxers, they’re a great bunch to hang out with.  I critique the field a lot for its collective habit of endorsing particular “crypids” before the evidence justifies it, but science needs amatuers (which most cryptozoology researchers are), even in 2016, and it needs optimists, even wild-eyed ones.

So here I am at the inaugural ICM Conference in St. Augustine, FL.  Loren Coleman, founder of the ICM in Portland, Maine, ably seconded by his effervescent wife Jenny, has gathered some of the most active people in the field.  He hoped for 100+ attendees to create one of the leading conferences on the subject, but it’s the first year, and maybe half that have gathered. What they lack in numbers, though, they make up for in energy, and the white-bearded Coleman is as enthusiastic as they come.

I wish I could describe all of Night 1, but I spent the opening social on the road after a two-hour delay in Atlanta to fix a fuel pump in the airplane and re-top the tanks. This was annoying but ok with us passengers: a retired Navy pilot sitting next to me commented that the only time a plane can have too much fuel is when it’s on fire.
So what I missed was the awarding of the Golden Yeti, a rather intimidating-looking statuette that went to the Cryptozoologist of the Year. The awardee was Jeremy Efroymson, a film-maker, attorney, writer, and philanthropist who I honestly hadn’t heard of, but he’s been important: as Loren wrote, “Jeremy is bestowed this honor for his quiet but steady support of serious cryptozoological pursuits. Jeremy and the Efroymson Family Foundation have awarded grants and funds since at least, 2012, to such grantees as the Virtual Footprints Archive at Idaho State University, the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, and the International Cryptozoology Museum.”  Cryptozoology doesn’t exactly top the list for National Science Foundation grants, so the field is fortunate to have Jeremy.

The Golden Yeti

I did make it to the presentation on the Florida Skunk Ape, a subject of interest since I grew up down the coast from here in Vero Beach.  I heard only rumors of sightings as a kid, but I knew what it was, or was supposed to be.
(Quick aside: I was volunteering on a political campaign in 1976 when a newspaper from the town of St. Cloud headlined a "900-lb Hairy Creature Stalking Reedy Creek Area." I pinned it to the wall with the note that we now knew where our opponent was campaigning. It was funny at the time.)

Tonight’s presenter was Rob Robinson.  I’ve used the word “enthusiastic” a lot, but I had to use it again here.  He was an infectious speaker, weaving a great story with bits of humor like the time he was scared out of his wits by a large nocturnal animal that turned out to be a cow. He debunked some recent photo and video hoaxes but showed some images no one present had seen before. (Still too distant, too dark, etc., although a video of a dark figure gliding easily through a swampy spot where you'd think a human would normally walk with great difficulty was interesting despite the poor quality of the image.)  When I asked him the standard question – why isn’t there better evidence, when we have roadkills and photos of the extremely rare Florida panther – he replied he thinks the evidence is mounting, even if mostly fuzzy “blobsqatch" imagery and footprints so far – as people become more aware. He thinks a small population of smart primates very wary of humans could hide in Florida wilderness a long time. Despite my skepticism on all things squatch-related, I can’t really say that’s impossible, although there's still the huge problem of how a large primate got to North America, when, and from where.  His belief Florida supports two anomalous primates, Bigfoot and the smaller (and smellier) Skunk Ape, is even harder to accept, but his belief there is SOMETHING going on is intriguing.

On the subject of another cryptid, or near-cryptid, Rob commented on my mention of the Florida panther by reporting he and his wife watched a black Florida panther walk right in front of their car in daylight. There aren’t supposed to be black (melanistic) panthers in Florida, but there aren’t supposed to be any in Maine, either, and my dad is pretty certain about the one he saw 60 years ago. Biologist Jeff Corwin described his own Florida panther sighting thus: “It was darker than the panthers I'd seen in photos, more charcoal than sage.” So I’ve never ruled out black, or at least dark, panthers, although Florida wildlife authorities blew Rob off when he said “black.”
There was an interesting documentary showing after that meeting, but I had work to do for my day job and had to beg off. But I enjoyed Night 1, as brief as it was, and look forward to Day 2, including my own talk on bears.
It’s all off to a howling good start.

