Monday, February 3, 2014

Black Bears, Bigfoot and the Jacobs Creature

Black bears (Ursus americanus) are the most common bear species in the world. In fact, their population is more than twice that of all the other bear species in the world combined. There are many reasons that the black bear has survived in greater numbers than other bears. One such reason is that they are typically not all that aggressive. Most black bears prefer to run away from conflict or climb a tree to avoid a fight. More aggressive bears, like the grizzly, stand their ground and often pay with their lives because of it. Another reason is that black bears are sort of the coyotes of the bruin world. What I mean by that is they have adapted far better to living in close quarters to humans than other bear species have, much as coyotes have thrived while wolves have declined. They are fantastic and fascinating animals but they are causing some problems in the area of wood ape research. Often black bear spoor is mistaken or passed off as ape sign. While problematic, this pales to the issues raised when a trail camera photographs a bear in an awkward position. The cry of “bigfoot” goes up and no amount of reason seems to ever quiet it.

Allow me to illustrate my point just a bit. A few weeks ago, a photograph captured by a NAWAC game camera was circulated among the members by one of our Board of Directors. Little explanation was given as to the what, where and when behind the photo. Opinions as to what the animal in the photo might be were solicited. The photo that was circulated is below:

As you can see, the image is quite startling and different than what we are used to seeing in most game camera photos. Some members became pretty excited at the possibility that one of our cameras had finally captured an image of a wood ape. Other, more conservative members were not so sure and sought other explanations. The only thing we absolutely knew was that the photo showed a large, upright and hairy creature of some kind. Some members saw more detail in the photo than others. The whole thing was discussed for the better part of two days. The consensus was that the photo, while intriguing, was inconclusive and had little to no evidentiary value.

After the membership had their chance to look at and discuss the photo, the Board member who originally circulated the picture provided the next photo, taken only seconds after the first image, to the membership. The identity of the creature in the photo was now quite clear. Our good friend, Ursus americanus, an American black bear.

The point of the exercise is really pretty obvious. It was a reminder to never jump to conclusions. Think with your head and not your heart. Approach everything with a skeptical eye. Know what wildlife is native to the area. I could go on but you get the idea. The membership did take one more thing from this exercise and that is that black bears can contort themselves into some pretty awkward looking positions. When they do this in front of cameras, the result can be a photograph of an animal that few would look at and think, “bear.” This has, in my opinion, led to at least one super-charged controversy. I’m talking about the “Jacobs photo."

In September of 2007, a Pennsylvania hunter named R. Jacobs placed a Bushnell IR game camera on a game trail in order to get an idea of what sort of deer he might encounter during the upcoming hunting season. I don’t know how many shots of deer Mr. Jacobs captured but I do know he got a few really odd looking photos of what looked like a very lean, and somewhat scraggly-looking, primate of some kind. The photos became an internet sensation and were acclaimed by many as hard evidence that an undocumented primate does roam the forests of Pennsylvania. I will admit to being very intrigued and a bit excited when I first viewed the photos. It is a strange and weird looking creature. The more I looked into the photos, however, the stronger my feelings became that these pictures were nothing more than a black bear in an odd pose.

There are several reasons that I feel the way I do about the Jacobs photo. The first reason I feel it is a bear is that bear photos were taken immediately before the odd images. To be clear and fair, these bear photos were not snapped seconds before the shot of the Jacobs creature. Two bear cubs were photographed about 28 minutes before the odd image was captured. This is just a bit too coincidental to be merely brushed aside, in my opinion. In the NAWAC’s main study area, black bears are common. I’ve observed bears myself on more than one occasion there and their sign is not hard to come by. Additionally, our game cameras have captured hundreds of bear photos over the years. I have never observed bears, or seen fresh sign of them, during periods when what I believe to be wood ape activity was taking place. They seem to sort of fade away into the forest when wood-knocking, odd vocalizations, cabin slapping and the like are taking place. I suppose it is possible that I’m reading too much into that but, in my mind, it seems that bears tend to make themselves scarce when wood apes are in the area. IF that is true then an ape being photographed less than half an hour after multiple bears were captured by the same camera seems unlikely.

Another factor that swayed me a bit toward the Jacobs creature being a bear was the relative small size of it. The BFRO did a pretty good job of doing size comparisons between the creature in question, deer and the bear cubs that were all photographed in the same spot by the same game camera. I have not included those images here (a bit wary of copyright issues) but you can view them here. If you scroll down near the bottom of this page you will see quite clearly that the Jacobs creature is not much larger than the small bear cubs and is not even as high at the shoulder as the pretty average looking whitetail deer doe. I realize that if wood apes are real animals they would breed and, thus, produce young. Too, I realize that those who believe the Jacobs creature to be an ape think that it was a juvenile. Again, the presence of bear cubs of similar size in a photo taken just 28 minutes earlier plays into my belief that the Jacobs creature is likely a yearling black bear.

