With precarious jobs made even more uncertain during the pandemic, it’s perhaps no surprise that remote learning is booming. Faced with low-paying, dead-end work, many people are quitting their jobs and re-assessing their careers, sometimes learning an entirely new skill set in the process.
So when Facebook’s typically useless advertising algorithms finally suggested an exciting and fulfilling new career in the field of cryptozoology—well, it was a tough proposition to turn down.
“Looking to learn new skills? Dreaming of a new career?” the poorly-designed Facebook ad beckoned me with an inquisitive CGI Yeti caught in the grayish-blue mist. This ad was offering an online degree in “Cryptozoology” from something called the “Centre of Excellence,” a sketchy online certification depository that promises, for a fee, all the necessary expertise to chase one’s dreams—assuming, in this case, those dreams involve things like monster-hunting, Angel Healing Therapy, or Vampirology.
Cryptozoology is the search for creatures for which no hard evidence exists. The term may be familiar to those who’ve spent days plumbing the depths of YouTube, or fans of Disco Elysium. First coined by Abominable Snowmen author Ivan T. Sanderson in the 1940s, and then popularized by “father of Cryptozoology” Bernard Heuvelmans, the field covers the hunt for “cryptids” like Bigfoot, El Chupacabra, the Giant Sloth, the Loch Ness Monster, and other legendary beings.
Little did I know that, soon enough, I’d be leading an expedition of my own: traversing the eerie forests of England’s North Downs, probing the unspoiled woodland for evidence of cryptids, and with the help of my assistant, surveying the local topography to excavate its ancient secrets. First, though, I had a lot of studying to do.
If looking for mythical animals sounds like a waste of time, think again, because that’s one way new species are discovered. An article published by Indiana University Bloomington notes that among others, the Komodo Dragon, the Kangaroo, and the Okapi were all once thought of as fiction. (The now defunct International Society of Cryptozoology adopted the Okapi as its mascot for this reason).
“Heuvelmans and a lot of the founders of cryptozoology really saw the field as a study of hidden or unknown animals—animals yet to be discovered and verified,” Loren Coleman, founder of the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine, told Motherboard.
According to Coleman, who has appeared in the Financial Times as the “world’s foremost cryptozoologist,” cryptozoologists were once known as “romantic zoologists” so the lines between academic zoology and cryptozoology may be blurrier than you’d assume.
As I sped through the normally $270-dollar Centre of Excellence course at a tempting discount of $40 (“A great alternative to a diploma,” according to its website), I learned snippets about the “Giant Anacondas of South America” through to “The Future of Cryptozoology.” But there was very little in the way of practical field research advice.
The course itself resembled an interactive encyclopaedia, with 10 modules in total (“up to 150 hours to complete”, according to the Centre of Excellence). These included units on the Loch Ness Monster, legendary sea monsters, Bigfoot, and the Mothman, to name a few. Each contained the history behind the cryptids in the popular imagination, and detailed the various debunkings or hoaxes, but ultimately left it up to the student to decide if there was something to these Yetis, Chupacabras, and Mothmen or not.
The modules contain a series of pages and, upon completion, a test at the end referencing the material. For instance: theories that the terrifying legend of the Mothman could more suitably be attributed to nearby Albino owls, common to an old munitions plant at the centre of many sightings, with their glowing red eyes a combination of the bird’s dramatic red blood vessels and light reflections from car headlights.
These tests were then marked and about a week later, you find out whether you’ve passed, with a threshold of 60% correct responses. Unfortunately, the Centre of Excellence didn’t respond to Motherboard’s queries regarding how this marking process worked.
I’ve never been academically talented, and couldn’t help but feel that I’d reached a new low when I found myself cheating to speed through the modules. As fascinating as nuggets like the above were, I was getting frustrated at my slow rate of progress.
Fortunately, according to the Centre of Excellence, cryptozoology is “considered a pseudoscience and therefore there is no explicit academic qualification you need to become a student of, or leader in this field.”
Emboldened by this laissez-faire attitude about the useless credentials the Centre was selling me, I invented qualifications of my own, having the following business cards printed:
Knowing where to begin my new career in cryptozoology was a little tricky, however, because there are multiple camps with overlapping but often divergent points of view.
Vertebrate palaeontologist Darren Naish, who is the author of Hunting Monsters: Cryptozoology and the Reality Behind the Myths, told Motherboard that the “pelts and paws” faction has historically dominated the field—people like Huevelmans, who search for flesh and blood creatures.
With books like John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies in the 1970s, a paranormal aspect was folded in which is especially common in today’s cryptozoology. This often involves an insistence on interdimensional, non-corporeal, paranormal elements to creatures like Bigfoot, sometimes suggesting an alien link or even explanations rooted in quantum mechanics. Skeptics label this as the Paranormal Unified Field Theory, or PUFT. And there are others still who find the socio-cultural dynamic of these phenomena worthy of study—people who are unlikely to set out on a physical hunt, but for whom metaphysical or cultural discussions apply.