International Cryptozoology Museum Conference
Day 2
January 5, 2016

Today was the full day of presentations here at the ICM conference. Not to throw in a plug, but the Casa Monica is a great old hotel, updated with all the amenities, and Loren Coleman of the ICM did a great job in picking the hotel and getting everyone an affordable rate at the height of tourist season.

I’d forgotten how touristy Florida was: the tackiness is so assertive that a kind of grandeur creeps into it.  It’s different from the tackiness you see in most tourist spots, though: in Florida, it’s an affectionate kind of tacky, where everyone, locals and visitors, is in on the joke and no one takes it too seriously.  This is the first European city in the Americas, and there’s a lot of real history showing its face amid the T-shirt shops. 

Anyway, today was all about presentations. I am a skeptic of most cryptozoolgical claims: it would take more than we have now to make me believe in huge unknown American primates or Mongolian death worms.  But the level of science in the presentations was frankly higher than I’d expected, and I came away understanding much better WHY the convinced people are convinced.  People who are sure cryptozoology has nothing to offer science should spend more time with these folks.  At the very least, their work tells us more about folklore, beliefs, and the way we view nature. At the most, it may yet point the way to some major discoveries. (By the way, these are in the order I wrote them up, not exactly the order they were presented in.)

My presentation on bears was very well received. I pointed out mysteries that still exist with bears (the reported giant black variety of the Kamchatka brown bear) while arguing that other questions, such as the identity of the odd grizzly known as MacFarlane’s bear, can be put to rest. Bears offer many lessons for cryptozoologists, from the ways they are tracked and studied to the attitudes of officialdom toward inconvenient reports.  (I reported on a good witness who told me first-hand about seeing a Colorado grizzly bear, which is supposed to be extinct, and the state wildlife people dismissed it order to - seriously, someone told him this - avoid the huge hassle of closing off the area while they investigated.)  I gave the presentation to Loren and will share it with anyone who asks.

French cryptozoologist Michael Raynal couldn’t attend in person or by Skype link, so Loren Coleman did his presentation on the giant octopus of St. Augustine. It was a fascinating presentation, with a lot of old news clippings and photos, with Dr. Paul LeBlond (see below), a Canadian oceanographer, helping out by translating some verbiage from the French. The carcass that came ashore in 1896, was, very probably, a sperm whale’s blubber/skin/connective tissue, but as long as we’re not absolutely certain, some mystery – and some fun – remains. (Or I hope it does: personally I write this off now as a whale. As usual, I hope I'm wrong.) Terry Cullen, a herpetological genetics expert in attendance, suggested the newest tests should be done on the bits of tissue that still remain as samples. Loren made the interesting point that the tourist mecca of St. Augustine has somehow missed making any financial hay out of this event: indeed, local shops hold nothing about it at all. (I checked across the street at the Lightner museum of local history: the gift shop staff, at least, had never heard of it.)  

Dr. LeBlond, a physicist and oceanographer whose curiosity drew him into the “Caddy” business some years ago, opened by describing two recurrent “sea monster” motifs of First Nations people in the British Columbia and adjoining areas. What’s come to be called “Caddy” is also well known locally, and LeBlond has amassed a large collection of sightings which he believes make the two most important criteria: 1) Clearly an animal, and 2) not a KNOWN animal. Plotting these by length from 10 feet (noting that 10-footers could be seals), to 100-footers (mistaken whales?) yields a cluster at 40-59 feet.   He notes that sighting areas do not stay static over time: that is, you can have a run of sightings in one area, then a gap of several years before that area produces another sighting. On the complex issue of the Nash video of numerous animals which appear to be harassing a pod of belugas, he notes the animals turned back when they neared a fishing boat’s nets, and, while features like flippers were never seen, the front ends seemed to have a profile something like a Boeing 747 with its bulbous nose section. At one point, in a video segment which is either lost or taped over, LeBlond and cryptozoologist John Kirk (viewing it separately) saw a head, a bit like a seal’s but more oval in horizontal cross-section when seen from the front and with a narrower neck, pop up and look toward the camera. I discussed with him afterward the question of how sure he was that a drawing of this, circulated widely in the cryptozoological community and in his latest book, was accurate. He was cautious about it: it matched what he remembered, but with he and Kirk contributing what they thought the tape showed at a considerable distance to an artist, the final drawing is “about five steps removed” from what the actual animal looks like, and there is some margin for error.

