Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coyote Captured in New York City

A coyote was captured in a parking garage in New York City this week. It seems this particular coyote had managed to elude New York City Police for two days after first being sighted near the Holland Tunnel. Officials managed to chase the coyote into an open-air garage in Tribeca. Officers then tranquilized the coyote and carried it off to the local A.S.P.C.A. where it will be observed before, eventually, being released in a more rural location. You can read the story and watch a video documenting the capture at the website of the Huffington Post here.

According to the article, this is the fourth coyote sighted in Manhattan this year. Seeing as we are only three months into 2010, four sightings is a significant number. The whole episode is very reminiscent of the story that came out of Houston, Texas earlier this month that documented the capture of a bobcat in the downtown area. The bobcat was also tranquilized and captured in a parking garage.

This story gives me one more reason to stay out of those parking garages. I've spent some lonesome nights in the woods, swamps, and mountains from Texas to Washington. None of them have given me the creeps like those multi-level parking garages do at night. But I digress...

I take two things from this story. If coyotes are living in New York City then they are going to be able to live in any major metropolitan area. As stated here before, I continue to believe that other predators, including big cats like cougars and bobcats, are adapting to life in urban areas as well.

If I'm correct, and this trend continues, animal control officers in cities around the country are going to become known as more than just dog catchers.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sasquatch Classics: The Tale of Muchalat Harry

There are many tales of encounters with the sasquatch that have become almost mythic. These are the tales that I would refer to as the "classics." Many of these stories have been told and retold often through the years and appear in almost all books dealing with the subject of bigfoot. Other stories are less well known to the general public but are discussed often among those who seek these creatures. Some of the stories ring true and others I have serious doubts about. The stories of people who were allegedly abducted by a sasquatch and held against their will occupy a unique place in bigfoot lore. While there are not many reports of abductions there may be more than most modern researchers care to discuss. Foremost, among such reports is the strange tale of Albert Ostman. A lesser-known account of an attempted abduction involved a man named Bill Cole. The story I would like to discuss today is not as well known as the Ostman tale but probably better known than the Cole account. This is the story of Muchalat Harry.

The tale of Muchalat Harry was documented very well by one of the "Four Horsemen" of sasquatch research, Peter Byrne. Below is the story of Muchalat Harry in Byrne's own words:

According to the Indians, there was once a large number of Bigfoot living on Vancouver Island, a large island, 12,408 square miles in area, off the west coast of British Columbia. The Indians knew about them, feared them, and respected them, but granted that they were harmless. One of the Indians of the Nootka Tribe, who lived at Nootka in 1928, claims to have been carried off by them and held captive for some time.
The story, told to me by Father Anthony Terhaar of Mt. Angel Abbey in Oregon, is a curious one. Father Anthony, a much-loved missionary priest who traveled the west coast of Vancouver Island for many years, was living at Nootka at the time of the story and he knew Muchalat Harry very well. Muchalat Harry was a trapper and something of a rarity among his fellow tribesmen. He was, according to Father Anthony, a tough, fearless man, of excellent physique.

In the course of his trapping; he was wont to spend long weeks in the forest alone, something that the average Indian did not do in those days, The Indians of the coast were apparently a rather timid people and they seemed to regard the deep forest as the home and territory of the Bigfoot. When they went into the deep inland forest for any reason, they never went alone. Muchalat Harry was different from other Indians. He went in the forest alone and feared nothing.

Late one autumn Muchalat Harry set off for the woods, with his traps and camping gear. His plan was to set out a trap line and stay in the woods for several months. He headed for his favorite hunting area, the Conuma River, at the head of Tlupana Inlet. From Nootka he paddled his own canoe to the mouth of the Conuma. There he cached the canoe and headed upstream on foot. Approximately twelve miles upstream he made his base camp and, after building himself a lean-to, started to put out his trap line.

One night, while wrapped in his blankets and clad only in his underwear, he was suddenly picked up by a huge male Bigfoot and carried off into the hills. He was not carried very far, probably a distance of about two or three miles, at the most. When daylight came he was able to see that he was in a sort of camp, under a high rock shelf and surrounded by some twenty Bigfoot They were of all sexes and sizes. For some time, they stood around him and stared at him. The males to the front of the curious group females behind them and young ones to the rear. Muchalat Harry was frightened at first and his fear grew to terror when he noticed, he said, the large number of bones lying around the campsite. When he saw these he was convinced that the Bigfeet were going to eat him.

The Bigfeet did not harm him in any way. Occasionally one came forward and touched him, as if feeling him, and when they discovered that his "skin" was loose — it was in fact his woolen underwear — several came forward and pulled at it gently.
While they looked at him and examined him, Muchalat Harry sat with his back to the rock wall and did not move. He was cold and hungry, but his thoughts were only on escape. Some time in the late afternoon, curiosity on the part of the Bigfeet seemed to slacken and with most of the Bigfeet out of camp, probably food-gathering he thought, there came the opportunity that he needed. He leapt to his feet and ran for his life, never looking back. He ran downhill, toward where he guessed the river to be and sure enough, he soon came to his campsite. In what must have been blind panic he bypassed his camp and ran for twelve miles to where his canoe was cached at the mouth of the Conuma.

