Monday, April 30, 2007
P.T. Barnum and the Beastiaries of the Imagination
Over at the Querencia blog a while back, Matt M. reported that he had been reading a book called Big Foot Exposed, which was written by his wife's first cousin, who happens to be a specialist in primate anatomy and biomechanics. Big Foot data is looked at straight-faced and is -- not too surprisingly -- found wanting.
Meanwhile, over at the Tetrapod Zoology blog, the always-interesting Darren Naish went to a Big Cat conference in the U.K. and seems to have gotten sucked in to believing that there are large mystery cats running around Britain. Well maybe they're not large cats ... maybe they're little ones about the size of a house cat or a Scottish Wild Cat. Hmmmm . . . . could they possible be just house cats and Scottish Wild Cats?
On my end, I have to say I rather enjoy the cryto-zoology crowd because it's an odd alamgam of P. T. Barnum myth makers, city slickers that that have never touched a cow, country rubes easily fooled at the carnival, and regular folks with a deep-seated desire to find (please!) some level of mystery, fantasy and novelty in a world that is pretty well explored and explained.
At some level we all desperately want there to be a Santa Clause, a flying Yogi, a living T-Rex, and an anaconda large enough to swallow a house trailer.
If we canot find it, we will invent it, and who is to say that it does not exist? You cannot prove that the non-existent does not exist -- an interesting fall back position for every kind of fun thing from Sasquatch and Cold Fusion theorists to the Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn.
It's a bit fun to stoke the fires of misbelief, as anyone who has even taken a troop of cub scouts "Snipe Hunting" at night can tell you. After you have them beat the brush for half an hour looking for a "snipe" (described as an animal that looks like a thin rabbit with a white stripe downs its back) you aim your flashlight up a tree and bounce it around a bit while telling the kids you just saw .... a Ho-Dag!
I plead guilty of pulling a few tricks like this. Regular readers might remember the "Chupacabra" that I reported the dogs killing a while back. The post came complete with pictures, and they were not faked. All I did was take a natural oddity, add a tall tale which I told straight, and presto -- a real Chupacabra.
In fact, my "Chubacabra" was nothing more than a groundhog victimized by four or five very large tumors that had distorted its body to the point that it looked like an alien beast. The purple color was due to the fact that the poor creature was dragging itself over nearby pokeberry plants as it tried to find food in the final days of its misery.
Similar "mystery creatures" are reported all the time, and in almost every case they are nothing more than a mangey fox or coyote, or a bear that has lost its hair or -- in some rare cases -- an escaped exotic pet like a mouflon goat or a wallabee.
The "Beast of Stronsay" turned out to be nothing more than a half-rotted basking shark.
Pulling people's leg is big business. I could point to Big Tobacco here (or the Bush Administration and Haliburton), but let me stick to the natural world and not digress too much.
Phineas T. Barnum made his fortune by parading people into a museum to see a "Feejee Mermaid," which was nothing more than a faked bit of taxidermy combining a monkey and a fish. That gag worked so well, he began parading a pair of retarded dwarf brothers from Connecticut around as the "Wild Men of Borneo," and he found a 5-year old midget he paraded around as an adult named "General Tom Thumb."
Today, thanks to PhotoShop, the gags have never been easier. In the great tradition of western postcards that show Rainbow Trout so large that just one of them fills a wagon pulled by a team of 20 mules, we now have pictures of massive sharks looming over surfers or jumping out of the water to snatch National Guardsmen off of ladders dangling from helicopters. Even video tape can be faked.
And yet, we want to believe. I regularly get interesting bits of stuff sent my way from folks who are sure it is true. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, an office mate sent me a picture of a giant alligator that was caught in New Orleans' streets. There was just one problem -- the picture was not an alligator, but a crocodile. I tracked down the origin of the picture in a few minutes ... ditto with the enormous snake "in Australia" that I quickly recognized as an African Rock Python.
Some of my favorite tall tales are the myriad "Beast of" stories that come out of the U.K. People who believe in such things are entirely immune to rational thought. Here's a hint: there are about 200 mounted fox hound packs working every inch of a very crowded U.K., and yet they have never turned up a big cat.
Yet people want to believe there is real danger in the English countryside -- never mind that the last wolf in the U.K. was shot dead more than 250 years ago, and the last bear more than 1500. If there is a dead sheep with a torn throat it must be a giant cat, never mind all the sheep-worrying lurchers that regularly get loose and go feral for a few days, weeks or months. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood the mind set well when he wrote "The Hound of the Baskervilles."
People want to believe and will suspend all logic to do so, and if it also helps sell a few newspapers and T-shirts, so much the better.
The folks around Loch Ness have a small business selling postcards, tours and trinkets. The same is true around Lake Champlain where the locals have invented their own version of "the monster" which they call "Champ." Add to the mix the Yetti of the Himalayas and the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest.
And while we're at it, let's not forget the thousands of "Jackaplope" heads gracing the walls of western bars and tourist stores in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana.
And, of course, if there is ever a Museum of Humbuggery, the alien autopsy gag has to get its own case, as does the running gag known as "crop circles," which turned out to be nothing more than a collection of pranksters with a bit of rope and a couple of two-by-fours.
The real story, however, is that most of the earth has been well-swarmed by biologists, hunters, anglers, explorers, bug collectors, small children, foreign aid workers, and old men. Sadly, on land and in the air, there is no longer too much new under the sun.
Not all mystery is gone, of course. About once every decade we find something as "amazing" as a new small deer or striped rabbit in the forests of Southeast Asia.
Several times a year a scientist or two declares he has found a new species of mouse, frog, large insect, or small bird.
The deep oceans contain a lot of things yet unseen and unnamed. Perhaps the Creature from the Black Lagoon really does exist .... somewhere ... out there.
And even if not, we can still sell a book, a movie, and a few T-shirts about it, eh? What's the harm in believing?