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April 7, 2008 | by  | in Features |
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Cryptozoology

In the wild and untamed bush of the Wairoa Ranges, there be moa. At least, this is what the Gilroys, an adventuring Australian couple, hope soon to prove. Tony Lucas of the New Zealand Natural Mystery Centre (http://nzcryptozoologist0.tripod.com) has a more immediate goal. He hopes that cryptozoology, the study of animals not included in zoological catalogues – due either to extinction, like the moa, or a lack of empirical evidence, like the Loch Ness Monster – will receive a little more attention. As he told Salient writer Jenah Shaw over the phone, “You’re only about the third person in New Zealand to show interest.” While Lucas has not yet heard any news from the Gilroys (“whether that means success or failure with Rex [Gilroy] is very hard to tell”), he talks about sea monsters, hidden moose, and manbeasts lurking just beyond the campfire glow.

How did you initially become involved in cryptozoology?

Initially it was natural curiosity. When I was young I had a pair of uncles who went out hunting in the hills and they came back with a strange tale of something that had circled the camp all night… and these weren’t guys that scared easy. They couldn’t explain what it was – they said it was something big and hairy and that’s as far as they would go. For years they just wouldn’t talk about it. Gradually I managed to wheedle a bit of information out of the family, and then I came across a strange thing called a Moehau, which is a hairy ape, and from there it led to a curiosity about what else is out there.

As a cryptozoologist how discerning are you with the evidence and the sightings that are reported to you?

You can only go on face value. Regrettably most of your sightings you don’t get second hand anyway, they are generally third or fourth hand because nobody these days wants to admit they have seen a hairy ape in the hills, or a moa… You’ve got to be very cautious you’re not dealing with a hoax while at the same time not throwing away good evidence.

Have you had any experiences yourself?

Not really. I can’t say I’ve seen anything straight but I’ve known people who have and I think that’s part of it too: they’ve seen it, I haven’t, and I want to!

What chances do you give to moa survival?

I think if we are going to find moa the place to find them would be Fiordland, and I don’t think it will be the large species everyone is expecting. The smaller bush moa are more likely to survive.

Do you think the number of moa sightings may merely be indicative of the role it plays in the public imagination?

I think it’s a bit of both. Yes, there have been sightings. There have been footprints, there have been droppings, there has been chewed foliage, but also the New Zealand public would love there to be a moa. Mankind loves a mystery, even if it means creating one… Then of course moa are just part of natural history – moa are a big part of New Zealand’s natural history.

Can you tell me a bit about the Moehau?

There are about five different species, and the most lingering one is the one actually called the Moehau which lives in the Coramandel area, and during the 1800s it was actually blamed for the death of a minor. Apparently a carcass was found with its head ripped off, and partially fed upon… and about two weeks later a woman was dragged out of her cabin. These were put down to Moehau attacks. The ancient Maori had places here in New Zealand where you were told you did not go, because the Moehau will get you, and even if they were the toughest warrior they would stay away. Moehau Mountain is a classic example. People even now won’t go up because they have fears of a giant manbeast that’s said to dwell there. Dating back the reports of these creatures are pre-European which tends to indicate there was something there.

Regrettably, of course, there may be the cases of mistaken identity. There was a gorilla that got released off a ship in the late 1800s… It was never caught and there were sightings of that which were actually passed off as sightings of Moehau. But the reports of these – and as I say, my uncles were actually the ones who began all this really with what they said they saw in the bush, and these are terrified men. They were absolutely scared of this big, hairy creature they had seen just beyond the camp-light that circled the camp all night and made a heck of a lot of noise. They couldn’t wait for daylight to get out of there.

What about the big cat sightings down around Christchurch and throughout the South Island?

There’s a possibility. The Americans actually had big cats with them during the Second World War as mascots. Now, on leaving the country, exactly what happened to those animals is unknown…

There was also an experimental trial of animals to see how they’d go in New Zealand. The zebra was one, the mongoose another, and the marsupial cat was one of the other things that they tried. It’s extinct in Australia – well, it’s supposed to be extinct but there are a few sightings – but that’s not to say it might not be alive here.