Father Anthony describes the story of Muchalat Harry’s arrival at Nootka as follows. It was probably three in the morning. He and his brother Benedictines were asleep and the village was quiet. Suddenly there was a series of wild cries from the waters of the inlet. Lights were lit and he and others hurried down to the water's edge. There, near-frozen and exhausted in his canoe, lay Muchalat Harry. He was barefoot and clad only in his wet and torn underwear and he had paddled his canoe through the winter night 45 miles from the mouth of the Conuma River.

Father Anthony and his companions carried the almost lifeless form up from the water's edge. It took three weeks to nurse Muchalat Harry back to sanity and good health. Father Anthony, who took him into his own care, did the nursing and he told me [Peter Byrne] that during the course of these three weeks, Muchalat Harry's hair turned to pure white.

The story of the kidnapping came out slowly. At first Muchalat Harry would talk to no one. Then he told Father Anthony what had happened and, later, others. When he was fully recovered to health he was asked when he planned to go back to collect his belongings, the camp equipment, his pots and pans, his trap line and above all, his rifle, at the lean-to on the Conuma. In 1928 a trap line and all of its pieces must have been worth a great deal to an island Indian. A rifle alone would be regarded as a highly prized possession. But Muchalat Harry never went back to the Conuma. Not only did he never return there; according to Father Anthony, he never left the settlement at Nootka, never went in the woods again for the rest of his life. He preferred to lose all of his valuables and probably hard-won possessions rather than risk another encounter with the Bigfeet.

Late in 1972 I had occasion to visit Vancouver Island. I was on a routine investigating trip and when I found myself at Nainimo, not too far by road from the west coast and the scene of Muchalat Harry's adventure, I drove there. I stopped in Gold River and obtained from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police some maps and instructions on how to get to the Conuma River area. Nowadays there is a logging road that runs all the way down to the mouth of the river, and one Sunday morning, with the logging trucks out of the way, I drove there and made camp on the Conuma. I spent several days there, walking the riverbed and exploring. I tried to make a rough determination of where Muchalat Harry might have had his lean-to and I found a place that offered a good campsite, twelve miles from the mouth of the river on the edge of a series of high bluffs. The salmon were running in the Conuma while I was there and all night long I could hear them splashing up the shallow waters of the river. In the morning black bear worked the river, getting the salmon that had come ashore in the night or had become tangled in the limbs of fallen trees that lay in the river. I counted six bears in several days.

The country was generally wild and deserted and the actual mouth of the Conuma, where it flowed into the salt waters of the inlet, was one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen. Some of the forest close to the river had been logged off, but the logging work had moved on west and while I was there it was quiet.
The days began with morning mists on the river and then warmed to the clear crispness of perfect autumn weather. Evenings were cool and damp and nights bright with starlight that provided almost enough light to read. I found no sign of Bigfoot on the Conuma, nor any sign of Muchalat Harry's trap line or lean-to. I hardly expected to find anything of the latter, after forty-odd years. But even though Muchalat Harry was long gone, the river and the forest remained unchanged, The splashing salmon, the cold, clear water of the Conuma, the moss-covered banks, the shallow pools in the forest that the Conuma drained, that were the breeding places of the salmon, the river birds, the plodding bears, the deep silent waters of the inlet, all were as they must have been forty years before, when Muchalat Harry cached his canoe and made his camp there.

The story of Muchalat Harry is not discussed much these days. Loren Coleman, in his book Bigfoot! The True Story of Apes in America, theorizes this may be due to two factors. First, the number of sasquatches reported by Harry, an amazing twenty of different genders, sizes, and ages, makes the account just too much for many to swallow. Second, the native origins of the story may have caused it to be mostly ignored in the years immediately after the incident allegedly occurred. Certainly, it is possible these factors were, and maybe still are, at play. My theory on why the story is not well known is simpler. It is due to what I call the "Silver Medal" factor. Allow me to explain. Typically, people do not remember who finished second in an athletic contest. You can probably recall the gold medal heroics of Olympians like Muhammad Ali, Jesse Owens, Mark Spitz, and Carl Lewis. More recently you may have watched Michael Phelps, Lindsey Vonn, and Shaun White win gold medals. Can anyone out there remember the names of the silver medalists? Probably not. It may be that Muchalat Harry's abduction tale has simply been deemed to be the second most interesting sasquatch abduction story behind Albert Ostman's account. In other words, Muchalat Harry gets the "silver medal" and, therefore, less attention.

I find the story fascinating. It is, of course, impossible for me to know if Harry was telling the truth about what happened to him in the wilderness near the Conuma River in the Autumn of 1928. What is not up for debate is that whatever happened changed Muchalat Harry forever. By all accounts, Harry was a fearless man who would spend weeks to months at a time in the forest alone. This, as was pointed out by Byrne, is in stark contrast to his fellow tribesmen at the time. If the missionary, Father Anthony Terhaar, is to be believed, Muchalat Harry's hair turned stark white over a period of only a few weeks and he never again entered the forest. Harry did not even go back to retrieve his rifle, trap line, and other possessions. The equipment Muchalat Harry left behind would have been worth quite a bit to an island Indian. The decision to leave it all in the woods indicates there was real fear in Harry.