Archaeologist/anthropologist Kathy Strain gave a very thought-provoking presentation about the prevalence of Sasquatch-type creatures in Native American lore.  I knew there were a lot of legends, stories, and, supposedly, history about such creatures, but I had no idea how ubiquitous it was. “Hairy Man” type creatures exist in art, basketry, songs, dances, totem poles, and oral histories, much of it pre-Columbian.  While there are many variations, a common and amusing one was that females carried baskets and swept up bad children to take them away to eat, while males, often half-human (the females were claimed to prefer human men to their own kind), sort of blundered around eating mostly nuts and shellfish.  Strain showed old films of dances, showed pictographs of Hairy Man people weeping (because humans were afraid of them), and played back a haunting song from one tribe that only women were allowed to sing (it asked the Hairy Man to come take away the spirits of the dead at a funeral.)  Since many Western stories are about real animals endowed with fanciful characteristics, she argues, these kinds of beliefs don’t mean the animals are not real. When I asked how a non-expert could differentiate between spiritual and physical creatures in Native American tales, she explained that a creature could be either or both, just as Christians and others believe we are both body and spirit/soul. The art object she showed that stuck with me was a centuries-old Haida mask decorated with horsehair that looks so much like an ape that she is stumped to suggest what else it could be, and I had the same reaction. While many cultures can tell visitors what they want to hear, either to please them or to pull their legs, Strain believes the unbroken continuity of countless tribes’ beliefs across ages indicate that recent additions don’t detract from the essential point that those who lived here before Columbus widely believed such creatures were real, and many believe they are here still. (Native Americans believe that, however their own ancestors arrived in North America, the hairy ones were already here just as all the other animals were.) None of this adds up to hard evidence of existence, but collectively it's a bit challenging to just dismiss as myth.

Bigfoot-hunter Cliff Barackman gave a very good tutorial on footprints, focusing mostly on mystery primates but with other examples. He stressed that a footprint is not an image of the foot: it is an image of the damage the foot did to the ground, which may be quite different.  Indeed, two footprints made in succession by the same animal can look different, and footprints' origin can be disguised by various forces: for example, overlapping bear tracks can look surprisingly human.  A common trait in fake sasquatch feet is the lack of flexibility: Barackman argues the real primate he believes exists has very flexible feet (some experts say there is a mid-tarsal break, essentially an extra joint, but Cliff doesn’t go that far). He dismisses three- and four-toed impressions as hoaxes.  He argues several sets of “real” tracks have very clear dermal ridges, although he did not really address how wide the variation is in what are deemed by various researchers to be authentic five-toed sasquatch tracks.  On the rarity of apparent juvenile impressions, he and others at the conference have noted that genuine juvenile footprints might be taken for bare human feet.  Whatever one thinks of sasquatch, he imparted a great deal of useful information, especially for us suburban folk trying to understand technical discussions over footprints. 
He has collected some 50 impressions of Sumatra’s mystery ape, the orang-pendek and, while he believes this is a real animal, doesn’t believe it’s related to the diminutive fossil humans known as the Flores Island  “hobbits” – the widely separated big toe is distinctly ape-like.
I asked him about one of the most puzzling footprints of all time, the “yeti” track photographed in the snows of Everest by Shipton and Ward, and he felt this was not related to sasquatch-type creatures or the orang-pendek: if it was a genuine print, it belonged to some other species.

