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Media Article # 390

Monday, June 21, 2004

Bigfoot lives! Well, maybe...

By Jim Phillips
The Athens News

Ed Venrick/Photo Editor
OU professor Scott Moody sits in front of his Irvine Hall office Friday afternoon with a bear leg. Someone coming upon the leg in the woods might mistake it for a Big Foot leg.

No self-respecting reporter from a tabloid newspaper could possibly say no. So Moody, an associate professor of biology at Ohio University, pulls out an impressive, if rather dirty, legbone.

Judging by its size and shape, it could have come from an adult human -- except for the thick claws still protruding from two of its toes.

"This is one mammal that is frequently misidentified as the remains of a human," Moody hints. After some head-scratching and chin-stroking, this reporter guesses correctly -- the leg came from a bear.

The ursine legbone is only one of the exhibits Moody employs in a Tier III biology class at OU, in which the mystery of the Bigfoot -- also known as yeti, sasquatch, and yeren -- is used to teach students the fine art of sifting evidence and thinking like scientists.

Sightings and other evidence of a large, upright ape-like creature come in regularly from all over -- including some from Ohio -- though the most credible reports seem to come from China and the American Northwest. Moody believes there may actually be such a creature out there, which branched from the same tree that produced humans, orangutans and other big anthropoids.

The most likely candidate, he said Thursday, is Gigantopithecus blackii, a large ape that lived between 500,000 and 5 million years ago, and is thought to be extinct. However, Moody pointed out, in numerous cases creatures known first from fossil remains later have been found to still be living.

If examples of Gigantopithecus, or descendents of that creature, are still ambling around in the wilds of China or Oregon, Moody said, they could account for the sightings and other evidence, such as body impressions left in the soil that are attributed to "Bigfoot."

Moody is quick to stress, however, that he sees no credible evidence to support

reported sightings of Bigfoot in Ohio -- including a 2002 case from Haga Ridge in Athens County.

Some investigators claim to have identified a "Sasquatch Triangle" centered roughly around the place where Coschocton, Tuscarawas and Guernsey counties meet in east-central Ohio. Moody, however, said he's "absolutely convinced that all the Bigfoot sightings in Ohio fall into three categories" -- namely hoaxes, overactive imaginations, and black bears. He notes that the area where the sightings are concentrated is also home to many black bears coming in from West Virginia.

In his Tier III class, Moody uses a variety of evidence, including a Discovery Channel documentary, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," to teach students how to weigh evidence. The movie presents a range of clues for the existence of Bigfoot, including films of purported Bigfoot sightings, body casts, recordings of supposed Bigfoot howls, and more. Moody asks the students to look at all of it, decide how significant each clue is, and finally decide whether they believe Bigfoot exists.

Many students, he finds, are so put off by the idea of believing in Bigfoot -- associated in their mind with such tabloid fare as alien abductions and Elvis sightings -- that they're overly skeptical, and reject even fairly solid evidence. An exception are the students studying forensic analysis, who hope to work in crime labs when they graduate, he said.

"The forensics students tend to be more open-minded about looking at this evidence," he said.

Moody railed at what he considers an irrational reluctance on the part of some scientists to look in an unbiased way at the evidence for the theory that Gigantopithecus may still be roaming around in the huge expanses of Asia and the Pacific Northwest. He argued that while scientists should never be too credulous, they can also make the opposite error of being too skeptical, and rejecting evidence out of hand for fear of being ridiculed.

"A lot of them don't even want to be associated with it, because their colleagues would view them with suspicion, and that's just not scientific," he said. "That's where I am really critical of science." He argued that too often these days, a scientific education doesn't teach critical thinking, but rather takes the approach of, "Here's the current dogma -- learn it and spit it out on the exam."

This type of loyalty to orthodoxy in science is "prevalent, and it's disgusting," he said. "Colleges are not teaching critical thinking skills. It's still like high school -- memorize, memorize, memorize. That is not education. That is not what professors were doing in the 14th century, the 15th century, the 16th century. People think I'm a fringe lunatic, but I'm a Socratic professor, and I'll keep doing it for the rest of my career."

So if a Bigfoot ever gets captured, what would it be like? If the Gigantopithecus theory is solid, Moody said, it would probably be much like the great apes we already know, such as orangutans -- a gentle, intelligent creature, living mainly on vegetarian fare, and far more likely to flee from a human than confront or attack it.

What about its rights? Moody said he's no fan of "radical" animal rights groups such as PETA, but believes a Bigfoot would deserve to be treated as humanely as he thinks all big apes should be. He said he agrees "100 percent" with naturalist Jane Goodall, who argues that all the great apes should be afforded certain basic rights, such as freedom from slavery and use in experimentation. He noted that humans in many cases have intuitively recognized their close kinship with the big apes, as in Malaysia, where parents who have lost a child have been known to kidnap infant orangutans and raise them as their own.

"Genetically, we're virtually identical," he noted.

And though he teaches a class featuring Bigfoot, Moody said, so far he's never gotten a call from the Weekly World News or National Enquirer about the topic, and he's glad.

"I would hang up on them," he said.

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