There seems to be little doubt that the main players in the drama were real people. Father Anthony Terhaar was interviewed directly by Peter Byrne. Byrne seemed to have no doubt that Muchalat Harry had been a real person. While Harry was never interviewed by Byrne, his tale was well known among his fellow tribesmen who heard the story directly from his lips. Even had this not been the case it would seem Father Anthony Terhaar would have no reason to make up such a tale. Everything I've read about the good Father has been positive. He was respected and well thought of by those that knew him. Certainly, there was no financial incentive to share the story.

I believe something truly terrifying happened to the Nootka tribesman called Muchalat Harry. Whether the events played out exactly as described to Peter Byrne by Father Anthony Terhaar is something each person will have to decide for themselves. Many have a problem with the almost super human effort Muchalat Harry allegedly exerted to get away from the band of sasquatches. If the story is to be believed, he sprinted from two to three miles to the river near his camp site, then ran approximately twelve miles to the mouth of the river where he had cached his canoe, and then paddled forty-five miles back to his village. This is something a normal human could not have done according to many. I'm not so sure. Modern athletes today compete in "Iron Man" triathlons where they swim five miles or more, ride a bike for 100 miles, and then run a full twenty-six mile marathon. If this is within the realm of human ability then Muchalat Harry's escape seems possible. Byrne himself wrote that Harry was an exceptional physical specimen. When you add the fact that the man felt he was literally running for his life it seems more plausible. Fear and adrenaline are a powerful combination. It is no wonder it took three weeks of bed rest for Harry to recover from his ordeal.

Why a sasquatch would kidnap a human is another question all together. Was Muchalat Harry right? Did the sasquatches intend to make a meal of him? It seems unlikely. If that had been the intent why wouldn't the sasquatches have dispatched him once he was brought to their "camp?" Why would the males and most of the mature females leave him unattended if he were considered prey? Nourishment and calories are too precious in the wild to be treated so carelessly. Was Muchalat Harry merely a curiosity? Something along the lines of a sasquatch show and tell item? One can only speculate.

In any case, the tale of Muchalat Harry is, in my opinion, truly one of the sasquatch "classics." It is a story that is hard to believe in the light of day. Like many such tales, however, it gets a lot easier to believe when out in the woods alone at that certain time after the campfire has died out and dawn is still hours away.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Federal Protection Sought for Neches River

A group of East Texas conservationists headed by author, and lifetime Texas resident, Richard Donovan is seeking to preserve the 415-mile Neches River by having it designated as a "National Wild and Scenic River."

If the designation is achieved, the Neches would remain free from impoundments, most shoreline development, and channelization. Neither would water be allowed to be pumped out of the river. In addition, most of the river would remain inaccessible except by hiking trail. To receive the designation as a "National Wild and Scenic River" a bill would first have to be introduced in the U.S. congress by a Senator or Representative whose district touches the river.

If the Neches is designated as a "National Wild and Scenic River" precious bottomland would be preserved. The Neches River bottoms are rich with animal and plant life. Species such as bobcat, fox, white-tailed deer, raccoon, otter, and many species of birds call these areas home. The bottoms are some of the last truly unspoiled areas left in Texas and may yet hold other surprises when it comes to what roams there. To lose the bottoms to one or more reservoirs would truly be a shame. Currently, only one other Texas river is designated as a "National Wild and Scenic River." That river would be the Rio Grande which received the designation on a 191.2 mile stretch in 1978.

You can read an article on these developments on the Lufkin Daily News site here.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Big Thicket Gets A Little Bigger

There is some very good news coming out of Southeast Texas. The National Parks Service has purchased 3,600 acres of land along Village Creek, which winds through Hardin and Polk Counties, from the Hancock Forest Management Company. The land will become part of the Big Thicket National Preserve.

The Big Thicket is one of the most biologically diverse areas in the world. The area contains a vast number of wildlife and plant species. The Big Thicket is made up of several units, not contiguous, that are all unique in their make-up. This wilderness area is made up of river corridors, wetlands, forests, open plains, pine savannas, and dry sandhills.

You can read the whole story on the Big Thicket Association's website here.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Wolf Attacks on Humans on the Increase

A story posted March 11 on the website of the Anchorage Daily News caught my eye recently. The article details a fatal wolf attack on a human being that took place in Alaska. I also located an article in the November 24, 2008 issue of Sports Illustrated that documents the tragic death of Kenton Carnegie in Saskatchwan as the result of an attack by wolves. These incidents occurred a long way from my home in Texas. However, the stories touch on some themes I have written about here a couple of times in regards to the increasingly aggressive behavior of coyotes and the nearly monthly sightings of big cats in suburban settings so I thought I would post something about it.

