Thursday, April 9, 2009
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.
Monday, April 6, 2009
A rich part of the heritage of Perry County is the Goree family. While doing some research, I came across a descendent of this family whose work tries to benefit the lives of people around the world. I contacted Langston James "Kimo" Goree VI, and he was gracious enough to talk to me about his family history and his work.
Goree is the Director of the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Reporting Services and one of the founders of the Earth Negotiations Bulletin. His base of operations is New York City, but he travels throughout the world. Goree was born in Honolulu and raised in Berkeley and Walnut Creek, California. He received his nickname "Kimo" (pronounced “Keemo”) from Hawaiian tradition. According to Goree, everyone born in Hawaii gets both a Christian and a Hawaiian name that has become its equivalent. “Kimo” is the Hawaiian version, then, of James, his middle name.
Kimo Goree’s great-great-great-great grandfather, the first Langston James Goree, was one of the early settlers of Perry County and one of the founding fathers of Judson College. Kimo’s great-great-great-great grandmother, Sarah Williams Kittrell Goree, was matron of honor at the wedding of General Sam Houston and Margaret Lea in 1840. The Goree family moved to Texas by 1850, living first at Huntsville where they rented the Houstons’ Woodland Home. The Gorees then built their own plantation, Trinity Bend. After Langston Goree I died in 1853, Sarah Goree moved her family closer to her brother, Dr. Pleasant Williams Kittrell, a physician and former trustee of Judson. Dr. Kittrell was also at General Houston’s bedside when he died in 1863 and was later the author of the bill that established the University of Texas. In 1858 Sarah Goree and her family purchased Raven Hill Plantation from General Houston.
Perhaps the most famous Goree of this period, though, was Kimo Goree’s great-great-great uncle, Thomas Jewett Goree. Born in 1835 in Marion, T.J.Goree attended Howard College before moving with his family to Texas, where he attended Baylor College, becoming a lawyer. In 1861 Goree left his law career and set out for Virginia to join the Confederate Army. Along the way, he met James Longstreet, later lieutenant general under Robert E. Lee. Goree served as Longstreet's aide-de-camp throughout the war. After the war, Goree became superintendent of Texas prisons and acquired the family plantation lands for the prison system, which continued to work them in the old manner of labor-intensive agriculture until the middle of the 20th century.
Kimo Goree only became aware of the depth of his Southern roots after his father returned from Southeast Asia in the late 1960s, where he was a civilian attached to U.S. military operations. Goree says that it was only when he moved to Texas that he fully appreciated his family history. Once, for example, he was at a café in a small town, and an older lady heard him introduce himself. She told him that his great-grandfather, a dentist, had fixed one of her teeth.
From 1971 to 1989, Goree worked as a professional actor doing stand-up comedy, film, TV, and radio work. He is a member of the Screen Actors Guild and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. He even became a popular entertainer at children's birthday parties in the Dallas, Texas, area from 1975-1989 as "Kimo the Clown."
How did the scion of one of the first families of Texas find himself in show business? “I didn’t get into Stanford,” quipped Goree. He had done theatre in high school, so after not being accepted by the college of his dreams, he joined an improvisational comedy group in San Francisco. Later, his nightclub act helped him pay for college in Texas as well as his travels into Central and South America.
In between gigs and travel, he earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Texas in Dallas in 1984. In 1986 he completed a master’s degree in Interdisciplinary Studies at UT Dallas and moved to Austin to pursue a Ph.D. at the Institute for Latin American Studies.
From 1977 through 1989, Goree traveled extensively in Central and South America, where he learned to speak both Spanish and Portuguese. In 1989 he began his environmental work in Brazil at an applied research institute in the Amazonian rain forest. Goree assisted local non-governmental organizations with technology and programs that discouraged slash-and-burn methods of agriculture. This, says Goree, is when his interests in technology and helping people improve their lives came together, especially around the time of the 1992 Rio conference. “A lot of the things we do in life aren’t so much planned as they are serendipitous,” said Goree.
In 1991 he created the Earth Summit Bulletin, which was renamed the Earth Negotiations Bulletin in 1993. Kimo Goree has been employed by the International Institute for Sustainable Development as the Director of the Division Reporting Services since 1993. In this job, he travels about 240,000 miles a year to attend and report on international, multilateral United Nations conferences.
Goree is unabashedly passionate about his job and the idea of sustainable development. “Sustainable development means improving the lives of people without destroying the resource base and the health and wealth of future generations,” said Goree. He believes that much of the resistance to the concept of sustainable development is simply because people haven’t had it fully explained. He wants people to understand that it includes “renewable resources, protecting biodiversity and the climate, and increasing the well-being and health” of people around the world. Much of the problem, according to Goree, is “inefficient and wasteful” energy policies that not only harm the environment and people’s lives but also weaken our national defense due to our reliance on foreign oil.
When asked about what the concept of sustainable development means for poor counties like Perry County, Goree replied that community leaders should look to scientists and technology to improve the lives of poor people and protect local resources. He explained that in the last 100 years there have been three scientific revolutions that have greatly improved the lives of people around the world: pesticides, fertilizers, and bio-engineered crops. He also pointed out that his own family history is a cautionary tale of the dangers of land degradation. His family left old lands back east in North Carolina and Georgia to move to new farming lands in Alabama before exhausting them and moving to Texas. Goree also believes that the current economic downturn is the perfect time for communities to embrace more responsible and efficient practices and values.
