The Perry County Herald interviews Loren Coleman:
Authority weighs in on local cat sightings
April 9, 2009
If you’ve ever watched very many shows on unexplained animal sightings, chances are good you’re already acquainted with Loren Coleman. He has been investigating such things since 1960 and writing about them since 1969. Cryptozoology is the name given to this study of legendary or undiscovered animals, often called cryptids.
Coleman majored in anthropology and minored in zoology at Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. He then received a graduate degree in psychiatric social work from Simmons College in Boston. He also took doctoral coursework in social anthropology at Brandeis University and in sociology at the University of New Hampshire. He has written nearly twenty books, including Mysterious America and Mothman and Other Curious Encounters, and hundreds of articles on cryptozoology. He has worked on shows such as Unsolved Mysteries, Ancient Mysteries, and most recently the History Channel’s MonsterQuest. He also served as a publicity spokesperson for the Richard Gere movie The Mothman Prophecies.
His cryptozoology research has led him to investigate mysterious animals in every state in the United States as well as in other countries. He has interviewed thousands of witnesses of all sorts of creatures, including Bigfoot, North American apes, strange flying creatures, lake monsters, and mystery cats.
It was natural, then, when I started thinking about the topic of mysterious animal sightings in Alabama to think of Loren Coleman. I found his contact information and on a whim sent him an email telling him that I was with the Herald and was working on a story about strange cat sightings. I got an almost immediate reply in which he asked me to set up a time to call him. Later, when he realized he wasn’t going to be able to keep our appointment, he called me to make sure we had the opportunity to talk. To have a national expert seek out a small town newspaperman has to be a rare event, to say the least.
I first asked him what people could be seeing in these supposed large cat sightings. Coleman said that big cat sightings are common in his home state of Maine and throughout the United States, including the South. “It is taken for granted by people down there that they (cougars) exist,” he said. “They could definitely be seeing eastern mountain lions.” On the other hand, the large black cat phenomenon is a bit more complicated. According to Coleman, approximately 40% of large, long-tail cat sightings across the country are so-called black panthers. He thinks that many of these cases, if not misplaced jaguarondi or jaguars, are either exotic pets that have escaped or possibly Ice Age survivors, such as the American lion (Panthera leo atrox), that have been presumed to be extinct. Coleman also said that wildlife biologists and officials are often under pressure to maintain the status quo and not acknowledge the existence of large cats and other cryptids. If these officials allow that such things are out there, they will have to regulate them as protected game animals and will have to deal with the conflicting concerns of various groups of citizens.
We also discussed the aspects of what makes a strange animal report credible. Coleman pointed to people, such as hunters, who know the wildlife in an area as the most obvious credible sources. Coleman is always concerned about people’s psychological backgrounds in these cases. “If I go and investigate a report, I investigate the psychology of the individual first before I go look at a track or anything else,” said Coleman. He also said that multiple reports of similar phenomena often generate two interesting events. One possibility is that behavior contagion or mass hysteria takes over. Coleman mentioned the humorous example of how people in various areas in the 1950s and 1960s might have been occasionally influenced by the latest monster movie playing at the drive-in. Another possibility, however, is that media reports actually encourage reluctant witnesses of strange events. When the “ridicule curtain,” as Coleman calls it, comes down, people come forward and share their stories.
Since Bigfoot is the best known cryptid in North America, I had to ask Coleman about Bigfoot or large ape sightings in Alabama. “Bigfoot probably does not exist in the American South, but apes likely do,” said Coleman. “These animals are very mobile, and they can avoid human beings because of their intelligence.” As an example, Coleman pointed to the sightings near Clanton, Alabama, in the 1960s of what has come to be known as the “Clanton Booger.” According to Coleman, who personally investigated these sightings, many of the people reported the sound of something crashing through the tops of trees, like a troop of chimps. He also said that a footprint cast was made at the time that appeared to be more ape-like than man-like. This cast, according to both Coleman and press reports, was only destroyed in the last decade.
We also discussed large bird sightings that are reported across the United States, including the Mothman phenomenon. Coleman said that most of these sightings can be grouped either into large owl-like sightings (including the so-called “Mothman,” a name given to the sightings by a newspaper copy editor) or large condor-type birds, such as thunderbird sightings.
Although cryptozoology has its detractors, Coleman said that science has, in many ways, changed its attitude towards cryptid research in recent years. Many biologists and zoologists grew up reading his and others’ books about fantastic animals. “Now,” said Coleman, “professors in these departments are more open. We have people on the inside.” Coleman himself has had a variety of jobs in academic settings since 1980, including teaching, research, and documentary filmmaking.
He has also written extensively on certain psychological issues, including the idea of behavior clusters. His work on suicide and mass murder clusters in particular makes him a sought-after expert in this non-cryptid field. In fact, a major Canadian newspaper had interviewed him on the day before our phone interview. The reporter asked him for his take on the various mass murders that have taken place in the United States this year, including the incident in south Alabama. Coleman attributes these behavior clusters to the “copycat effect,” which is also the title of his 2004 book on the subject. These horrible incidents, said Coleman, are committed by “vulnerable people who are easily brainwashed” by media sources, especially visual media. He also sees a disturbing historical trend in these types of persons. Someone with these tendencies twenty-five years ago was likely to commit suicide, while one today might just as likely commit mass homicide.
Loren Coleman is obviously a man with varied interests, but the common theme throughout seems to be an unending quest to explain how the world truly works, without preconceived notions. I greatly enjoyed our lengthy conversation, and he graciously asked the Herald to send him a link to this story when it was published so he could post it to cryptomundo.com, a cryptozoology website he helps manage. Hopefully, this story will be found there soon, or you can see it on our blog: perryherald.blogspot.com.
Since last week’s story, I have received several good, credible reports about sightings of large cats. These stories have come from all parts of Perry County and the Black Belt of Alabama. These reports are appreciated, and I encourage others to come forward. I’ll be sharing some of these stories in coming weeks. The effort here is not to alarm our readers unnecessarily but rather to inform and entertain you. Please share your stories, cat-related or not, with me at the paper office or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.