According the Anchorage Daily News article, written by James Halpin, a 32 year-old teacher named Candice Berner was killed by an animal, or animals, in the Alaskan community of Chignik Lake while out jogging on an isolated stretch of road. The official cause of death has yet to be confirmed by officials but the local villagers seem to have little doubt the woman was killed by a pack of unusually bold wolves.
Apparently, the pack had been lingering near the outskirts of town for several days. Villagers, already on edge due to the boldness of the pack, are now truly concerned about their safety after the attack. Chignik Lake resident, and a member of the Chignik Advisory Committee to the Board of Game, Johnny Lind said there was little doubt that the wolves in the area are becoming bolder. He said, "They've been having sightings nearby but not this close. They're right in town looking for food." The Anchorage Daily News article can be accessed here.

The Sports Illustrated article tells the tale of how young Kenton Carnegie met his demise while out on a walk in Points North Landing which lies about 750 miles north of the U.S. border. According to the article, written by Matthew Teague, Carnegie was out for a walk in an area where two men had been accosted by a pair of wolves only a day or so before. He was viciously attacked by at least two wolves and died only 600 yards from the safety of his camp. You can read the Sports Illustrated article here.

For decades I have heard that there has never been a documented case of a fatal wolf attack on a human. That has changed quite a bit over the last couple of years, I'm afraid. No longer can wolves be considered harmless to humans. Like all predators, wolves are opportunistic and will take advantage of an easy meal when it is offered them. Unfortunately, a lone human running or walking alone in the middle of a long winter, when food can be tough to come by, fits the bill of an easy meal. Grey wolves, also called timber wolves, are huge powerful animals. A human, even a big male, would be absolutely no match for a pack of these animals. People who live in known wolf habitat need to start taking precautions.

The real question is why, after two hundred plus years without any documented wolf attacks on humans, are we seeing them now? Are wolves getting more aggressive? There is likely no single answer to the question. However, I have definite opinions on why wolves suddenly seem to be seeing humans as prey.

The explosion of the deer population in this country has, in my opinion, played a huge part in all of this. There are several reasons for the increase in deer numbers. As pointed out in the Sports Illustrated article, the popularity of hunting seems to be on the decline. As our society becomes more and more urban, fewer and fewer go hunting. It is expensive, and, in many places, if you are not a landowner, difficult to find a place to hunt. It also seems that the more urban society gets the more hunting is seen by the masses as barbaric and inhumane. I can't tell you how often I have heard things along the lines of, "How can you shoot Bambi?" There are other things I could mention but the bottom line is that there are more deer in the U.S. than ever. Where there is an abundance of deer there will be predators.

An over abundance of deer would not, on the surface, seem to be a reason that people are coming into contact with aggressive predators like wolves. I believe it is a factor for a couple of reasons. In many areas there are too many deer and the habitat cannot support them. The deer, therefore, come into towns and communities to find food. Not only do the deer feed on flower and vegetable gardens but, often, are fed corn directly by residents. While hunting would be banned inside city limits or community boundaries, predators would have no qualms about following deer into these areas. I believe this is one reason apex predators like cougars, bobcats, coyotes, bears, and wolves are being seen more and more often in urban locales. Add to the mix the abundance of rodents, stray pets, abandoned buildings, and green belts often found in major cities and it isn't too hard to see that an urban environment might be more hospitable for a predator than it seems at first glance. Predators in urban environments would invariably come into contact with humans.

You may be thinking, "Fine," but the incidents described in the two articles mentioned previously did not take place in urban areas. True. However, I feel these two incidents are still tied to the explosion in the population of the prey animals we have seen in this country. It is a simple equation. More prey equals more predators. The fact that fewer hunters are out there taking shots at these predators means they are less afraid of people. Without their guns, humans are just slow-footed helpless targets for a major predator. The fact that the first thing a human that encounters a predator usually does is run only makes things worse. Running will trigger a predator's chase instincts. This can only lead to disaster. The fact that Candice Berner was jogging when she was attacked is probably not a coincidence.

So, are wolves getting more aggressive? Overall, probably not. They are just doing what wolves do. There are just more of them. Yellowstone's wolf population has increased from 50 to 1,500 over the last decade. Minnesota's wolf population has jumped from 500 to over 3,000 since the 1950s. More wolves mean more encounters. Have wolves lost their fear of humans? In some cases, the answer seems to be yes. Federal protection and fewer hunters have made wolves less fearful of people. I believe wolves, like big cats and coyotes, may be adapting to live near, and possibly, within urban areas. As urban sprawl encroaches into their territory, predators have to leave or adapt. Some seem to be adapting nicely.

It is thought that wolves have been extirpated from Texas. It is also true that the red wolf, not the larger grey wolf, was the dominant canine in the Lone Star State when packs did roam here. That doesn't mean, however, that we should not learn the lessons of the wolf attacks discussed above. The same factors that are bringing an increase in wolf numbers are present in Texas, to a lesser degree, as well. Wolves may not be the predator that takes advantage of these more favorable conditions but coyotes and/or big cats just might.

