By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"I don't believe in Bigfoot. I thought I'd let you know that I absolutely do not believe in Bigfoot," begins Chester Moore Jr. The audience shuffles and murmurs uneasily, as if they have been tricked. "How many people here believe in Bigfoot?" Almost everyone warily raises a hand. Moore delivers. "I think that believing is for religion, and I've accepted the fact that we have a hidden species of primate in North America." Sighs of relief break out among the believers.
Moore, a wildlife journalist whose work has appeared in Texas Parks & Wildlife, Texas Fish & Game, Tideand Port Arthur News, is one of several speakers who took a stand for Bigfoot at the Second Annual Texas Bigfoot Conference held earlier this month in Jefferson, near Longview. The conference was organized by the Texas Bigfoot Research Center, a volunteer group based in Dallas that investigates reports of Bigfoot activity in the state and attempts to document habitual behavior of these cryptids or "hidden animals."
Cryptozoologists, as many Bigfoot researchers tag themselves, study animals that are either thought to be extinct or unknown to science. Vindication for the science, to some degree, has come in the form of the coelacanth, the okapi and the mountain gorilla, creatures that existed only in local legend and eyewitness accounts until their eventual discovery and classification during the 20th century. Enthusiasts are quick to remind that Bigfoot is not paranormal, but simply another of these unknown animals. "I tell people, you know, we're not dealing with a monster here or the missing link or a shape-shifter from another dimension or an extraterrestrial being," says research center assistant director Craig Woolheater. "I believe it's a flesh-and-blood animal, a primate of some sort. A primate that has been able, for the most part, to elude man."
Though conference attendance topped 200, believers are the exception rather than the norm among the general population. But maybe there would be a lot more converts, Moore suggests, if people understood that there is a scientific basis--and precedent--for the existence of Bigfoot. "When I say, 'I believe in Bigfoot,' to some people, they look at me like I said I believe in some false god or something," Moore says. "Most people's representation of Bigfoot [is]...some tabloid headline that says, 'Bigfoot Stole My Grandmother.'"
While sightings of Bigfoot have become almost commonplace in the Pacific Northwest, the idea of Bigfoot in Texas is news to most. Cryptids in Texas shouldn't come as a surprise, Woolheater says. His research of Texas folklore uncovered tales of a Bigfoot-like creature--"The Wild Woman of the Navidad"--as far back as 1837. Texas also offers the mild winters, diverse agriculture, abundant prey base and natural shelter in which a Bigfoot herd could thrive. The creatures' size, intelligence and speed would put them at the top of the food chain, and with no natural predators, East Texas forests and bottomlands might be able to sustain a sizable Bigfoot population.
Luke Gross and Woolheater, who met on the Internet through their common cryptozoology interest, founded the Texas Bigfoot Research Center in 1999. In the past three and a half years, the center's volunteer staff has grown from two researchers to 30, with eight to 10 associate members. All research is self-funded through membership dues. "It would be nice if we could find somebody, a wealthy benefactor that might be interested in helping us," Woolheater admits. "There's not a whole lot of funding out there for stuff like this." Searching for Bigfoot is not an inexpensive hobby; the gear that the investigators use--generation III night-vision cameras, motion-activated infrared cameras, parabolic dish listening devices, thermal imaging units, GPS-integrated walkie-talkies--costs thousands of dollars. In hopes of finding a modern-day Tom Slick--the Texas millionaire who funded cryptozoology expeditions in the '50s--the Center has tried, unsuccessfully thus far, to elicit the aid of both Mark Cuban and Don Henley.
The Texas Bigfoot Research Center has received more than 100 eyewitness reports through its Web site, www.texasbigfoot.com, with 40 of those coming immediately after a news special about the group aired on NBC-56 Tyler-Longview in July and August. While some of the sightings were fairly recent, quite a few were older claims, people who are coming forward to tell what they've seen and kept quiet about for decades. "We find that people, a lot of times, are even traumatized by these events," Woolheater says. "It's almost a therapeutic experience for them because they don't have anybody that they feel they can say anything to...But in small towns in East Texas, people don't talk; it's just fairly accepted that these things are out there."
Woolheater himself claims to have seen a Bigfoot in 1994. On the way home to Dallas from New Orleans with his wife on a moonless night, his headlights caught a tall, hairy figure walking beside the road. "It was grayish in the light, and it was moving in the same direction we were moving, so we just saw the back of it, but it was definitely moving," he recounts. "And we both, simultaneously, looked at each other and said, 'Did you just see what I just saw?'" He wanted to turn back, but his wife, then girlfriend, did not. He hasn't seen another Bigfoot since that day.
Once an eyewitness files a report with the TBRC, the investigators follow up by phone, and if possible, visit the site of the incident. If the sighting was fairly recent, the researchers look for Bigfoot signs--tree breaks or twists, hair, blood and, of course, tracks. "We do have a lot of areas where we're finding the tree twists...and to be able to actually twist it against the grain, it takes more than just a large animal leaning up against the tree and breaking it. It has to apply torque, and that almost requires a thumb to be able to do," Woolheater says. Investigators also try to judge whether the sighting area would even be habitable for Bigfoot, offering adequate food, water and shelter.
Despite a growing quantity of evidence, the public remains doubtful about its quality. "You should be skeptical about cases where there should be some more evidence, some better evidence, and there isn't," says John Blanton of the North Texas Skeptics, a Dallas-area group that promotes the use of science in exploring extraordinary happenings. "We wouldn't consider this paranormal, because this is within the realm of possibility. If there's some large creature, an ape-like creature, and he's managed to elude our discovery all this time, more power to him. But it would be a pretty difficult thing to do."
Bigfoot trackers explain anomalies such as inconsistent track shapes and toe number with genetics. As Moore put it, "We're in the South; we've got things hanging out in the woods. It's got to be inbreeding." A small genetic pool would also account for the Bigfoot aggressiveness that has been reported in the South and not in the Northwest. And since no carcasses or skeletons have been found, researchers reason that maybe Bigfoot bury or cannibalize their dead or, like some animals, conceal themselves as they are dying.
Woolheater concludes that there are only a few choices. "Either people are out-and-out lying, or they are hallucinating, or they are being hoaxed by someone else unbeknownst to them, or they're misidentifying a known animal--or they saw what they say they saw. And I feel that at least part of them fall in that last category. And even if only one of them actually saw what they say they saw, then there's something out there."