While hardcore skeptics are quick to label the entire field as pseudoscience, Naish said that although he’s “personally ambivalent” he wouldn’t reject cryptozoology out of hand. Take for example the Kipunji, a mystery monkey that inhabits the highland forests of Tanzania. For a time, some researchers were confident of its existence, yet others were skeptical because traditional tales of the local Nyakyusa people described it both as real and mythical. But in 2003, a real Kipunji was discovered, making the evasive critter the first newly discovered monkey since 1984.
“If you’re in the true-believer end of the spectrum, you could make the argument that all of that research was cryptozoological, and the researchers doing it were cryptozoologists,” said Naish. “From the other end of the scale, the researchers were qualified primatologists, experts in African monkeys, and they certainly wouldn’t regard themselves as cryptozoologists—they’re probably only vaguely aware of the term, and would possibly be quite offended because as far as they’re concerned, they were just doing field primatology and conservation biology.”
For all the wild-sounding ideas about the alien origins of Bigfoot, scientists do occasionally pay attention to cryptid phenomena. In 2019, for example, a team of researchers from New Zealand attempted to catalogue all living species within Loch Ness by extracting DNA from water samples. They wrote off catfish or sharks, but suggested that the famous monster could have been European eels, which inhabit the Loch after a 3,100-mile migratory journey from the Sargasso Sea.
The “Zuiyo-maru carcass,” dredged up by a fishing trawler off the coast of New Zealand, inspired speculation about ancient plesiosaurs in Japan in the 1970s. But a team of scientists later theorized, after examining the mangled remains, that the corpse was likely to have been that of a basking shark rather than an ancient sea serpent.
For Coleman, though, “once a cryptid is discovered, it becomes part of zoology, and the zoologist takes it over. And a lot of people forget that it was part of cryptozoology.”
As a seasoned veteran, Coleman seemed like he could give me a nudge in the right direction for my own journey into cryptozoology. Having resumed his studies after a slow period during the pandemic, he had recently returned from an expedition searching for the Giant Salamander in northern California. He warned me about charlatans and hoaxers who might want to hoodwink a naive, inexperienced cryptozoologist like myself. But he also gave a resounding vote of confidence—“quite commendable”—to the work over the years in Britain regarding mysterious sightings of big cats.
For decades, larger-than-average cats have hit the front pages of Britain’s tabloids after making supposed appearances in the countryside. (The Centre of Excellence completely neglected to mention this.) Sightings range from mistaken tabbies, to soft toys, to cardboard cutouts—as was suspected to be the case with the infamous Beast of Bodmin Moor.
But there are very compelling accounts, too, Danny Bamping, founder of the British Big Cat Society, told Motherboard. The British Big Cat Society—more a network of independent volunteers than a society per se—was established to “scientifically identify, quantify, catalog and protect the big cats that freely roam the British countryside.”
On its website, the Society acknowledges that there have been hoaxes, such as a recent alleged sighting in Cheshire that was in fact a photograph of a zoo enclosure. One man on the English Isle of Wight, however, did shoot a leopard-like creature—believed to be an ocelot or a serval—that he initially thought was a fox.
Britain used to have extremely lax animal ownership laws, said Bamping. It’s perfectly possible, he suggests, that as UK lawmakers moved to ban exotic pets, some owners, breeders, or traders got spooked and abandoned large felines in the remote countryside.
“There’s a lot of evidence that shows a lot of these cats were released in 1976, due to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act,” Bamping told Motherboard. “There was a five-year legal window for anybody to introduce any non-indigenous species into Britain, until that window closed in 1981, with the Countryside Act. So there’s a legislative loophole, where people were required to have a dangerous wild animal license for anything, whether it’s a poisonous spider or a snake, an elephant or a lion, or anything like that. […] You could buy a cheetah in Harrods‘ [exotic pet store] until 1973.”
There may have also been escapees from private collections and zoos—as was thought to be the case with the Peak District Wallabies, where for 70 years, the Australasian native species made the Staffordshire Moors their home.
While Bamping initially offered to introduce me to a few of the big cat witnesses so I could continue my investigations, ultimately the leads ran cold. I had to look elsewhere to apply my cryptozoological knowledge.
While my Centre of Excellence course claimed in “Module 5: The Legend of Bigfoot” that the hairy hominid is a predominantly American phenomenon, I discovered a researcher who begged to differ.
