Cryptozoology: The study of "hidden animals," includes Bigfoot, Loch Ness Monsters, Yeti, Myakka Skunk Ape, and hundreds of other cryptids.

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Press-Herald | Portland, Maine | July 4, 1998

Researcher's subjects prove elusive

At left: Loren Coleman, a cryptozoologist, holds a foot cast of Yeti, the elusive Himalayan abominable snowman, at his home in Portland. Coleman will publish two new books next spring on cryptozoology, the stuy of hidden, undiscovered and unknown animals.

Staff photo by Herb Swanson

By Will Bartlett

©Copyright 1998 Guy Gannett Communications 

Loren Coleman dreams that in his lifetime, someone will make the discovery that legitimizes his life's calling.

Maybe it will be a black panther. Maybe it will be an Indian devil - an upright, ape-like creature with red eyes. Or maybe it will be ''Cassie,'' the legendary sea serpent of Casco Bay.

Coleman, 51, a Portland writer, consultant and college professor, is at heart a cryptozoologist - a student of hidden, undiscovered and unknown animals.

He has been captivated by the subject since he was a boy, and has written more than 150 articles on it. He published his first article, ''Mystery Animals in Illinois,'' when he was still a teen-ager. He wrote his first book on the subject when he was 22.

Coleman has tracked sightings of mysterious animals across 45 states and all over Canada, Mexico and the Caribbean. He has interviewed witnesses and gathered and catalogued information about Bigfoots, sea serpents and other beasts outside the current zoological spectrum.

Coleman's place as a national authority on cryptozoology will be furthered next spring when his two newest books are published: ''Encyclopedia of Cryptozoology,'' by Simon and Schuster, and ''Field Guide to Bigfoots, Yetis and Other Mystery Primates Worldwide,'' by Avon Books.

Coleman, whose educational background is in anthropology and social work, calls his pursuit an ''intellectual curiosity.''

''I'm not interested in ghosts or UFOs,'' he said. ''I'm interested in tangible biological species. These are not wisps of smoke that I'm pursuing.''

Although many scientists don't accept cryptozoology, there is a growing community of researchers trying to change that. The 20-year-old International Society of Cryptozoology keeps high scientific standards and has an established peer review system for filtering out faulty research and inaccurate information.

''What we're trying to do is produce better evidence . . . publish, analyze, discuss,'' said Richard Greenwell of Tucson, Ariz., secretary of the orginization.

He concedes that the field attracts more crackpots than, say, astronomy. But he says that makes the society's job all the more important.

Coleman said, ''Some of the best skeptics around are cryptozoologists. . . . We have to be very critical in our thinking, and not take everything that comes along.''

Coleman, an Illinois native, moved to Maine in 1983. He had been researching Maine's animal legends since 1975.

He's studied black panthers, which have been reported all over Maine in the past 60 years; Indian devils, spotted in the western mountains and around Mount Katahdin; and sea serpents sighted in the Gulf of Maine.

The legend of Cassie the sea serpent goes at least as far back as 1779, when Ensign Edward Preble, the Portland naval hero, shot at it with a cannon. Many sightings were reported during the 19th century, particularly between 1817 and 1830, sometimes even by groups of sailors or ship passengers.

The last report came in 1958 from two Norwegian fishermen. In an interview with Coleman 27 years later, one of the fishermen, Ole Mikkelsen, gave this account:

''We were five miles off Cape Elizabeth. We saw an object coming toward us out of the haze. We took it to be a submarine, but as it came nearer it became clear it was some live thing, light brown like a cusk, with a tail like a mackerel's. It looked well over 100 feet long. Its head stuck out of the water and was broader than the neck it was on.

''I was not sure of its ears or eyes, but it could hear. Every time the foghorn on the lightship Portland sounded, she turned her head in that direction.''

Mikkelsen said the animal could be seen for 45 minutes.

Does Coleman believe in the existence of the animals he studies? ''Belief is a thing for religion,'' he said. ''Among zoologists, naturalists and cryptozoologists, there is an acceptance of the evidence, or a nonacceptance. I accept that in 20 percent of the reports, there seems to be some actual evidence for an undiscovered animal. In the majority, it's misidentifications, hoaxes, mistakes.''

He said he accepts that only a few of the mysterious animals exist. ''I accept Bigfoot, Yeti in the Himalayas, and at least two or three different varieties of sea serpent. Hundreds of years of reports of sightings aren't wrong.''

He said Bigfoot has been captured on film, and there are suspected hair samples, droppings and plaster casts of footprints.

But ''until we have a body, people - straight zoologists - will not accept this,'' Coleman said. ''So I have to keep doing my work, asking people what they've seen, how close they got, and what kind of traces they found.''

Mainstream scientists won't accept the existence of any of the mysterious creatures until there is solid physical proof, such as a skeleton.

''Where is the evidence? Where is the specimen?'' said Professor James Taylor, chairman of the zoology department at the University of New Hampshire. ''Every species that is described to science has what is known as a specimen in a museum somewhere. We have physical evidence for . . . things going back millions of years. A bigfoot would have a skeleton.''

Physical evidence, Taylor said, is what science is based on. ''It doesn't say they don't exist at all. We just can't draw a scientific conclusion.''

The lack of a conclusion is exactly what keeps Coleman going. ''It's the pursuit of the unknown,'' he said.

If his newest books are a success, he hopes to make cryptozoology a full-time job.

''All of the animals in the world have not been classified yet,'' he said, with a glimmer of hope in his voice.

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