Following in Bigfoot’s footsteps

Posted Oct. 05, 2009, at 11:26 a.m.

Loren Coleman doesn’t need to worry about burglars in his Portland apartment. The big guy on the stairs is enough to scare them off.

Eight feet tall, dark and not so handsome, the wooden model of Bigfoot stands guard near the entry, a gift from a witness who created the piece after a sighting in Ohio. It’s one of many “artifacts” that Coleman has collected during his years of studying unknown creatures – Yeti (what people refer to as an abominable snowman), Sasquatch (the –traditional Bigfoot), and the –Loch Ness Monster.

There’s a name for what he does: cryptozoology, “the science of `hidden animals”‘ as defined in his book “Cryptozoology A to Z: The Encyclopedia of Loch Monsters, Sasquatch, Chupacabras and Other Authentic Mysteries of Nature.”

And there are many names for what he studies, not just Bigfoot, the umbrella term under which most people tend to lump them all together. “You know how everything’s Kleenex or everything’s Xerox. Well, everything’s Bigfoot,” said Coleman, part-time professor at the University of Southern Maine, teen suicide expert and lifelong pursuer of the elusive. “There are different species.” In the cryptozoological world, which is larger than you might think, Coleman is an authority. He has served as a consultant for “Unsolved Mysteries,” A&E’s “Ancient Mysteries,” Animal Planet’s “Twisted Tales,” and Discovery Channel’s “In the Unknown.” He also has written several books, including “The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti, and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide,” “Creatures on the Outer Edge,” “Tom Slick and the Search for the Yeti,” which is slated to become a movie starring Nicolas Cage, and “Mysterious America,” which came out in 1983 and will be revised and reprinted this year. Before he retired, talk radio host Art Bell interviewed Coleman.

“I’m usually the one they bring in to make the show down-to-earth,” Coleman said. “I have all of the fame and none of the fortune,” Coleman said.

Coleman, 53, is used to being in the spotlight when Bigfoot sightings and unusual creatures are in the news. Since he was a teen-ager in Illinois, he has been the one people turn to when they need an expert in the field. At 14, he was corresponding with 400 people worldwide on the subject. Now he receives hundreds of e-mails every week. And it all started with a movie about the abominable snowman that caught his attention when he was 12.

“I went to my teachers and they said it was a bunch of malarkey,” Coleman said. But he didn’t buy it. So he started reading everything he could about Yeti searches, Sasquatch sightings and the like. He wrote articles and did field research, interviewing witnesses, and investigating the evidence: footprints, hair samples, scratches, tooth marks, scat, audio tapes of screeches, video and photographs.

Since his subject of choice –wasn’t exactly mainstream, Coleman tailored his college courses to his own liking. He holds bachelor’s degrees in zoology and anthropology from Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, a master’s degree in social work from Simmons College in Boston and has done post-graduate work in sociology and anthropology at Brandeis University and the University of New Hampshire. After vacationing in Rangeley in the summer of 1980, he decided to move to Maine.

He’s a smart man. Educated. Well-respected in the professional community. A Little League coach and devoted father of two boys. An adviser on teen suicide prevention and adoption. A professor.

“I’m just a regular guy,” he said.

A regular guy who travels to Loch Ness, Scotland, in the summers to research “Nessie.” Who camps out in Quebec and the Pacific Northwest listening for Bigfoot and interviewing witnesses.

It sounds bizarre, even improbable. Especially for someone so, well, normal. But Coleman tackles it like an investigative reporter. And he wants to get the scoop.

“I’m more the guy who talked to the people who did the work,” he said. “It’s not my goal to be a witness so much as to document the evidence.” Like an investigative reporter, he chooses his sources carefully.

“Until I have a hair sample or footprint or twisted branch, I’m really kind of skeptical,” he said. “Twenty percent have some kernel of interest as far as cryptozoology . Eighty percent are mistakes and a few are hoaxes.” This is where his social work training comes into play. He doesn’t just interview a witness. He talks to the witness’ spouse, boss, co-workers and friends to get a read on the person’s state of mind and general validity.

“When I interview witnesses, I have to evaluate their credibility,” Coleman said. “You have to put yourself in these people’s shoes – how they’re feeling.” Regardless of how compelling the evidence is, the cryptozoologist can’t get too far without a corpse or a skeleton of said unidentified creature. And corpses are hard to come by.

Some would say that is because these creatures, or “cryptids” as they are called, don’t exist. But Coleman attributes it to the creatures’ locales – lake bottoms, deep forest, rarely traversed mountains – and nocturnal schedules. It’s not that they aren’t there, he says, it’s that we don’t see them.

“They still are unknowns until we catch them,” he said. “New animals are being discovered all the time.” The mountain gorilla, long storied before corpses were produced, could’ve been the Bigfoot of Africa.

Among the as yet hidden creatures, the “orang-pendek,” witnessed in Sumatra, is the closest to discovery, Coleman writes in his field guide.

While Bigfoot may not be tramping around in his own back yard, Coleman still has a little to work with here in Maine. Mark Latti of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife says his office gets “quite a few” callers reporting unfamiliar animals.

“Most are mountain lion and wolf sightings,” Latti said. “We’ve never been able to confirm a mountain lion sighting. We’ve found evidence of big cats, whether it’s a mountain lion or who knows what else, or an extra-large bobcat.” And the wolf sightings usually turn out to be wolf hybrid dogs.

“We have yet to find a truly wild wolf in Maine,” Latti said.

So it’s not a hotbed of cryptozoological activity, but Coleman has plans to create a museum in Portland in the next few years, to showcase his vast collection of related artifacts. Among his treasures are giant plaster casts of Bigfoot footprints, an encased hair sample, toys and promotional products that feature the abominable snowman, Halloween masks and plaster skull casts. Soon, he will have a place to show the collection he’s amassed over 40 years. He also hopes he can provide funding for aspiring cryptozoologists’ field studies.

“Cryptozoology comes from a real passion place. It’s something I keep focusing on and dealing with,” he said. “Maybe it won’t be there for me, but I want to create an institution so people can spend all their time [pursuing] cryptozoology.”

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