Deborah Hatswell became interested in Bigfoot when she had an encounter with an “impossible creature” in 1982. For years, she searched for other experiencers, at first using CB radio and placing ads in newspapers. Later, the internet led her to accounts of the American Sasquatch, and she founded British Bigfoot Researcher Investigations in the early 2000s—now a team of volunteer investigators.
Hatswell has diligently mapped sightings of Bigfoot or Bigfoot-adjacent creatures around the world, and even mapped them out on Google Maps.
“I started by mapping the reports in the hopes of spotting a pattern in the sightings,” said Hatswell. “I started with just one, my own, and scoured the UK for others. I found encounters in the strangest of places, even very close to urban towns and cities.”
Each witness had a similar story to tell, Hatswell said: they were just ordinary people going about their days, often hikers, and the descriptions of the creatures were comparable.
While Bigfoot is usually associated with the United States, partly due to the famous Patterson-Gimlin tape, there’s a long history of folklore in Britain of creatures that fit the description, such as the Woodwoses of Suffolk. In the case of the Am Fear Liath Mòr, or ‘grey man’, the Yeti-like creature is supposedly native to the peak of Ben Macdui, the highest of the Cairngorms in Scotland, and first apparently sighted in 1925.
Armed with Hatswell’s map, my assistant, a lawyer and amateur Bigfootologist introduced to me by a friend, who claims to have watched hundreds of hours of Bigfoot documentaries, suggested that we head to Wichling Woods. This place was listed as a notorious hotspot for occurrences of high strangeness—including whistling sounds, mysterious footsteps, and provoking general eerie feelings. Not only that, but the nearby River Medway was the location of a report filed to the British Bigfoot Researchers as recently as June 2021.
The two of us started at the village of Lenham in Kent, and unable to get a taxi, we found ourselves traipsing through open fields, rambling through woodland, climbing over gates, and walking against traffic along very perilous stretches of road. Cryptozoology can be a dangerous profession.
Sunburnt, tired, and no doubt easy prey for any agitated ape-men, we eventually arrived at Wichling Woods. We carefully investigated the topography of the location, searching for tracks, or other signs of Bigfoot activity.
No tracks were discovered. However, we did identify a water source, which any Bigfoot could potentially drink from if they got thirsty.
We found a suitably dense thicket, where Berkman suggested we attempt to communicate with any Bigfoot nearby.
My assistant suggested we first try the “wood-knock” technique. According to expert Bigfootologists, the creatures are said to communicate with one another by hitting tree trunks with thick branches, acting as a kind of “heads up” to other Bigfoot in the area.
If successful, we would expect a knock back. Unfortunately, there was no response.
Next was the “Whoop” technique.
Bigfoot are notoriously shy creatures, so it may seem counterintuitive to unleash a sound like this to flush them out. But the purpose of this whooping, my assistant told me, was to alert other Bigfoot to the possibility of potential food sources, intruders, or danger.
No response either.
Keeping a close eye on our GPS, we had thoroughly investigated much of the site. Satisfied with our efforts, we thought it was time to leave. On our departure, we looked out for pylons or powerlines. According to Berkman: “Bigfoot knows that people avoid pylons and therefore knows it can walk underneath them, without being disturbed—using them as a kind of ‘Bigfoot Superhighway’.”
Of course, we weren’t expecting to actually find Bigfoot. Overall, we considered the expedition a success, because we had concluded that it was possible an unknown giant ape species, with a 6-8 foot stride length, could conceivably live in this part of the North Downs. To arrive at that conclusion, we had:
- Surveyed the topography
- Established a credible food source (pheasants and rabbits)
- Checked for tracks (none found, but established there was dense woodland in which a Bigfoot could be hiding)
- Conducted Wood-knock test (failure)
- Conducted Whoop test (failure)
- Discovered a water supply
- Located potential Bigfoot pathways
- Established a possible, liveable habitat
Ending our search, the managers of a local pub seemed suspiciously hostile towards Berkman and I. Customers fell silent, and turned in their seats to watch us, carefully. Was this because we had come too close to unearthing the mysterious secrets of Lenham?Or were we simply two sweaty halfwits on the trail of precisely nothing—with twigs, spiders, and woodland detritus dangling from our hair—stinking up the mood of this sleepy establishment?
It was hard to say for sure.
A surer thing was that while the Centre of Excellence promised me an education in cryptozoology, I could have easily learned most of it from Google. Worse, I felt I’d not discovered my true potential in the slightest. Reading a comment on YouTube that suggested the Bigfoot researchers on Animal Planet’s Finding Bigfoot were merely “paid imbeciles walking around the woods making noises” felt a little too close to home.
Even with the support of well-credentialed people like legendary conservationist Jane Goodall, who recently said she wouldn’t rule out the existence of Bigfoot, I thought that while I gave it a good shot, perhaps cryptozoology would be better left to more qualified people than me with my Facebook diploma.
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