|Cryptozoology, BioForteana, Zoological Oddities, Unusual Natural History||StrangeArk blog|
Hoaxes and Misidentifications
Let's be honest. Many sightings will turn out to be misidentified animals. Some witnesses will mistake shadows for living creatures. One of my co-workers in Maryland scared herself when she found some large, strange footprints in the snow. They turned out to be boot tracks deformed by melting snow, but they did look remarkably similar to bigfoot tracks. Some folks will try to pull your leg for publicity, money, or fun. When you're dealing with a possible mystery animal sighting, never overlook the possibility of a hoax, especially when dealing with bigfoot reports.
Here are a few questions to ask yourself when you receive a new sighting:
What are some possible mistakes that a witness can make? When it comes to tracks, very rarely will you get a clear track. Get a decent guide to tracks (Peterson's or another such guide) to familiarize yourself with the tracks of native species. When investigating feline tracks, be sure to compare them with dog, fox, coyote, housecat, and bobcat tracks, to rule out those species.
Possible bigfoot tracks pose different problems. For an analysis of some, see Krantz's book (in Books). One non-debatable point is that no true bigfoot print will have claws. I leave the differences in sizes, shapes, and number of toes to other arenas for discussion. There's a lot of information out there.
Two "must-read" articles are Mark Chorvinsky and Mark Opsasnick's "The Selbyville Swamp Monster Exposed" (Strange Magazine, No. 4: 6+), and Marc Gaglione's "Assessing the Validity of Sightings" (NABIN Journal, Spring 1993: 11+). The first article details the investigation of a hoax and the second is an excellent "diagnostic chart" to keep in mind.
Escaped exotics pose more of a problem to Forteana than to cryptozoology. All across the continent, tigers, kangaroos, and big snakes find their way into someone's backyard or neighborhood park. Some are captured, some are killed, and some just wander away never to be seen again. Where do they come from? The exotic pet industry is alive and well, and it would do researchers well to check into the current fads. Not long ago, wallabies, wolves, and big cats were very popular and still are in many areas. Right now, ratites (ostriches, emus, etc.), hedgehogs, sugar gliders, and other small mammals are favorites. Large reptiles are extremely common, and can turn up in unexpected areas.
Don't forget that zoos will often lose animals, and conveniently forget about them (especially the harmless ones). At last report, the Baltimore Zoo still hadn't recovered an African pink-backed pelican that escaped in June of 1992 (and had survived the winter of 1992-93). Can an exotic survive the harsh northern winters? Some can't, but I know of a few that have. (Alligators burrowing into muddy swamps, birds staying in warm areas near hydro-electric plants, etc.)
Should we attribute every report of a strange animal to escaped pets? No, but if the animal sounds like an exotic, and there are no historical or corresponding reports, then I start with the hypothesis that the animal is an escapee. If I can successfully eliminate that hypothesis, then I look for a less "mundane" answer.
Does a hoax or misidentification render the investigation fruitless? Absolutely not! They are experiences to learn from. They are opportunities to test your skills and practice your technique. (They build character.) You'll also gain some insight into how people perceive the natural world and how they react to disturbances in their "normal" environment.