Biologist and TV host Pat Spain of the series Beast Hunters stood up, and I'm glad he was late in the day because following his act would have been impossible. Funny, personable, and persuasive, he explained how a biologist who started by studying shellfish (he once submitted a paper on stresses in oysters subtitled  "Sprat Pain by Pat Spain") ended up chasing cryptids all over the world. Along the way, he discovered that watching a Westerner use the latrine is entertainment in a remote Cameroon village and that young female orangutans are capable of molesting a human male in the most intimate, uncomfortable, and embarrassing ways possible.
He felt at least two animals, “living dinosaur” mokele-mbembe and the poisonous Mongolian death worm, were cultural constructs, and explained what purpose each legend served in its respective culture. He also noted that with mokele-mbembe, the common tactic of showing locals pictures of different animals has been gamed by local entrepreneurs: people looked to the guides for nods on whether they should say a certain animal lived in their area.
Spain didn't see an orang-pendek but is convinced they exist. The local people he worked with in Sumatra not only seemed truthful but a bit awed by the animal's humanlike locomotion: while it may be a type of gibbon, it walks bipedally by nature, without the usual gibbon arm-balancing. He emphasized the people he talked to knew every detail of the lives of gibbons, orangutans, and other local primates.  Most memorably, he reported a conversation with Dr. Mike Morwood, the discoverer of the 18,000-year-old Flores "hobbits," who told Spain he had hard evidence, which he planned to publish, showing that species was alive into the 1920s! The evidence was apparently lost or misplaced with the scientist's premature death of cancer in 2013, although it may lie somewhere in his archives awaiting rediscovery. Someone really needs to push this hard and find out what he had.
Likewise, the certainty of a tribe Spain befriended in the Amazon (by going through an incredibly painful ritual involving wearing gloves filled with huge stinging ants) about the mapinguari made him feel some kind of surviving ground sloth was a distinct possibility.  He also thinks some form of large sea creature exists within the data for the British Columbian sea serpent known as Cadborosaurus, or “Caddy.”  He doesn't know what it is, but the number of sincere witnesses he talked to, given the fact that "every marine scientist believes there are some large animals left undiscovered," makes him fairly certain something is afoot.
Spain argued hard that cryptozoology and "mainstream" biology are mutually supporting: his work on Caddy included looking at the oarfish as a candidate and funded the first-ever CAT scan of an oarfish, producing a trove of data on that very strange creature.
I asked Spain about the use of cryptozoology in science education, something I've proposed a panel on for the June 2016 Denver ComiCon. He thinks it's very valuable and described how he's gotten young people to learn about the woods by suggesting they look for Bigfoot and along the way studying animal tracking, ecology, and the food chain. Loren Coleman asked him if mokele-mbembe might be, not a reptile, but a semi-aquatic rhino: Spain is certain, though, that the area he examined houses nothing exceptional. (The geology of the area, he noted, also ruled out any underground or underwater caves. He did add that he did not go to one other site with monster reports, Lake Tele: it's unreachable due to ongoing conflicts.) I wanted to talk with him about my idea for a marine life documentary series, but he had to run: all I could do was give him a card.

We ended up at a theater watching Revenge of the Creature, the slightly inferior but still impressive sequel to The Creature from the Black Lagoon. The Lagoon films remain surprisingly effective and affecting: the creature's loneliness and his torment at being shocked by scientists studying his learning capability come through well, and the suits remain superb even on close examination. Seriously, we had it on a big screen and I looked hard at the suits: I spotted a small rip on the leg in one scene, but that was it. What craftsmen those old makeup guys were.
 And so ended a very, very interesting day.

ICM Speakers: Kathy Strain, Rob Robinson, me, Pat Spain, Paul LeBlond, Loren Coleman, Jerome Hamlin, uncertain(?), Lyle Blackburn.

Organizer Loren Coleman

Lyle Blackburn, Pat Spain

Dr. LeBlond

ICM Conference, final day

Day 3
January 6
Today included two presentations followed by a tour of Marineland and the approximate area where the 1896 “giant octopus” beached.  I wasn’t able to make the afternoon activities, but the morning had plenty to offer. 