So, keep your eyes open out there. The use of caution and common sense will go a long way toward keeping everyone safe.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Catching Up

I have just returned from my spring break trip to New Mexico. My family and I stayed for a couple of nights in a cabin in the Lincoln National Forest and a couple of more nights at a cabin belonging to my wife's Aunt in Alto. With the exception of one event, we all had a great time.

The area received a heavy snowfall the first couple of nights we were there. This really made for some beautiful scenery up in the mountains. I had never before spent any time in New Mexico and was struck by just how pretty it was in the higher elevations. I'm a flatlander, born and raised, so mountains have always impressed me greatly.

I spent a large portion of my time traipsing about the forest north of Ruidoso at elevations ranging from 7,500-8,000 feet. The heavy snow made for perfect conditions to look for animal tracks. I found plenty. The area is crawling with white tail deer (more on that later) and their sign was everywhere. I also saw elk tracks, turkey tracks, and some large tracks of unknown origin (they appeared to have melted, refrozen, and then filled with new snow making them interesting but, to me at least, indecipherable). I set my new game camera up in a draw that seemed like it would be a natural funnel for wildlife coming down from the higher elevations to seek food and

water (there was a large lake below the draw). I left it out for two nights but it captured nothing. Judging by the absence of tracks in the new fallen snow I am guessing it was because nothing wandered by rather than some sort of issue with the

camera. I did put the camera up outside the family cabin the last two nights and only captured one shot of a white tailed deer. This would be fine but there were deer wandering around the property constantly. Snow did totally cover the lens and sensors one night. Still, I would have thought that more pictures would have been taken in this area. So, it remains to be seen just how good this camera will turn out to be.

The one negative, and it was a big one, was that I hit a very large doe with my truck coming down the mountain my second night there. This was a thick and heavy girl that I estimate would have tipped the scales at about 140 pounds. Totally destroyed my grill, bent my hood, dented my bumper and fender, and knocked out a fog lamp. While it was quite a mess, the damage turned out to be almost totally cosmetic. The truck remained road worthy and I was able to get back to the cabin that night and, later, home to Texas. Hopefully, repairs won't take too long and I'll be back abusing it on the back roads of the Lone Star State very soon.

As I mentioned, I am not too sure about my newest game camera. I decided, before I go to too much trouble placing it in some remote location, that I would put it out in an area near my home to see if it works well. The spot I chose is the first spot in which I had originally placed a camera. As you will recall, if you've been reading this blog very long, this is the spot where a local woman claimed to have seen a large cat cross the road about a year ago. I will leave it out 2-4 weeks and see what I manage to capture. The area where the camera was placed has actually produced a lot of photos. I've captured photos of skunks, a fox, a coyote, and many deer in this spot. I may not get the cat photo I'm after but, if history is any guide, there should be a lot of wildlife in the area and I should be able to make a judgment on how effective a camera I have.

I am hopeful that by the end of next week I will have my hands on two used Cuddeback cameras. These two cameras have been used in the TBRC's Operation Forest Vigil camera project for several years. The group is updating with newer cameras and I am getting these for a very good price. Even though they are a couple of years old, they will be a significant upgrade to any of the cameras I have used over the last couple of years. The addition of the Cuddebacks will also give me a total of three game cameras. This will allow me to start my big cat camera project again.

Well, that pretty much covers what I've been up to for the last week or so. More soon.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Spring Break

There likely won't be any new posts for a week or so as I am making a trip to the mountains of New Mexico with my family for spring break.

I am working on several articles and should have plenty of down time to get at least some of them completed. However, I am unsure of what sort of internet connectivity I will have.

I am planning on taking a game camera to place in the woods near the cabin where we will be staying. Who knows what might turn up?

My best...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cougar Sightings and Sign Near Ben Wheeler, Texas

It seems another cougar may be stalking the woods in East Texas. A report posted on the website of Tyler based television station KLTV details the experiences of farmer Chuck Arena. You can access the story here on the KLTV website. The community of Ben Wheeler is located in Van Zandt County approximately 60 miles southeast of Dallas.

It seems that Texas Parks & Wildlife officials are begrudgingly beginning to admit to the presence of a wild population of cougars in East Texas. Game Warden Chris Green is quoted in the piece as saying, "I think we're seeing more and more...We didn't use to hear about so many sightings of these big cats but we have in the last five years."

One thing I did find interesting was the matter of fact tone Mr. Arenas and his neighbor seemed to take when discussing the sightings of cougars in the area. Folks living in the rural portions of East Texas will tell you that the big cats have always been there. Most sightings are not reported because the people in these areas don't think of them as anything too unusual.

Also of interest in the article was the fact the reporter, Courtney Lane, tossed in a tongue-in-cheek reference to bigfoot. Lane wrote, "At least Arena doesn't have a bigfoot on his hands." How the subject of bigfoot was raised with Mr. Arena is not clear. All that is printed is his response, "Bigfoot is up by Caddo Lake...that is where they've sighted those." I thought the inclusion of that statement was an obvious jab at bigfoot reports in East Texas. I felt it also, and this may have been unintentional, served to cast doubt on the cougar sighting being investigated. Again, how the subject was actually broached with Mr. Arena is not clear. I suspect he did not appreciate it but that is only speculation. Interestingly, his reply hints that the possibility of the sasquatch being a real animal isn't so far-fetched in his mind. His answer simply mentions that bigfoot is usually spotted farther to the north and east than his place.

