Friday, September 19, 2014

The Sasquatch, Our Sibling

I have never encountered Bigfoot. My painting is a whimsical experiment with a new set of gouache paints; and the sasquatch would be a gentler giant. When I was nine or so, I THOUGHT that I detected the American great ape, in the Pacific Northwest. My mom and I went for a short tromp in the woods, and I heared a strange cry in the distance (probably some other animal.) Later, while travelling the roads by car through the small town with parents and brother, I smelled a foul odor (probably garbage.) Still enough to spark a youngster's imagination, just as I liked to regularly declared the blinking lights in the sky from airplanes at night back home “UFOs.”

However, the Sasquatch recently gained a very credible witness, which has given me pause, and made me contemplate the possibility of large hominids in the bush. Les Stroud (Survivorman) has had two close encounters with Bigfoot. (Survivorman is the best and most authentic television series on wilderness survival, wherein the intrepid star goes out to varied remote parts of the world and SURVIVES, for 7-10 days at a time, truly alone, carrying four video cameras and various tripods, and filming himself on the quest. This starkly contrasts with all other survival shows—such as Man vs Wild—where the guy pretends to be alone in the woods, but in fact has a camera crew, and only stays out for three days at a stretch.) Les Stroud's second brush with Bigfoot occurred during the making of the Alaska episode—the furry beast appeared in a tree, hooted at the lone survivor, and crashed away through the treetops when he reached for his camera. The Survivorman said that he does not know what he encountered, but it was not moose, wolf, or bear. (And he has abundant familiarity with such fauna, having lived and slept among them for years.)

Shortly after watching Stroud's fireside chats, I took the opportunity to see Jeff Meldrum, Professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University, give a talk—at the Salt Lake City Comic Con. Dr. Meldrum is one of the few scientists who gives serious consideration to the possibility of the Sasquatch, and has given close review to the evidence, rather than dismissing it out of hand. He appeared at Comic Con because so many scientists started out as science fiction fans, so he knew there would be an attentive and appreciative audience. Meldrum has extensively researched and taught on the evolution of bipedalism in primates, on various branches of evolutionary tree, including modern humans—and the alleged distant relative of Sasquatch. He has constructed a proposed anatomical model of the Bigfoot's foot and leg. He claims that the Sasquatch's foot is more prehensile than ours, and lacks our rigid arch, giving a distinct flexion curve to the tracks. He has noted this and other anatomical consistencies across many Bigfoot tracks, in many parts of the world (including the information-isolated rural China,) and finds it extremely unlikely that so many common folks could have independently made up the same plausible bipedal ape anatomy. He also points out how the Patterson-Gimlin film is consistent with his model of Bigfoot anatomy, and with the proposed skeleton of Gigantopithecus (inferred by various Anthropologists from limited fossil remains.) Meldrum accepts the convention in zoology that for an animal to exist, there must be a type specimen. He argues that there is compelling evidence for the Sasquatch, therefore a search for said ­specimen is a worthwhile endeavor. And he is not alone: the veterinarian Dr. Melba S. Ketchum led a research project to test samples of hair, blood, saliva, etc from Bigfoot encounters, and concluded that some of the samples did belong to a hitherto-unknown species of ape-human hybrid. (Although these claims have not yet been tested by independent researchers.) Obviously, most scientists disagree with Meldrum and Ketchum. But I must admire these researchers for daring to challenge the status quo, with evidence-based arguments.

In a radio discussion among Les Stroud, Jeff Meldrum, and the Bigfoot seeker Todd Standing, the three contemplate: if the large hominid does exist, what implications would it have for conservation of the American wilds? The great apes are our siblings; and the intelligence of a Sasquatch might be comparable to ours. (Granted, the coal companies in West Virginia don't let a legacy of ravaged ecosystems and people with cancer and birth defects interfere with their profit margin; so the discovery of an endangered and intelligent mega-hominid might have little effect on resource extraction.)

In the meantime, tales from the annals of science fiction and science nonfiction have communicated and expressed our closeness to the apes, at a deep level, as only stories can. In the nonfiction realm, Radiolab has produced multiple killer episodes about the hearts and minds of animals—the story of Fu Manchu, an orangutan with a penchant for picking locks, is good one to start with. Then check out "Animal Minds," "Zoos," "Lucy," "Wild Talk, " "the Shy Baboon" and "New Normal?." In science fiction, the Planet of the Apes series (in both its older and newer installments) has been quite effective at making us contemplate the thin line (or perhaps imaginary line) between great ape and human. When the ape-rulers of Earth argue that humans are unthinking brutes because they cannot speak (in the original 1968 film,) it is mostly the same argument that René Descartes ominously made towards animals centuries ago, his flawed logic giving a lasting foundation to western cruelty towards our fellow earthlings. In recent media, Writers of the Future Volume 30 contains a gem: the short story “Animal” by Terry Madden.  In a future earth overpopulated and overrun with humans, a nonstop mega-metropolis, zoologist Mackenzie Guerrero is devoted to the preservation of species, and runs a complex where the last members of extinct animals endure. She must face the closure of her beloved facility, which the government has decided to sell for other developments (and the animals for steaks.) There is little public outcry, since everyone is lost in virtual reality safaris of the mountains and jungles that once were. While the feds claim that the animals will be regrown from frozen embryos at some undetermined time in the future (when birth control measures have returned human populations to pre-2075 levels), Mackenzie has a bolder plan to bring back a great ape--and I won't ruin the surprise. Brilliant speculation, and it truly gives one pause, both a cautionary tale and an uplifting one.

We share the world with thinking, feeling creatures. Not only apes but also elephants and whales and wolves and ravens have shown remarkable emotional bonds and logical problem-solving abilities. If Sasquatch is real, it will be one more to add to this cognitive menagerie. I really hope that we can preserve our furry family, against the forces of population growth, resource extraction, pipelines and oil spills, omnipresent plastic trash, pesticides and herbicides, invasive species, and global climate disruption.