People see what they want to see.
Or at least that’s what a North Carolina wildlife biologist and two North Carolina university professors had to say of recent reports of Bigfoot and chupacabra sightings in the Carolinas.
Danny Ray is a N.C. Wildlife Management district biologist in western North Carolina, where several of the recent reports of fantastical creatures originated. He’s heard them all before.
So when a “large bipedal animal covered in hair” was reported in McDowell County – Ray’s jurisdiction – he sighed.
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“We don’t investigate things like that,” Ray explained. “Most of the time, I’m very nice to people who call, and I talk with them a little bit, and leave it at that.”
The sighting in McDowell allegedly happened just before 11 p.m. Aug. 4 in a forested area. A Marion-based group, Bigfoot 911, reported the sighting on its Facebook page the next day.
Ray went out to look into a report of Bigfoot prints in Burke County behind a man’s house, he said.
“There were broken limbs in the woods and at least two footprints in the mud,” Ray said. “I told him, ‘This is a hoax, sir – either you’re trying to pull a fast one on me, or someone’s pulling a fast one on you.”
The footprints were about 15 inches long, Ray said, and were pretty faint. The toes looked like blocks, almost like the Marvel superhero Thing, he said. He was sure it was a costume or otherwise fabricated.
“The guy was just not convinced,” Ray said. “He knew it was Bigfoot. People see what they want to see.”
The man took a plaster cast of the prints and brought them to a local hunting shop, where they were hung for all to see, Ray said.
And that wouldn’t be the end of Ray’s experience with local Bigfoot, or “Knobby” as he is known in the western part of the Tar Heel State.
“People seem to speak intelligently, as if they actually think something is out there,” Ray said. “They honestly believe what they’re telling me.”
Ray said he’s not sure what folks are seeing out there in the mountains. He doesn’t think it’s a bear, since the descriptions just don’t match what black bears in North Carolina look or act like. He’s not sure whether it’s people in costume.
“I don’t know what they’re thinking,” Ray said.
When it comes to reports of chupacabras – a legend throughout the Americas of a creature that attacks and drinks the blood of livestock, particularly goats – Ray has a few theories.
While physical descriptions of the chupacabra vary, it’s often described as a heavy creature – perhaps even the size of a small bear – with rows of spines on its back.
Ray said he gets reports of the creatures, but there’s normally a simple explanation.
“It’s a legitimate animal, like a red fox, with sarcoptic mange,” Ray said.
Sarcoptic mange is a highly contagious infestation of burrowing mites that can infect a wide variety of animals. The animals often lose hair and skin can become infected, crusted and discolored.
“It’s a pretty gross disease that animals like red foxes get,” Ray said. “This is just a regular animal, and somebody took that and tried to start something to see how far that wildfire would run.”
Perhaps the most common myth Ray said he deals with are reports of eastern cougars – big cats that once made their homes in the Appalachian and Rocky mountain ranges.
But no sighting of an eastern cougar has been confirmed since the 1930s, Ray said. The animals were hunted to extinction, and were finally removed from the endangered species list just a few years ago – decades after many experts consider the animals to have finally disappeared from the wild.
Ray said he gets at least a dozen to two dozen reports of “eastern cougars” each year. But they’ve never been true. People are prone to mistakes when reporting wildlife sightings, Ray said.
“Sometimes it’s bobcats – but they’re much smaller – and sometimes it’s even large house cats people are reporting as young cougars,” Ray said. “Occasionally there have been captive cougars, but those are tattooed so we knew where they came from.”
There’s a black market for exotic animals, including big cats like mountain lions or cougars, and occasionally they’ll show up in North Carolina when one of the highly illegal animals gets loose or is released by its owner, Ray said.
Ray says he’s thankful that people think to report unusual sightings to the Wildlife Resources Commission. There just hasn’t been proof that any of them exist.
But it’s hard to demonstrate what doesn’t exist, said Matt Cartmill, professor emeritus of evolutionary anthropology at Duke University.
“Is there a three-meter-tall species of apelike biped – the Sasquatch or Bigfoot – lurking in the forests?” Cartmill wrote in a piece published by the American Journal of Physical Anthropology in 2008. “No one has ever fetched home a cadaver or a skeleton or even a tooth of a Sasquatch.”
Bigfoot, or Sasquatch, sightings and footprints have been reported in every state in the U.S. except Rhode Island. The widespread nature of the sightings further suggests that the creature is a myth, Cartmill said.
“Many of the supposed Bigfoot traces are clearly hoaxes,” Cartmill said. “Others might be genuine, but none of them is beyond the scope of ingenious trickery. The only way to settle the issue is to show us a specimen.
“Nothing less will do, because footprints, photos and video can always be faked to whatever degree of precision it takes to gull the experts.”
And it is specifically the lack of any concrete trace of the creatures’ supposed existence that determines how Cartmill views the myths.
“I regard it as virtually impossible for a large mammal to exist all over the U.S. without ever having left a single cadaver or skeleton for a zoologist to study,” he said.
Ray agreed, “There are no such animals like that found in western North Carolina or the United States.”
People share legends that reflect their vision of the world, said Patricia Sawin, professor and folklorist in the Department of American Studies at UNC Chapel Hill.
“Biologists tell us it’s highly improbable that a population of large primates could exist even in the wildest remaining areas of North America without being discovered,” Sawin said.
But people are fascinated by a creature myth precisely because it challenges the common sense “that governs our boring, onerous, everyday lives,” Sawin said. “In some cases a belief in improbable creatures may coincide with a distrust of scientific expertise, but folklorists attribute cryptozoology to desire rather than to ignorance.”
Cryptozoology is a pseudoscience intended to prove the existence of mythological creatures and animals otherwise considered extinct. It is considered a pseudoscience because it does not follow the scientific method.
“People love mystery because it holds out the possibility that there is something more,” Sawin said.