First off was an important bit of business. Loren Coleman announced the kickoff of the International Cryptozoology Society, with an online peer-reviewed journal and regular conferences.  I asked him to describe how the ICS would be different from existing organizations – what new value would it bring? He answered that, while the ICS mission statement is still being written, its intent was to carry on the work of the International Society for Cryptozoology, which tried hard to put scientific principles to work in cryptozoology back in the 1980s.  The ICS will be headed by Dr. LeBlond as the first President, while an advisory panel including several PhD’s is being set up but is not yet announced (Coleman added that the scientific world won’t listen to you unless you have several PhD’s around, and he has a point.) Loren and the ICM Deputy Director, Jeff Meuse, will do the day-to-day work of running the ICS. The first conference is planned for Portland, Maine, site of the new/expanded museum, in 2017. 

Loren described the ICS as being strictly scientific and said that “true believers and debunkers” were not welcome. I understand what he’s aiming for, but this statement brings up some challenges that will have to be worked out.  Does “true believers” count all the people who think sasquatch is an apparition or assign it psychic abilities? (There’s no way to avoid framing questions in terms of sasquatch, despite the large number of potential cryptids all over the world: Bigfoot is the predominant topic in most of cryptozoology these days, and the one that attracts significant money from the TV world.) Even more difficult, what qualifies as a “debunker”?   I assume it encompasses those who think the whole field is a pseudoscience, but those people usually make some points worth considering if cryptozoology is to shed the “pseudoscience” label.  Does it include people who think the field has some value but are heavily critical of its methods and findings? How does one differentiate between reasonable and unreasonable degrees of skepticism? It is logically possible to be irrational about a negative view as a positive one, but the terminology is getting boggy/ The word "believer" doesn't have much of a role in science anyway, does it? 
If it were me trying to sort this out,, I’d invite everyone in, excluding only those people who might be there exclusively to mock others. On the other end,of the specturm  I would allow anyone who was not disruptive to join but make it clear that there will be no publications or leading roles for anyone who thinks the solutions are to be found in the paranormal. As a Christian, I believe by definition that the material universe is not all that exists, but cryptozoology is trying to establish itself as a science and needs to leave all matters outside the material to the parapsychologists.  I think Loren is sincere in his desire to create a reputable organization, and I'll provide my input in as a member and see what Loren and LeBlond and other leaders work out as guidelines.

OK, presentations:

Jerome Hamlin, one of the world’s leading coelacanth experts and founder of the site, reported on his adventures in search of new populations. He began by chronicling the known history, returning to this topic later to describe the numerous failed attempts to make some kind of tank that would keep the deep-dwelling fish alive after a catch.  While the lungfishes and not the coelacanths are the fish in our direct line of ancestry, the coelacanth remains a much sought after scientific prize. Particularly sought are juvenile examples: Hamlin mentioned only one he knew of, and ichthyologists don’t know where the fish grow up.
The original discovery off East London, South Africa, has been followed by new populations as far north as Kenya and Tanzania and as far east as Indonesia.  Following an email alleging the fish was known in the Solomon Islands, Hamlin made four trips to islands in the Solomons, other nearby chains, and Papua New Guinea to the south and west.  One aspect of this with lessons for all of cryptozoology is how carefully he tried to avoid cuing people to tell him what they thought he wanted to hear. He classed the responses he got into three groups:
   1.       Trying to please him
   2.       Truthful but inaccurate
   3.       Both accurate and true.

The results were less than he’d hoped for. One some islands, no one had ever seen a similar fish: one islander got his hopes up but brought him specimens of a kind of jack, although the fit wasn’t very close. The stories Hamlin heard of caught coelacanths seemed straightforward, but didn’t lead to any new populations. Fishermen who had seen one, or heard of one, all emphasized this was a very rare fish, and no one had caught one in the last couple of years: many catches were distant memories.  If truthful, these men were probably referring to stray individuals, as no one knew of a good place to catch them regularly. One man did tell him the fish was blue in life but turned brown in death, a fact Hamlin had avoided mentioning, so he was encouraged to think there were at least occasional catches. After his expeditions, a Japanese team did discover a new population off Biak, an island just north of Papua.

