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Herald and Review | Decatur, Illinois | Janaury 31, 1999

Tracking what's hidden

Loren Coleman, who grew up in Decatur, writes extensively about mysterious but unidentified creatures.Think Loch Ness monster.

By Tony Reid
H&R Staff Writer

PORTLAND, MAINE -- Want to look Decatur up in the encyclopedia? Check under "P," for panther.

"Decatur does seem to be a focus for black panther reports," said Loren Coleman, 51, who grew up in the city, graduated from MacArthur High School in 1965 and attended Southern Illinois University.

"Around 1917, a mysterious big cat seen prowling around the city was actually given a nickname, 'Nellie.' And Decatur is also right on the edge of an area where little chimpanzee-like creatures -- I call them 'napes,' short for North American Apes -- have been sighted."

You'll find them all listed in Coleman's encyclopedic new book, "Cryptozoology A to Z," which will be published by Simon and Schuster in [August]. And, in April, keep your eyes peeled for "The Field Guide to Bigfoot, Yeti and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide," another Coleman book being published by Avon Books at $12.95.

Cryptozoology, as the author patiently explains, is the study of hidden animals -- creatures, often of monstrous proportions, that are rumored to exist but for which there is no hard evidence.

Perhaps it is appropriate that this seeker and chronicler of the bizarre, who teaches documentary film at the University of Southern Maine and sociology at St. Joseph's College in Portland, now lives and works in a state that's also home to horror writer Stephen King. But Coleman, who documents his books with extensive research and witness interviews, insists he isn't interested in figments of anybody's warped imagination.

"A lot of the creatures I've researched are the subject of myth and legend," he said. "But beneath all of that smoke, sometimes, there is a little bit of fire."

It's the fire that ignites Coleman's passion to seek out hard evidence of these monsters, evidence that will wipe the smiles from the faces of regular scientists busy giggling into their lab coats at the very idea of cryptozoologists. Joe Public, however, has been less skeptical. Previous Coleman books, with titles like "Creatures of the Outer Edge" and "Mysterious Encounters," have found enthusiastic audiences. [There never was a "Mysterious Encounters" but this nicely combines "Mysterious America" and "Curious Encounters", the correct titles. - LC]

"Cryptozoology is fascinating because it combines two interesting areas for people," Coleman said. "No. 1 is natural history -- people love animals and animal stories -- and No. 2 is mysteries; people like mystery stories, and these are genuine mysteries of nature."

Well, maybe. The scientific viewpoint at Coleman's high school alma mater gives cryptozoology a failing grade. MacArthur biology teacher Steve Rayhill has been teaching for 30 years, and Bigfoot is not on his curriculum. "Science does not accept things for which there is no evidence," said Rayhill, 55.

"And the evidence is pretty thin for some of these creatures. I think people want them to be in existence, but it's very doubtful."

Coleman, meanwhile, pushes on regardless. He first got hooked on the subject when he was 12 and sat in his Decatur living room watching a movie on television called "Half Human," about the Abominable Snowman. His own high school science teachers told him it was all nonsense, but Coleman wasn't convinced.

"I wanted more and more information, and I must have written to 200 scientists all across the world," he recalled. "And then I began investigating local reports of mysterious animals, like those black panthers."

He's been writing extensively on the weird and wonderful ever since but is no mere paper tiger. This summer he is due to sink below the peat-darkened waters of Scotland's Loch Ness in a submarine and go in search of the world's most famous monster. "We are going to try and swim up alongside the animal and get a tissue sample -- and hope he doesn't bite us," Coleman said. "It's very exciting."

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