The biggest factor that convinced me that the Jacobs creature was a young black bear was the very thing that intrigued me in the first place, the strange position of the animal. I must admit that it is an awkward looking pose and it doesn’t take too much imagination to start seeing “primate.” After going through many of the NAWAC bear photos, however, I began to realize that the awkward pose of the Jacobs creature might not be so unusual after all. As you can see from the photos below, these bears have been photographed in strikingly similar poses. Admittedly, I don’t have an exact match where the head of the bear is down and out of site as it is in the Jacobs photo but you can clearly see that the position of the body of these bears is all but identical. Even the back paws of these bears appear abnormally elongated, more like a foot than a paw. Imagine if the head of these bears was hung low and tucked out of site. You would have a virtual dead ringer for the Jacobs creature.

Critics of the black bear hypothesis point to the skinny and, seemingly scraggily, appearance of the creature and to the fact that the bear cubs are noticeably darker in color. True, these factors add to the effect. Some have posited that the Jacobs creature was suffering from mange or some other skin problem, which had caused its irregular appearance. Maybe. Certainly the appearance of the Jacobs creature coincides with what has been an explosion of sightings of mange-ridden animals of all types over the last decade. Bears, foxes, raccoons, coyotes… you name it (This also plays into the huge jump in “chupacabras,” or blue dog sightings, in my opinion). I’m not so sure that the Jacobs creature is mangy at all. Is it possible the reason it is of a different tint than the bear cubs is simply because it is a different color? “Black bear” is really a misnomer. While American black bears are predominantly black, reddish-cinnamon, brown and even blonde bears are not uncommon. Maybe this bear is not black at all. Surely, that would make for a different appearance than that of the obviously jet black cubs photographed earlier.

Other critics of the bear theory point to the lean appearance of the creature. A bear would be fatter. Certainly, the cubs photographed 28 minutes before the odd creature were healthier looking animals, much more like the stereotypical picture of a bear we are used to seeing. I think it very possible that this is a sibling of those fat cubs but one from the previous year's litter. A yearling bear is a lot like a preteen human. They are often thin and gangly and have yet to begin “filling out.” Bears do go through a large part of the year where they are relatively thin. They typically don’t get that stereotypical chubby look until they are almost ready to begin hibernating. Would a yearling bear still be hanging around its mother and younger siblings? Maybe. Bear cubs are totally dependent on their mother’s milk for the first 30 weeks of their lives but there is more of a range when it comes to the age when they reach full independence. Typically, black bear cubs leave their mother between the ages of 16-18 months but sometimes linger up until they are 24 months old. IF this is a yearling bear it is very possible that it is simply the “big brother” to the younger cubs photographed a bit earlier that is still not quite ready to leave mom.

I realize this has been a hotly debated topic among researchers. Some have expressed open hostility to anyone that questions the “fact” that the Jacobs creature is a juvenile wood ape. I may be stirring up a bit of a hornet’s nest by bringing it up again here but that is ok. I’ve always been a bit of an outsider when it comes to the bigfoot community anyway. Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not trying to provoke anyone or stir up trouble. I also want to stress that I do not feel the Jacobs photo is a hoax; rather, I feel it is a misidentification. Simply, I’m expressing my opinion on what has become a very well known incident in the wood ape world. My belief that the wood ape is a real flesh and blood animal is not dependent upon the Jacobs photo, or any other photograph for that matter. What I know and what I’ve seen doesn’t tumble like a house of cards if the Jacobs creature is just a black bear. I’m not sure that is true for a lot of others out there.

Regardless of my opinions, the debate over the Jacobs creature and exactly what it was will continue to rage. It strengthens my belief that no photograph or video footage will ever be enough to prove the existence of the wood ape to mainstream science. Like it or not, we are going to need more.


  1. I have no clue why this is still "hotly debated". The old addage - when you hear hoofbeats, think horse, not zebra - applies. You have to consider the obvious, not employ fantastic explanations. For more on the Jacobs photograph and the copyright nonsense, there is a Monster Talk episode I think you would enjoy.

  2. Great article, Mike! Hope I ain't stirrin' it up, but I agree; I'm pretty-dang sure Mr. Jacob's pic was just a black bear. And as far as "copyright nonsense" goes, you handled it appropriately my friend ...

  3. Needless to say, I disagree completely with Blake Smith's conclusion that the subject is an adult female black bear with mange. As the comparison images illustrate, the simplest explanation is that the image simply shows a juvenile black bear.

    Alton Higgins

  4. Great article. The biggest giveaway on the Jacobs photos is the tail!

  5. Here's a link to the 2008 article about the Jacobs photos.