On Bigfoot's Trail
Loren Coleman chases legendary beasts, from the Loch Ness Monster to the Abominable Snowman to Bigfoot, that science has never been able to verify but that make even skeptics wonder: What if?
To believers, doubters, even skeptics, Bigfoot makes a big impression. The replica 8 1/2 - foot hairy hominoid -- crafted from the fur of musk oxen and buffalo, a hulking presence on the porch of a brown-and-yellow home in Portland, Maine -- scares the bejesus out of the UPS man. Still, it's right at home here on the doorstep of a man who has spent a lifetime investigating mysterious animal sightings. "I don't particularly feel like a strange person," Loren Coleman says. "It's the subject I study that's strange."
He is a leading figure in the world of cryptozoology, a field whose legitimacy is disputed. Coleman has trekked to 49 states, as well as Canada, Mexico, and Scotland, gathering physical evidence and eyewitness accounts of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, the Loch Ness Monster, Mothman, thunderbirds, and other legendary beasts not verified by conventional science but storied enough to make us wonder: What if?
"Eighty percent of all the accounts that come to me are misidentifications, are mundane animals - a few fakes, a few hoaxes," Coleman acknowledges. "But it's that 20 percent of the core unknowns that keep me going." And he's not chasing after unicorns. Coleman cites a pantheon of animals once deemed hypothetical but since authenticated: mountain gorillas, giant pandas, okapis, coelacanths, ivory-billed woodpeckers.
The rumored animals -- so-called cryptids -- may be totally unknown or rediscovered species thought to have been extinct. Initial accounts of such animals "are always fantastic," he says. "The early reports of mountain gorillas said that they all stood upright, that they squeezed to death native women and attacked hunters."
Coleman made the news late last year when he, along with a subsidiary of the toy giant Hasbro, announced plans for a $1 million bounty for evidence that would lead to the live, safe capture of Bigfoot, the Abominable Snowman, or the Loch Ness Monster. (The bounty was quickly rescinded amid concerns it would spark a frenzy and cause injury to the hunters and the hunted.)
A twice-divorced single dad, Coleman shares his four-bedroom home that doubles as the International Cryptozoology Museum (visits by appointment) with two sons, 16 and 20, and two chirpy parakeets. His day job is dissecting human behavior -- specifically, youth suicide. Coleman, who has a master's degree in social work, is a consultant to the Maine Youth Suicide Program. "Suicide is the ultimate mystery," he says. "And I'm very interested in mysteries."
The oldest of four children of a firefighter and a homemaker, Coleman grew up in Decatur, Illinois. He recalls being mesmerized at age 12 by the Japanese flick Half Human, about a huge, hairy, manlike mammal reputed to live in the Himalayas. If the allure of the Abominable Snowman, or Yeti, captured Coleman as a boy, it has yet to let him go. "So I'm 58," he says. "I feel, sometimes, like I'm 8 or 18."
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"It's really about passion and patience," Coleman says of cryptozoology. Says Sue O'Halloran, a colleague at the youth suicide program: "We kind of joke when we're driving north that he should keep his eyes peeled in case something should run across the road."
Along the way from 8 to 58, Coleman became a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, a vegetarian, and a baseball nut. Today, one can almost see a little of the Yeti in his pale-blue eyes, framed by white hair and beard. But he is dead serious about his pursuit of phantom creatures and holds that cryptozoology is another branch of natural history, akin to anthropology or biology, even though there are those who consider it fringe science. "Among monster hunters, Loren's one of the more reputable," says Benjamin Radford, managing editor of Skeptical Inquirer magazine. "But I'm not convinced that what cryptozoologists seek is actually out there."
Coleman, however, estimates he has taken 8,300 credible eyewitness reports of encounters with hypothetical animals. He keeps a smattering of evidence at his house-cum-museum -- for example, fur and fecal material found in the vicinity of Bigfoot and Yeti sightings. "I'm really interested in measurable, tangible, scientific evidence," Coleman says. "We need DNA."
His edge-of-reality museum sits on an ordinary street and displays his quirky humor as much as his life's work. Taxidermy lines the walls, and bookshelves and bins are crammed with oddities, including 150 or so Bigfoot or Sasquatch plaster footprint casts, a variety of real and reproduction skulls like "Gigantopithecus," monster action figures, and souvenir kitsch.
Although none of his work is making him rich, Coleman has written or co-written 26 books, including the popular Mysterious America and Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America. He also publishes a blog at cryptomundo.com. He has consulted on TV shows, among them NBC's Unsolved Mysteries, and the Hollywood movie The Mothman Prophecies.
Though he has yet to find Bigfoot, delusional fans have had no problem hunting Coleman down. "They thought I was a crackpot and as potentially unbalanced as they were," he says, only half-jokingly.
Has Coleman himself ever seen something in the wild he couldn't explain? "Not that I'm comfortable saying was definitely a cryptid," he replies, then reluctantly admits he saw a black pantherlike creature while driving in Anna, Illinois, one night in 1969.
As for Bigfoot and Yeti, Coleman believes they are likely to be confirmed as real, while the evidence for Nessie is more elusive. Once an animal is demystified, it becomes the province of traditional science, but until then, Coleman will continue his hunt. "By pursuing something like Yeti," he says, "we begin to understand the Abominable Snowman in all of us."