 I asked whether his visits to fishing villages and surveys of fish markets had led to any new species of fish, but he said no: the fish being brought in and/or sold looked pretty run of the mill.

Lyle Blackburn made the day’s Bigfoot presentation. Lyle, a Texan, has spent many months in neighboring Arkansas researching the Fouke monster, famous due to the 1972 film The Legend of Boggy Creek (most of the events in the original film were reported as true, although the funny scene of a guy minding his business on the toilet and having a giant furry hand reach in through the window was invented.) Lyle emphasized the area was still almost as undeveloped as it had been in 1972, and that sighting records stretched from 1908 to 2015. 
I pointed out that a common critique of cryptozoologists (hammered at repeatedly in Loxton and Prothero's influential book Abominable Science) is that they already have their solution in mind and consciously or unconsciously cue witnesses to tell them things that fit the preconceived narrative.  I asked how he tried to avoid this. Lyle’s response was that he went after the story thinking of himself as an investigative journalist who wants to solve the mystery, saying “I’m not out to prove Bigfoot,” although he certainly believes the creature exists. He lets the witnesses tell their story without interrupting before he starts questioning. He always asks whether the subject could have been a person in costume (and is usually told the witness thinks not.)

Closing thoughts
First and foremost, the Conference was valuable: I learned a lot. I didn’t change my mind on any major cryptid, but as I said yesterday, I have a much better understanding of the people who endorse those North American primates and other creatures and why they endorse them.  I will join the new ICS and wish it the best of luck.
The Conference could have added someone from the Florida wildlife departments to talk about local creatures and activities of interest, such as the Florida panther, the known and suspected colonies of escaped monkeys (and reportedly apes), and the persistent reports that other out of place mammals, like the jaguarondi, may have become established. This should be standard practice wherever future conferences are held: take advantage of the local wildlife and the expertise available to discuss it, such as getting someone from Maine in to talk about what they think happened to the state's panthers and why they think recent reports are erroneous.   While I know Loren tried to get quite a few people who could not make it, the meeting also could have used a speaker or two more skeptical of the major cryptids.  
I would have like an anthropologist to review the ideas about possible ancestors and routes of travel for sasquatch ancestors’ arrival in North America, a topic none of the sasquatch-related speakers addressed. This was the conference’s most significant omission, scientifically. I should have pressed more on it, but the presenters were talking about what they think IS, rather than how it came to be.  

Late thought: Maybe the solution to finding cryptids is to not look for cryptids: to undertake field investigations with the idea that only known species exist. Then you look for evidence of any animal being present, then consider only the known species, and then only if you are completely stumped do you consider what kinds of animals might have caused the evidence. I know I'm the research guy, not the field investigator, but maybe some version of this approach would help bridge the cryptozoology-zoology gap.

Overall, though, I’d like to say again that this meeting was valuable, and that people who think cryptozoology is a complete waste of time should come to the next one and listen and discuss and debate: we’d all be better off for that. From my experience with this crowd, such a person would generate a lot of discussion but wouldn't have to fear being ostracized or dunked in a river: certainly I didn't get anything but polite argument when I expressed concerns about the science.  I was impressed by the depth and breadth of knowledge on display, even if I disagree about some of the conclusions.  I had a great time.  See ya’ll in Portland, I hope!

ADDED: After some lively discussions on FaceBook and email, I think "debunker" isn't an accurate word in this context. A "debunker' should be one who exposes a hoax or fraud: It's the right term, for example, if you're exposing one of the many Bigfoot hoaxes, but it's not accurate for someone who questions the validity of a proposed or actual field of inquiry. So I think that, in my own writing, I'm going to retire that word. 

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