So what are the implications of zebra surviving, or the Fiordland moose being discovered?

These are hardly as glamorous as the moa… The moose has actually been proven. They haven’t seen it but there is DNA evidence of its existence. The problem with Fiordland is that the bush is so dense that they can’t do a proper search and so you could, effectively, have moose popping out everywhere and you wouldn’t see them for the density of bush. They kept looking for them for quite a long time and then – bingo – they actually found some hair a few years ago which DNA testing proved was definitely moose.

The implications of those animals actually being alive is fantastic because it literally states that people have seen these things… they’re not potty after all and these creatures do exist. So there is hope for things like moa, or your waitoreke [a yet to be proven native species of otter], although sadly I think the Moehau is actually gone. One of my theories is that human disease is partly responsible for that.

Just to prove that some of these are actually alive – I mean, take the giant panda, which everyone thought was just a myth. There have been quite a few animals that are now actually part of zoology, that were transferred from cryptozoology because they were proven to exist.

Even so, there still seems to be a lot of skepticism towards cryptozoology.

Yes. I find myself struggling with the fact it is not a recognized science. Every week new species are being discovered which up until that time had been myth… and yet there’s no recognition. If people are saying they are seeing things there must be something there to see. When Captain Cook saw a waitoreke … he asked his naturalist about it and their response was, “the ship’s cat must have got loose.” Even back then the skepticism was there.

One of the main criticisms on cryptozoology is the erratic nature of its research…

I wouldn’t say we’re erratic. We research the subject thoroughly, like anyone, we follow the scientific method, and the conclusion at the end… Well, we really have to find the solid, hard proof.

Isn’t it difficult to follow scientific method when the central subject is, itself, a mystery?

It is. But every hypothesis is, until proven, a blank really, isn’t it? What we’re working with is the same sort of principle. You look for the proof and if the proof is there you can’t really deny it.

It’s the same with the South Island panthers and the mutilated corpses showing distinct markings of having been eaten by a carnivore. And there are no large carnivores in New Zealand, except your large dogs and sorts, but if it shows up as being a non-dog bite – and believe me, big cats have their own distinct method of feeding – and so if you’re seeing that sort of thing, all it can be is a wild cat.

And what are your opinions on some of the more famous overseas cases: the Loch Ness Monster? Bigfoot?

People are seeing things. Mostly cryptozoology relies on mythology to give you a basis, and until it’s brought out in the open most of it is going to remain in the mythological field. But what a great day when someone brings in a Bigfoot – preferably alive. I mean, a lot of the view out there now is that a dead specimen only will do, but that’s not what we want. We want a live specimen, we want to prove these things exist so they can be protected.

That is one of the goals: to prove that the legends and myths are true and to show that the animal is there and needs protecting.

It’s a lot of faith to put in something you haven’t seen yourself.

It is a faith. You have to have faith that these things are out there. And wouldn’t it be wonderful if there is a plesiosaur alive in Loch Ness? We could find out so much from these animals, imagine being able to find out about the biology of a plesiosaur from studying a live one.

Actually, another theory I’m currently working on is – and this is another thing that noone knows, really, but New Zealand has had a lot of sea monster sightings. There have been a lot of sea monster sightings off the coast of New Zealand, so that’s currently my theory – that there might be a species of mosasaur that are still alive and possibly breeding off the side of New Zealand. There was a chap down south – I’ve just finished writing an article on it for a magazine overseas – whose boat was actually attacked by two mosasaur-like creatures. The damage to it was incredible, but it was never examined – the guy was ridiculed – and it just slipped through, which is sad.

So do you think it’s fair to say that it’s a fascination with the unknown that drives you on?

Yes, and a hope that extinction is not forever.

