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Bigfoot in Texas? Believers, Skeptics Sound Off at Institute

Richard A. Lovett
for National Geographic News
May 12, 2006
 
In 1994 Craig Woolheater and his wife were driving at night from New Orleans to Dallas, Texas. Somewhere in the swampy woods near Alexandria, Louisiana, he saw something at the side of the road. It was covered with hair, about seven feet tall, and walked on two legs.

"Did you see what I saw?" he asked his wife.

"Yes," she said, and they concluded that while they couldn't prove it, the most likely explanation was that they'd seen the creature once known to the Indians as the wild man or the lost giant.

In other words, he says, they'd seen Bigfoot, or the "Woolly Booger," as he's sometimes called in these parts.

"People think that Bigfoot is a Pacific Northwest phenomenon," said Woolheater, who is now director of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center outside of Dallas. "But there have been sightings in every state of the Union except Hawaii."

"Here in Texas," he added, "We have 22 million acres (9 million hectares) of forestland. In the four-state region [Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana] there are 65 million acres [26,000,000 hectares]. That's equivalent to the entire state of Oregon—not just the forest, but the entire state [much of Oregon is desert]."

"We have hundreds of eyewitness reports, footprint casts, hair samples—just as in the Pacific Northwest," Woolheater said.

(Related news: "Forensic Expert Says Bigfoot Is Real" [2003])

Local Myths

Texas and neighboring states have a long history of sightings.

Local Native American lore is replete with legends of giant, shaggy men. Sightings by white settlers date back to the "Wild Woman of the Navidad," a Bigfoot-like creature reportedly observed in 1837 along the Navidad River near the present-day town of Victoria, Texas.

Other 19th-century reports describe oversize, barefoot footprints and a creature covered in short, brown hair. The beast, it was said, moved quickly enough to elude efforts to lasso it from horseback.

Renewed attention came in 1969, Woolheater says, when sightings of the "Lake Worth Monster" were reported by hundreds of people, including police officers, practically on the fringes of metropolitan Fort Worth (map of Texas).

"Throughout the seventies and eighties, there were a lot of newspaper articles telling of sightings in East Texas," Woolheater added.

Recently Woolheater helped organize "Bigfoot in Texas?"—a museum exhibition at the Institute of Texan Cultures at the University of Texas, San Antonio. The show opened April 7, and runs through July 30.

The Texas Bigfoot exhibition includes a recreation of an East Texas thicket, footprint casts, and a documentary called Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science. During the accompanying lecture series, believers and skeptics alike are addressing such topics as folklore and field evidence.

The institute takes no position on whether the Lone Star Sasquatch exists. But Woolheater and his colleagues managed to impress Willie Mendez, project director for the exhibit.

"I was really skeptical myself," Mendez said, until he met Woolheater's group.

They are "really credible people," Mendez added.

"Why would these people lie? They're not making any money off it, and they know they're going to get ridiculed. But they stand their ground."

(Watch a brief National Geographic Channel video on the Bigfoot mystery.)

"Poor Quality" Evidence

There is no credible evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, says Joe Nickell, senior research fellow for the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, an Amherst, New York-based debunking organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine called Skeptical Inquirer.

"Or to put it another way," he said, "there's really quite a lot of evidence, but unfortunately it's very poor quality."

That's a problem for Bigfoot-believers, Nickell says, because if the creature really does exist, then it must exist in fairly substantial numbers. Otherwise, it would long ago have gone extinct.

"Not a single carcass has been found," he said.

"While we can't prove Bigfoot doesn't exist," he added, "it's fair to point out that we can't prove that the tooth fairy doesn't exist. We can't prove that there are no leprechauns."

The Bigfoot myth, Nickell suggests, is fueled by human hopes and fears. In that manner, he continues, it is similar to other myths.

"We are hopeful that we are not alone in the universe, so we believe in extraterrestrials," he said. "We are fearful of the unknown, so we imagine monsters and sinister aliens.

"I think Bigfoot represents an artifact from a vanishing world. It's tempting to think that some early cousin of ours is still around. Extraterrestrials are futuristic versions of us. Bigfoot is our beastly cousin from the past."

Woolheater, of the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, agreed that there are "a whole lot of questions and not many answers."

"What we're trying to do," he said, "is get some answers and gather hard evidence.

"I think we're dealing with an animal that is fairly rare," Woolheater added.

"Estimates range from 2,000 to maybe 4,000 across the United States. So you're talking about something that is probably a hundred times more rare than a black bear, and certainly a lot more rare than a mountain lion, and those animals aren't seen all that often," Woolheater said.

"I think that, like most animals, when they're sick, dying, or injured, they go off to a secluded place—they don't just drop dead in the middle of the forest."

Meanwhile, the Institute of Texan Cultures is taking a democratic approach.

The final portion of the exhibition gives visitors a chance to vote on whether or not they believe the evidence is credible.

On the first day, Woolheater says, yeas outweighed nays 178 to 53.

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