“The concept of sustainable development is much more nuanced than that of environmentalism. Environmentalism is focused on the environment. Sustainable development is concerned with the well-being of the individual but not at the expense of resources needed in the future. It is human centered.”
Goree has been married to Pamela Chasek since 1994 and has two children, Sam (born 1995) and Kai (born 1998). There is no Langston James Goree VII yet because Goree’s wife is an Ashkenazi Jew, and their tradition does not allow living family members to share the same name. “I broke a tradition by using a tradition,” joked Goree.
His interests outside of work and family include cycling and technology.
Kimo Goree has never been to Perry County, but he says that it might be time to rediscover his Alabama roots. “I may have to load up the wife and kids and come on down,” he said.
April 2, 2009
Whether you call it a cougar, panther, mountain lion, puma, or catamount, Felis concolor once roamed Alabama. My parents grew up in the Sand Mountain area of northeast Alabama and northwest Georgia in the 1930s and 1940s. They took it for granted that cougars lived there, especially since they heard wild screams at night that their family members identified as panthers. So, it was with great disbelief back in my college days that I heard a professor at Alabama pronounce that there were no permanent populations of long-tailed cats in Alabama nor had there been in years.
It seems that the state of Alabama agrees with him. According to Ken Daniel, an officer with the Alabama Wildlife and Freshwater Fisheries Division with over 19 years on the job, there is no hard, state-recognized evidence of a permanent population of cougars or any other long-tailed cat. The population was likely eliminated by the middle of the 20th century, if not before. There have been no recent game camera pictures, no videos, no roadside carcasses, or any other verifiable accounts. Instead, Officer Daniel says there are anecdotal reports almost every year in Perry County. “We get somewhere between five and ten people per year reporting cougars or other big cats. About half of these people are credible folks.”
What are they seeing? Officer Daniel says it is a mixed bag of possibilities. “A few years ago in Dallas County, someone reported seeing a cougar in their backyard. Based on our investigation, we think someone in the area might have had a pet cougar that got loose.” Other incidents are harder to explain. Officer Daniel recounted a deer hunter’s experience from a few years ago in the area near Mars Hill Cemetery. The hunter saw what looked to him like a cougar, and the experience rattled him so badly that he stayed in the tree stand all day until his son came to pick him up at sunset. Another time, Officer Daniel responded to a nighttime call from a man in Sprott. The man’s dog had started barking, so the man grabbed a flashlight. According to the man, the light revealed a cougar. The man and his dog quickly retreated to the house. When Officer Daniel arrived, he was unable to find signs of any animals having been in the area that the man indicated. There were no tracks, even though the area was muddy.
Sometimes, though, it is a case of misidentification. Daniel mentioned one incident where a hunter shot at what he thought was a cougar chasing a deer across a field right at sunset. (Although cougars are not supposed to be in Alabama, they are still protected and have no open season. In other words, shooting at them is a bad idea unless you are protecting yourself.) The next morning, the hunter and his friends realized the cougar was really an oddly-shaped clod of dirt with a large shock of grass where the tail would have been. In other instances, the answer might be very simple. Alabama does have bobcats, or, as Daniel said, “A lot of times they (people reporting large cats) are just seeing big dogs.” Daniel also mentioned that there are occasionally bears in our area as they travel between northern and southern Alabama. The population near the Mobile Delta area near Saraland numbers approximately 50 to 75, and bears from this southern Alabama group sometimes mingle with bears in northeast Alabama and northern Georgia and vice versa.
In the case of one local man, however, the mystery is in the form of some odd, large animal tracks he and some fellow hunters found about ten years ago. Michael Woodfin says that the tracks were near a dirt road close to a green field about 3/4 of a mile behind the Sprott store. The men found some plaster of Paris and made a cast of the best print. The paw prints were approximately five inches across and five and a half inches long. The print was an inch deep in the mud. The heel pad was two and half inches wide by three inches long. The claws are not obvious in the cast. They also made a cast of an obvious dog or coyote track found in the same area by way of comparison. It was about three and a half by four and a half inches in size. Most sources say that bobcat prints are about one to three inches, coyote and large dog prints average two to four inches long, and cougar prints are approximately 4 inches in either direction.
Perhaps most puzzling are the reports of large black cats. For example, a man reported to Officer Daniel that he was driving one evening and saw a large black cat eating some road kill on the side of Highway 14 near the Sprott store. The problem with this report is that there are not supposed to be any large black cats in Alabama at all. True black panthers are actually either black jaguars or black leopards as North American cougars are generally believed to be incapable of being black, and none of these animals are supposed to be running around in Alabama.
Yet Ken Daniel himself saw a large, dark, long-tailed cat. “I was in the southern part of Perry County checking on some people I thought might be hunting out of season. I was hiding near some old chicken houses and saw a dark olive drab colored cat with a long tail.” Daniel says that it was bigger than a house cat and was spotted with the red clay from under the chicken houses. He thinks it was likely a jaguarundi, a cat more commonly found in Mexico, Texas, and Louisiana.
I contacted Loren Coleman to ask him about strange animal sightings in Alabama. He is a well-known, award-winning researcher and author with nearly 50 years of experience in cryptozoology, the study of unknown or scientifically unrecognized animals. Frequent viewers of the History Channel may know him as one of the experts featured on MonsterQuest. Our conversation will be the subject of next week’s column.Meanwhile, if you have experienced a strange animal sighting, and especially if you have evidence of this experience, please contact me at the newspaper office, or email me at email@example.com