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TV Skeptic: 'Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide'

February 3, 2011 |  5:42 pm

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I will never forget my first encounter with Bigfoot. It was early one morning when I was in fifth grade. The school day had just started, and my desk was near the window, where I had a clear view of the adjacent forest and the rugged mountains beyond. Our teacher was handing out some reading material when I saw him. Big, hairy and scary, right there on the cover of the Weekly Reader. From that moment, Bigfoot captured my imagination. I read that little booklet from cover to cover, believing every word. 

But you grow up and things change. On Tuesday, the History Channel aired "Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide," a documentary that promised to hold Bigfoot up to the standards of modern science. This is not the first time science has taken on Bigfoot, but so far, it seems, whenever the Bigfoot legend and facts have squared off, the legend has won.

This Canadian-British production brought together a panel of scientists to analyze reports of "Bigfoot" sightings from around the world. Unfortunately, the scientists start off on the wrong foot, with a rather misleading argument.

The team points to the recent discovery of the Bili Ape, a large relative of the chimpanzee that lives in the Bili forest of the Congo. They claim that if a new species as large as this has managed to live undetected for so long, other species of giant ape-like creatures might still be out there. 

The problem with that claim is that it was well known that chimpanzees lived in that same forest. The discovery was not that they existed, but that they are so different -- larger and darker in color -- as to constitute a new species. (Most new species discovered by scientists, including those found by team member Anna Nekaras, fall into that same category.)  

The comparison between Bigfoot and the Bili Ape would be relevant if we knew about a smaller primate, say a "Mediumfoot" or "Smallfoot," roaming the Pacific Northwest and discovered that the larger specimen was actually a different species.   

As part of their analysis, the scientists plotted Bigfoot sightings on a "global interactive map" that is never shown in detail on the program. But the map does illustrate one key point -- the number of sightings dramatically increased following the 1967 release of the "Patterson film," the famous footage showing a few seconds of an alleged Bigfoot. 

The best part of the program comes when the scientists disagree about the authenticity of the Patterson film. Two are certain it was a hoax, while another two believes it was an actual creature, arguing that the costume was too sophisticated for an amateur filmmaker. Meanwhile, one remains undecided.  

It's too bad they didn't do a Google search on the Patterson film. In a few seconds, they would have learned that a Hollywood special-effects expert claims that he provided Patterson with the costume, and that a friend of the filmmakers says he wore the costume over football shoulder pads. Patterson was shooting a film about Bigfoot at the time, and it is not unusual for documentaries to depict Bigfoot using a human in costume. What is unusual, though, is to release that footage with the claim that it is a genuine sighting.

"Bigfoot: The Definitive Guide" rarely rises above the typical crypto-zoology documentary. A big problem is the overblown script. While the scientists are careful and precise in their language and claims, the narration goes far beyond the scope of the science and reality.

When it comes to Bigfoot, the only thing definitive in the documentary is that nothing is definitive. The five scientists cannot reach a consensus. Two are "open-minded," another two are skeptical and one is "hopeful." But it still isn't clear if the panel is speaking specifically about Bigfoot or simply the idea that there may be a large, undiscovered primate species roaming somewhere in the world. 

So, if you're keeping score, mark this battle between science and the Bigfoot mythology as a draw. The only victory here is one for exploiting the public's interest in this mythical creature.

-- Ed Stockly

Photo: A human is pictured in a Bigfoot costume in a scene from "Bigfoot." Photo credit: Nicolas Marcoux / History Channel

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