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Cryptids: 'Creatures of the imagination, but not imaginary creatures'

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Cryptids: ‘Creatures of the imagination, but not imaginary creatures’

Reviewing ‘Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures’

Despite its popularity among the public as a putatively scientific enterprise, cryptozoology continually fails to impress most qualified zoologists. But for academics working in fields allied with the humanities, the allure of cryptozoology has proven more enticing.

One such scholar is anthropologist Samantha Hurn, who teaches “Anthrozoology” courses at England’s University of Exeter and is the editor of the book Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring Encounters with Mysterious Creatures. This collection of 12 scholarly essays was originally published by Routledge in 2017 as a hardcover, and is now available in paperback.

Anthropology and Cryptozoology cryptid cover

Hurn’s interest in cryptozoology was sparked while doing field research in Wales. Farmers and hunters from the rural part of the country repeatedly told her that large, non-indigenous predatory cats resided in the area. Alien Big Cats (ABCs for short) are a staple of cryptozoology, and like other cryptids, are dismissed by mainstream zoologists. Hurn initially dismissed the reality of such creatures, too – until she saw one for herself.

Hurn goes on to discuss the “Father of Cryptozoology,” Bernard Heuvelmans, and how his vision sounds more like anthropology than traditional zoology, with its emphasis on eyewitness interviews and the scouring of historical records in search of monsters. Hurn sees cryptozoology fitting nicely into what she and several of her contributors describe as the “ontological turn” of anthropology, which emphasizes the idea that one’s experiences don’t always correlate to reality as empirically verified. In Hurn’s case, this means that while she maintains that she did encounter an ABC in the Welsh countryside, the experience doesn’t necessarily lead her to declare that ABCs exist in the U.K. in a way that science can verify.

Approached from this perspective, Hurn sees Heuvelmans’ work as prescient in its championing of alternative ways of knowing about the natural world, and notes the value he placed on indigenous knowledge. Like Heuvelmans, Hurn also criticizes scientists who maintain that the only way to learn about an animal is to capture or kill it, and echoes his concerns about wildlife conservation. She also criticizes those skeptics who consider cryptids to be a purely social phenomenon, commenting that cryptids are “creatures of the imagination, but not imaginary creatures” (p. 215).

Most of the 14 other contributors to Anthropology and Cryptozoology are also anthropologists, with the few exceptions falling into related fields like sociology, religious studies, and English.  Only anthropologist Gregory Forth’s name is likely to be familiar to those with an interest in cryptozoology, due to his public championing of the mythical wild-men of Indonesia. Considering Hurn’s experience, it’s not surprising that ABCs are addressed in five of the 12 essays, including Forth’s, which uses linguistics to examine claims of wild cats in Indonesia.

Two other notable ABC essays are Martin T. Walsh and Helle V. Goldman’s examination of Zanzibar leopards, which are officially extinct but continue to be reported, though mostly in a supernatural context as witch’s familiars. Sociologist Adrian Franklin looks at ABCs in Dartmoor and Dorset, employing ethnography to refute skeptical claims that such reports are the product of urbanites longing for a restored wilderness. Franklin says that argument falls apart when you realize the bulk of reports come from rural people who are terrified of these alleged animals, and further asks that if people are looking  for a restored wilderness, why aren’t they seeing wolves and bears instead of exotic cats?

Another standout essay is Stephanie S. Turner’s “The place of cryptids in taxonomic debates,” which consists of a well-researched history of cryptozoology since the glory days of Heuvelmans and the International Society of Cryptozoology (1982-1998), up to recent developments like Forth’s Indonesian wild-men claims. Turner’s essay is also the only place where readers will find such marquee monsters as Bigfoot, the Yeti, Nessie, and the chupacabra, as otherwise the cryptids featured in Anthropology and Cryptozoology are far more eclectic.

One of the major downfalls of cryptozoology is its refusal to distinguish between reality and imagination.

Many of the “animals” in Anthropology and Cryptozoology are so eclectic, it’s not clear they should count as cryptids. These include Michael Heneise and Mette M. High’s work on shape-shifting Indo-Burmese tiger-men and Mongolian wolf-people, Penelope Bernard and Bettina A. Schmidt’s examinations of African and Brazilian mermaids (which play a role in complex religious systems and only appear in people’s dreams), Luci Attala’s consideration of drug-induced visions of serpents, and Tanya J. King’s ethnographic study of the ganka, a cephalopod from the folklore of New Jersey commercial fishermen. They’re all fascinating, but none of them contain any suggestions that the creatures are based on undiscovered species which conventional scientists have somehow managed to overlook.

Walsh and Goldman explicitly question this ontological approach, noting that one of the major downfalls of cryptozoology is its continued refusal to distinguish between reality and imagination, treating the two realms as equivocal. It’s good that Hurn is evidently open to such criticism, because while it’s exciting to consider the ever-so-remote possibility that her ABC story is genuine, its credibility is diminished when lumped in with tales of hypnagogic mermaids and hallucinatory serpents.

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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