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June 12, 2008

Cryptozoology's Cryptic Creatures: William D. Rubinstein asks, why do seemingly sane people believe in Bigfoot and other mysterious creatures?

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

Man-Monkey: In Search of the British Bigfoot
by Nick Redfern
Bideford, North Devon: CFZ Press, 2007
Paperback, £9.99

The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World's Last Undiscovered Animals
by Karl P. Shuker
New York: Paraview Press, 2003
Paperback, £12.95

Extraordinary Animals Revisited: From Singing Dogs to Serpent Kings
by Karl P. Shuker
Bideford, North Devon: CFS Press, 2007
Paperback, £14.99

These three books deal with the more outré aspects of "cryptozoology", the study of as-yet-unknown animals. Internationally, the best-known of the unknowns (as it were) are of course the "Bigfoot", the anthropoid-humanoid which has been reported innumerable times, under a variety of names, around the world in forests from the Pacific Northwest to Australia, and the many and varied species of ocean-going "sea serpents", as well as the Loch Ness Monster in Scotland.

A number of general points might be made about this subject. First, innumerable people - far more than are often credited - take a keen interest in this and related subjects, just as is the case with most other facets of the world of "unexplained events".

Secondly, although this subject obviously attracts more than its share of cranks and crackpots, the best writers on "cryptozoology" are careful researchers and often scientifically trained, who discount tall tales and obvious legends.

Thirdly, there is no reason why many species of unknown animals, some quite extraordinary in nature should, even now, not exist in remote places or even virtually under our noses. If they do exist - and this is a hard point to grasp - they are simply living creatures which obey the same natural rules as any other animal species.

In this review, I have highlighted three of the most intriguing recent works on the subject, out of many in what is a growing sub-discipline of fringe research. Redfern, a British-born explorer of the unknown now resident in Texas, in Man-Monkey examines a genuinely unbelievable creature (if that is what it is), of which, in common with the great majority of people, I had never previously heard. An 1883 book on Shropshire Folklore by Charlotte S. Browne discussed an encounter in January 1879 by a luggage carter on a road near Ranton in Shropshire late at night when, just before he reached the Birmingham and Liverpool Canal,

a strange black creature with great white eyes sprang out of the plantation by the roadside and alighted on his horse's back.
After shaking off the creature with great difficulty, he reported the frightening sight to a local policeman, who said,
Oh, was that all, sir? Oh, I know what that was. That was the Man-Monkey, sir, as does come again at the bridge ever since the man was drowned in the Cut [canal].
A similar creature has also been sighted near Cannock Chase in Staffordshire. In 2000 Redfern published an article in a Staffordshire newspaper about the "man-monkey". This resulted in his receiving a flood of reports of similar sightings both in the recent past and many years before in both areas by sober, sane witnesses, usually late at night, usually when driving on rural roads.

Does the "man-monkey" exist, and what is it? It could be "supernatural" - if so, end of story - or it could be part of a colony of simian creatures which originally escaped from a nineteenth-century menagerie, circus, or from a naturalist's private collection, and have bred in local caves and forests. What is genuinely strange is that the "man-monkey" has received so little publicity until recently.

Dr Karl Shuker is one of the world's best-known "cryptozoologists". By coincidence - since I am sure that he is not the "man-monkey" in disguise - he lives in the West Midlands, and has written ten books on "mysterious events" and unknown animals, always from a rational, learned, and scientific perspective, which are to be recommended to anyone with an interest in the subject. The title of The Beasts That Hide From Man is instructive, for it reminds us that any unknown animal species is almost certainly hiding from us because they are afraid of humans, with good reason, not the other way round.

His two books noted here discuss dozens of such creatures from around the world. One of the most intriguing is the "Mongolian death worm", a burrowing animal of unknown nature - it might be a snake, amphibian, worm, or even an insect - frequently reported from the Mongolian desert, which kills its prey either by spraying them with poison or by electrocuting them when touched or even, on some accounts, at a distance, a characteristic known only to electric eels and some other fish. It has been reported by natives innumerable times, but has never been captured or even photographed. One wonders, too, what the results of an encounter between the "death worm" and the "man-monkey" might be.

Shuker's Extraordinary Animals Revisited concludes with a chapter on "The Unmentionables", even more unbelievable creatures reported from time to time. One of the most bizarre is an utterly mysterious flying creature reported in 2001 near a quarry in Powys, Wales, which resembled a serpentine dragon with four short limbs, but its head was shaped very like that of a sea horse, and it was airborne - undulating and wriggling as it flew about 10 feet above the surface of the quarry in a wide circle.This report to Shuker came from a "well-respected" naturalist (whose name is not revealed by Shuker), who was convinced (p. 281) that

it was neither an optical illusion nor a model, but was truly alive, although its appearance was so uncanny that he felt chilled by the encounter.
Similar creatures have been reported, it seems, from California, South America, and elsewhere. What are they? Who knows. How have they escaped discovery, capture, and classification by a thousand generations of human observers? Who knows. Do they really exist? Again, who knows.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. His books include Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution, (Social Affairs Unit, 2006), and Shadow Pasts: "Amateur Historians" and History's Mysteries, (Longman, 2007).

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