Once Cryptozoological Creatures That Have Become Legitimate

Zoologists’ goal is to tame the scary world by naming all its inhabitants. Cryptozoologists are their black ops commandos, sent out to hunt down renegade fauna that don’t want to be found. Unsatisfied with the multitude of crazy-ass animals that will more than happily shit on, sting, peck, bite, poison, or eat us, cryptozoologists go looking for more. They are hunters, not explorers. Instead of looking for new animals, they track creatures already known but lost to science: their prey survives in fossil records, stray fur, calls from afar. And myth. Success is discovering an animal previously suspected but always unseen, or one once seen but now lost and believed extinct. It is surprising how often this happens.

Most famous is the giant squid, which began as myth. Old maps left blanks at the edges: “Here there be monsters,” they said. Most fearful of all was Kraken, the giant squid-dragon of the sea that devoured ships and souls. Evidence came in: some dead whales were found with massive squid suckermarks on their skin, and in 1861, the French Navy secured part of a carcass, and the myth was confirmed, albeit a tad downsized.

Sometimes scientists write a species off as being extinct because they live in ivory towers. For years, they knew of the coelacanth only through fossil records, and presumed the mauve/silver fish from the age of the dinosaurs died out at the same time. They were, of course, wrong. A specimen was caught in 1938 and identified in South African waters. Local fishermen had caught them before but gave no thought to the matter; Coelacanths are inedible. Australia’s mountain pygmy possum also was known in textbooks only from bones, but a living colony was discovered in 1966. Some Aborigines knew the puny possum was there all along.

Other species are simply hard to find. Dibblers are the size of mice, and Australia is the size of, well, Australia, so it’s not a huge shock that the critters managed to fool everybody for 83 years. The large-billed reed-warbler is also tiny, and India is not, so the cute little bird could go unnoticed for 139 years in spite of being really quite noisy. The white-winged guan of Peru hid for 100 years until the 1970s, which is impressive since they’re both noisy and large. All these species are critically endangered, which helped.

New Zealand has a strong track record here: between 1975 and 2003, the Campbell Island teal, Chatham Island taiko, Campbell Island snipe, and the New Zealand storm-petrel all made their way back into the land of the living. Famously, the Takahe was rediscovered in 1948 by Geoffrey Orbell in a large concerted effort that is one of cryptozoology’s greatest successes.

Criminozoology

These days we have to treat animals humanely. The interesting part of this term is human. Should animals be held in the same legal standing as humans, especially in the case of murder?

One of the first reported cases where we held an animal humanly accountable for its actions was in Erwin Tennessee 1916. Circuses were big at the time, and elephants were definitely in vogue. Charlie Sparks had such a circus, it was small, but he had five elephants, one of which was Mary, 5 tonnes of female pachyderm worth $20,000. Mary was one of the biggest elephants, stateside in any circus, and Sparks knew that she was the main reason people came to see his show.

September 12, 1916, Mary was being led down to the waterhole for a drink, when Eldridge, Mary’s handler, poked Mary behind the ear or on the jaw, with a spear/long hook. Here’s where things went wrong. Mary then hurled Eldridge against a stand with her trunk and then, according to some, stomped on his head.

City folk rushed off in horror and disgust. Mary was cool and calm, like nothing had happened. The villiage blacksmith came back came back toting his .45 and shot Mary at least 20 times, to no effect.

A town meeting was called! This beast knowingly slayed a human. It should be killed. But the only thing was how? Fire arms had proved ineefective, Electrocution perhaps? Dismemberment by train? Too cruel! So the town decided to hang Mary.

The first attempt was horrendous. Mary had been lead down to the railyards and had a chain hooked around her neck. Slowly they began lifting her using a rail derrick, however someone had forgotten to unchain her leg, after they removed this, they resumed the hanging, only for the neck chain to snap.

THUMP! Mary lands on her hind quarters and the 2500 assembled people flee in terror that she might go on a rampage and kill them all. This sadly didn’t happen because Mary’s pelvis shattered on impact. Another chain was used and the second attempt killed Mary after an hour of hanging. It is also interesting to note that two black men were hung at the same time.

After the hanging it was discovered that Mary had rotten teeth and that it was probable that Eldridge had poked these with his stick when he was trying to shift her.

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