For a short article there was quite a bit of information I found intriguing.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Do Wild Gorillas Eat Meat? : Addendum

As I looked back on my previous post on the possibility of wild gorillas eating meat I realized that I sounded unduly harsh in regards to Grit Schubert, the co-author of the study in question.

From what I've been able to learn about Schubert she is a fine and extremely dedicated scientist. After years studying wild gorillas and never finding any evidence that they, even occasionally, ingested other vertebrates it is understandable that she stated, " I don't think they are eating meat."

My argument is basically, the simplest answer is usually the right one. If animal DNA is found in another animal's scat it usually means the dropping belong to an omnivore/carnivore. The suggestion of the vertebrate DNA being an artifact seemed, to me, to be a more unlikely scenario. However, I contradicted myself a bit by admitting the evidence of gorillas actually eating meat was thin.

So, I apologize for my use of the term "unscientific" in regards to Grit Schubert's conclusion on the matter. Her opinion is based on what she has observed over many years. To change her mind completely based on one anomalous scat sample would be "unscientific". I was trying, very poorly as it turns out, to express my view that this sample should not be summarily dismissed simply because carnivorous/scavenging behavior has not yet been observed in gorillas. There was a time, after all, not too long ago, when chimps and bonobos were thought to be strictly herbivorous as well.

I still feel that based on this sample, and the fact that other great apes do eat meat and fish, the possibility that gorillas, at least occasionally, eat meat is a real one. I don't think that possibility should simply be dismissed. However, concrete proof has yet to be found.

So, while it remains a matter of conjecture whether or not gorillas are sometimes omnivorous one thing is for sure. The old Texas Cryptid Hunter does, at least occasionally, dine on crow.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Do Wild Gorillas Eat Meat?

A new study conducted by The Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, suggests that gorillas, long thought to be herbivorous only, may supplement their diet with meat. The article is on the National Geographic website and can be accessed here. I will do my best to summarize it below.

While some captive gorillas have been conditioned to eat meat there has never before been any evidence to suggest that wild gorillas engage in carnivorous behavior. Gorillas have only been known to eat plants, fruit, and insects. No hunting or scavenging behaviors have ever been observed. That remains true. However, this recent study discovered DNA from monkeys and duikers (forest antelope) in the feces of wild African mountain gorillas living in the Loango National Park in Gabon. This discovery strongly suggests that wild gorillas may, at least occasionally, supplement their diet with meat. Whether the gorillas are actively hunting or opportunistically scavenging carcasses is not known. In fact, according to one key participant in the study, neither of these things may actually be occurring at all.

Grit Schubert, co-author of the study, suggests a far more mundane explanation for the presence of the monkey and antelope DNA in gorilla scat. He suggests the possibility that the gorillas ate insects that had been feeding on the carcasses of dead animals. This, Schubert theorizes, could account for the presence of animal DNA in the gorilla's droppings. He points out that if gorillas ingest an insect, like an ant, that has been scavenging a carcass they are ingesting and then expelling the mammal DNA present in the insect's digestive tract. This mammal DNA could show up in the gorilla's feces even though it was indirectly ingested. Schubert also suggested the possibility that the DNA could have been left by live animals that probed the gorilla droppings for edible seeds or undigested bits of plants. "Other mammals might have licked it, sniffed it, or peed on it," he said. "There are plenty of opportunities for adding mammal DNA to gorilla scat after the fact," he added. " I don't think they are eating meat."

Great apes that eat meat are not unheard of by any means, however. It has been clearly documented that chimpanzees and bonobos eat meat. They actually have been observed stalking and hunting several types of mammals including, but not limited to, monkeys and wild hogs. Orangutans have been observed fishing. That being the case, I would not be surprised at all to find that gorillas, when the opportunity presents itself, occasionally eat other animals. The idea that herbivores are incapable of digesting meat is completely wrong. In the article, geneticist, and co-author of the study, Michael Hofrieter, also of the Max Planck Institute , correctly points out, "Most herbivores can digest meat quite well." He added, "It just doesn't work the other way around."

I agree with Grit Schubert's evaluation of the evidence to a point. I think the evidence that gorillas are eating other animals is too thin to draw a definitive conclusion at this time. However, I also feel Schubert is prematurely dismissing the possibility that wild gorillas may eat meat from time to time. After all, the entire scientific method is based on the premise that you develop a hypothesis and then test that hypothesis by observing the evidence. In this case, the body of evidence is too small to make a valid conclusion, but it seems to suggest gorillas do, indeed, devour meat from time to time. Schubert's protestations to the contrary seem to fly in the face of where the evidence is leading. Knowing what we do about the other great apes, is it so difficult to at least entertain the possibility that wild gorillas can be omnivorous? Future evidence may prove Schubert's statement to be correct but I think it decidedly unscientific to dismiss what the evidence, to this point, shows. I sense something familiar here; a pre-existing bias.

Mainstream science has long denied there is even the possibility that the sasquatch exists. Often, scientists would refuse to even look at evidence that had been collected. Why? Because they felt such a creature was an impossibility. No matter how intriguing the evidence might be it had to be invalid. After all, if the animal cannot exist it cannot leave trace evidence. Thus, all evidence must be hoaxed. This is about as unscientific as it gets. I may be reading too much into Schubert's comment but, like I said, it sounded painfully familiar.

If it turns out that wild gorillas are omnivorous it would remove one more piece of ammunition from those who have scoffed at reports of sasquatches being observed hunting or carrying deer, hogs, goats, etc. It was thought for years that the great apes didn't hunt and eat other animals. So, claims to the contrary were considered to be ridiculous. The years have opened our eyes, however, to what is really going on. As stated earlier, bonobos and chimpanzees actively hunt other mammals on a regular basis. Now we have evidence suggesting gorillas may do the same thing.

Those who doubt the existence of the sasquatch often make some valid arguments as to why they feel the way they do. It seems, however, that the argument "great apes are strictly herbivores and do not hunt" can no longer be considered one of them.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

National Geographic Special on Bigfoot Airs Tonight

Just a reminder that the National Geographic special on Bigfoot will air again tonight. Check you local listings for the time.

This is one of the few specials that is actually worth watching. DVR it if you can't be home to see it. It is worth the effort.

My best...

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Bobcat Captured in Downtown Houston

A story in yesterday's Houston Chronicle by Mike Glenn documents the capture of a bobcat in downtown Houston by animal control officials. The article can be accessed here. Video of the bobcat's capture from local television station KHOU can be viewed here.

To summarize, several people reported seeing a large cat in a parking garage located at 511 Rusk near the Bob Casey Federal Building. Officials were skeptical initially but responded to the calls anyway. "We thought it was going to be a house cat," said Chris Glaser, a supervisor with Houston's Bureau of Animal Regulation and Care.

To his great surprise, Glaser found a bobcat hiding under a car. The cat wasn't too keen on being captured but was subdued fairly quickly with the help of two tranquilizer darts. Glaser theorized that the bobcat might have come into the garage to sleep overnight.

After the bobcat was sufficiently tranquilized, Glaser examined the animal and found it to be a very healthy male weighing in at 25-30 pounds with a length of approximately 3 feet. Glaser said the bobcat had "good muscle tone," and "seemed in fine condition." After a thorough medical examination by BARC officials, the bobcat was loaded onto a truck and transported to Brazos Bend State Park where it was released. Brazos Bend State Park is located approximately 30 miles southwest of Houston proper.

The capture of a wild big cat in downtown Houston would seem to lend credence to the theory I've put forth on this site numerous times that these predators have adapted to living in close proximity to humans. Sightings of large cats continue to come in from surprisingly urban locations. Most large Texas cities do have at least one large water source and/or major river winding thru them. Dallas has the Trinity River, for example. Buffalo Bayou runs thru Houston, and is very close to the site where this bobcat was captured, and also has many other marshy areas and large creeks within its city limits. It is well accepted that rivers, bayous, creeks, etc. are used by wildlife as travel routes. These areas also feature extensive green belts that would not make hiding too difficult. Often, there are depressed areas within large cities with a large number of abandoned buildings. These building would, likewise, would be good places for a large cat to lay low as human traffic would be minimal.

I truly feel that big cats like bobcats and cougars are making the same adjustment that coyotes have made so successfully. That is, they have adapted to living in urban areas. These cities harbor large numbers of rats, feral cats, wild dogs, and pets that would make for an adequate prey base, at least temporarily, for a large cat. I firmly believe that at least some large cats have become quite comfortable in these areas and have taken up permanent residence.

One of my greatest fears is that a human will be attacked by one of these large predators. Likely, suburbia is quite safe. I think a far likelier attack scenario would be a poor homeless person who chooses the wrong wooded area to lie down in or the wrong abandoned building in which to seek shelter. Police department personnel, animal control officials, and the Texas Parks & Wildlife might seriously consider implementing some sort of effort to educate the homeless to the potential dangers of big cats in these urban areas and stress the importance of reporting sightings. Maybe a tragedy could be averted by taking such preventative action. This, however, would be a difficult undertaking and is unlikely to occur.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Rudimentary Language In Orangutans?

I've recently come across an article on the BBC News website that I found interesting. The article, written by Griet Scheldeman in August of 2009, details how wild orangutans in Borneo hold leaves to their mouths as they growl, scream, and/or vocalize in order to artificially deepen the sound of their voices. You can view the article here.

According to the article, the orangutans use this "leaf trick" when they feel threatened by a predator. It has been discovered the closer the orangutan holds the leaves to their mouths while vocalizing, the lower the frequency of the sounds they produce become. The deeper vocalizations are meant to fool potential predators into thinking a much larger animal is present and making the calls. The behavior was observed among orangutans when predators like snakes, clouded leopards, tigers, and in some cases, humans were in their immediate vicinity. The behavior was documented by an international team of researchers headed by Madeline Hardus of the University of Utrecht (Netherlands).

Hardus explains that the strategy is effective because predators often are unable to view the apes clearly in the canopy. "Because it is very rare and difficult to get a full view of an orangutan in its rainforest habitat, this could be very advantageous, since a potential predator will have to rely more on sounds than sight in these conditions," the Dutch primatologist said. Theoretically, a predator is going to be less likely to pursue a very large orangutan in the treetops. The risks to the predator outweigh the possible rewards in most cases.

Hardus also mentions that the behavior may be a sign of rudimentary language in the orangutans. She said, "This study clearly indicates that the abilities of great ape communication have been traditionally undervalued and that there may be traces of language precursors in our closest relatives, the great apes." Hardus added that the primate calling observed in the wild orangutans of Borneo is likely not an instinctual behavior but a socially learned one. The observation is important, as primates have been observed using tools to obtain food in the past but not to modify sound.

This study points out, yet again, just how intelligent are the great apes. Just in the last few years, stunning observations have been made of apes using tools to obtain food in clever and unusual ways. Wild apes have also been observed using various forms of communication such as had clapping and whistling while captive apes have even been taught sign language. It has also been shown that apes have the mental capacity to consider the future and even run mental simulations of possible scenarios to come. Add some of the unexpected, and until recently, never before seen behaviors such as grieving, swimming, and fishing and you have a picture of some incredibly intelligent animals.

The sasquatch, to the best of my knowledge, has not been observed using tools of any kind like chimpanzees and orangutans. Neither has the sort of behavior described in the BBC News article been observed by alleged bigfoot witnesses. So, what is the possible connection here between the orangutan behavior and North America's great ape? It is the possibility that at the heart of the orangutan behavior there are the building blocks of a rudimentary language.

There have been periodic reports of strange chatter and mutterings by sasquatch witnesses. The reports vary somewhat. Some, including a witness I interviewed two years ago, have report hearing what is often described as "samurai chatter." The witness I talked to said the animal vocalizations he heard sounded like something you would hear while watching an old Bruce Lee movie. Some of this "samurai chatter" has been recorded successfully. You can hear a sample of this type of chatter here and here. The sasquatch has also been observed making an unusual gurgling whistle. For example, Jeannie Chapman described this odd noise to Ivan T. Sanderson while relating the account of her famous Ruby Creek sighting. Sanderson wrote, "This is a sound I cannot reproduce in print, but I can assure you it is unlike anything I have ever heard given by man or beast anywhere in the world." Interestingly, muttering hominids have been reported in other parts of the world. The yeti of the Himalayas reportedly makes sounds that seem startlingly similar to true language. For example, Rupert Matthews, in his book Sasquatch: True Life Encounters With Legendary Ape Men, relates the tale of one Pang Gensheng, a 33-year-old farmer from Cuifeng who claims to have encountered a yeti in the summer of 1977. To make a long story short, Mr. Gensheng came face to face with a yeti, was backed up against a rock face as the creature approached to within 5 feet of him, and then won the "stand off" when he pelted the creature in the chest with a rock. The yeti turned and walked away, paused briefly to lean against a tree and look back at Mr. Gensheng, and then proceeded slowly toward the bottom of the Dadi Valley. As the creature retreated it rubbed the spot on its chest where the rock made contact and "mumbled" as it did so. The choice of the word "mumbled" is significant to me. Gensheng did not say it growled, moaned, or groaned. He said the yeti "mumbled." This, in my mind, implies that it sounded very much like a human language. These types of vocalizations, in my opinion, need to be categorized differently than the howls, whoops, and growls so often reported. If they truly occur, these vocalizations seem to be more intimate somehow. Could they be an attempt by the sasquatch to communicate in some way with the human witnesses? Could they actually be language?

I will admit to having some trouble accepting the "samurai chatter" at face value. Some of the recordings I have heard just don't sound natural to me. That isn't too scientific, I know, but my gut has served me well in the past. In the two recordings I provided links to above, for example, I have serious doubts that a sasquatch is responsible for the vocalizations on the second recording. The first recording is more intriguing to me. It sounds much more like an animal and I can at least entertain the possibility that an undocumented primate is responsible for it. What these vocalizations could possibly be trying to convey I can't say.

On the surface, the idea of the sasquatch having a language of its own may seem absurd. However, if the known great apes have at least the building blocks of a rudimentary type of language why not the sasquatch? If the sasquatch turns out to be the most intelligent of the great apes then its language skills could very well have advanced beyond those of its cousins. This, of course, assumes the sasquatch turns out to be an ape at all. Certainly, many feel it possible the sasquatch is a primitive human of some kind. If so, then language comes even more into play.

As always, there are many "ifs" and much speculation with no definitive answers. Hopefully, all will become clear in time.