Protecting Bigfoot|Ed Malone||05/24/06 at 08:51:50|obadiah|xx|0||From Grist Magazine: 23 May 2006
Protecting Bigfoot
A handful of imaginary species are protected by real laws
By Dan Rafter

Dave Shealy has spent chunks of his life trudging through the muck of the
Everglades' Big Cypress Swamp in search of a monster -- a hairy, 450-pound
one that can stand seven feet tall and reeks of rotten eggs. Most people
think Shealy's either crazy or a shameless publicity hound, but he couldn't
care less. As the proud founder of the world's only skunk-ape research
center, the inveterate tracker says he plans to study this elusive animal
until the day he dies -- even if he never does get to see one up close. He's
even called for the state of Florida to pass a law to make it illegal to
hunt his apes.

Why do people fight for such laws? In some cases, it's simply to attract
tourists, to have an excuse to hold kitschy annual festivals and sell
souvenirs. But in others, the laws are a serious effort by devoted, though
perhaps deluded, individuals who want to protect something they have never

Better Left Untouched

Shealy's Skunk Ape Research Headquarters is part of the Trail Lakes
Campground in Ochopee, Fla. The campground, which he co-owns, is ideally
situated for skunk-ape sighting, Shealy says. It butts against a wild area
of thick trees, forbidding swamps, and dark waters that provide a perfect
hiding place for the creatures, which are said to be as reclusive as their
more famous brethren, the Sasquatch, or Bigfoot.

Most people, if they've heard of skunk apes at all, think the creatures are
about as real as the tooth fairy. But that didn't stop one Florida state
representative from trying to pass a law in the late 1970s -- twice -- to
make it illegal to molest a skunk ape. Shealy is still disappointed that the
proposal never passed. "Everyone thought the law was a joke. They shot it
down," he says. "What harm would it have done to pass a law like that? Is
the skunk ape in harm's way? Yes. No doubt about it."

Shealy estimates that eight or nine skunk apes roam the nearby swamp, and
claims the beasts have lived quietly in the Everglades since the days when
the Seminole tribe ruled the region. He believes the skunk apes actually
helped the Seminoles in their frequent battles with the U.S. Army in the
late 1830s and early 1840s -- something that explains why the military had
so much trouble evicting the Seminoles from the area, he says.

"Florida is an interesting place, no doubt," Shealy says. "Park officials
know that there are all sorts of things in the Everglades that aren't
supposed to be there, things that are better left untouched. There have been
exotic pets that have gotten away from their owners and taken hold. And
that's just the beginning. Florida has a deep, deep history in evolution. We
had dinosaurs here and the big animals, like the woolly mammoth and the
saber-toothed tiger. It's awfully easy to hide in the Everglades."

Floridians may have come up short in their quest for protection, but similar
laws do exist elsewhere. In the 1980s, the states of Vermont and New York
passed resolutions making it illegal to harm or molest in any way Champ, a
serpent-like creature that some claim lives deep under the surface of their
shared waterway, Lake Champlain. Port Henry, N.Y., officials are so proud of
their monster that they hold "Champ Day" each summer, a festival in the
monster's honor. T-shirts, as you can imagine, are sold.

Nessie? Champy? Whitey? Is that you?Peter Jewett, founder of a website
devoted to Champ, is a dedicated fan. And while he's not naive enough to
think that local officials actually believe Champ exists -- he believes the
laws are simply intended to separate tourists from their dollars -- Jewett
is glad that such mysterious monsters are getting at least some protection.
"I think people wanted tourists in the lake hunting for Champ with their
cameras," Jewett said. "I don't think they wanted hunters here with their

A similar creature is protected in Arkansas, where, in 1973, the state
Senate passed a resolution declaring portions of the White River a protected
refuge for the fabled water monster Whitey. And in 1969, Washington's
Skamania County Board of Commissioners passed an ordinance setting out a
$10,000 fine and five years in prison for anyone who killed a Bigfoot in the
county. Both are still on the books.

This trend isn't limited to the United States. There's the well-known
obsession with Scotland's Loch Ness monster, of course. But perhaps the most
amazing example is the case of the migoi in Bhutan, a tiny Buddhist country
bordered by Tibet, China, and India.

The migoi is a version of the Yeti, or abominable snowman, with more quirks.
Reported to stand eight feet tall, the reddish-brown creatures are said to
walk backwards and even turn invisible to trick trackers. They have been
part of the area's legends for centuries, and even show up in ancient
Bhutanese and Tibetan texts. Generations of locals have reported sightings
of the elusive beasts, though no one has ever captured one.

In 2001, the government of Bhutan created the Sakteng Wildlife Sanctuary,
253 square miles of land designed to serve as protected habitat for the
migoi. The preserve features other wildlife, too, including pandas, snow
leopards, and tigers, but was created specifically for the mythical creature
in their midst.

But What If ...

What would happen if a creature of Bigfoot's status really were discovered?
Are there adequate federal or state laws to protect something like the skunk
ape from fame-hungry poachers and hunters? It sounds goofy, but the question
isn't actually all that far-fetched.

Nicole Paquette, director of legal and governmental affairs with the
Sacramento-based Animal Protection Institute, which is dedicated to
protecting animals across the globe, says that newly discovered species --
even ones as fantastical as sea monsters and skunk apes -- would more than
likely be protected by the Endangered Species Act. Such animals, if they've
managed to avoid detection even with an army of hunters trying desperately
to find them, would certainly exist in small numbers, she says. They would
then qualify as either threatened or endangered.

True believers always keep a lookout."We are seeing new animals being
discovered these days," Paquette says. "It isn't that unusual anymore. They
are finding different subspecies of animals, so it's not that far-fetched to
worry about new animals needing protection. They are not monsters, just
animals that have not yet been discovered."

The only problem may be timing. Under normal circumstances, when a new
species is discovered in the U.S., its boosters have to petition the U.S.
Department of Fish and Wildlife to list it as protected. That process can be
lengthy, and must include a public comment period. "Once listed, no one
could hunt or kill these animals," Paquette says. "But up until they are
listed, essentially, that animal has no protection."

Christine Nolin, branch chief for endangered species conservation with Fish
and Wildlife, admits that the process of declaring a species endangered is
lengthy. (It's especially laborious now, she says, with the department
facing a large backlog.) But if a newly discovered creature is found to be
facing an immediate threat -- and surely Bigfoot would qualify -- there is a
provision for emergency protection. Under the rule, the agency has 240 days
to finalize the creature's inclusion in the Endangered Species Act. During
that time, the animal is protected as if it were endangered.

Tales From the Crypto

Loren Coleman, a Portland, Maine, cryptozoologist -- one who studies
creatures that may not exist -- says he has mixed feelings about the laws
protecting some of the country's legendary monsters. Too many, he says, are
publicity ploys. But he recognizes that people do want to protect creatures
that may exist but haven't yet been discovered, while others want to keep
hunters and poachers out of wildlife areas. Both intentions are good,
Coleman says, talking quickly as he rattles off facts about a subject he's
spent the majority of his adult years studying. (His other specialty is
suicides among baseball players.)

"Cryptozoology deals with monsters that have yet to be discovered," Coleman
says. "But that doesn't mean that they don't exist. They usually just don't
exist in as fantastical a nature as people think. The gorilla, you know,
isn't a giant animal that squeezes native women to death. There are some
serious individuals out there who feel that animals like Champ are really an
endangered species that haven't yet been discovered. They want to protect
them, and think that the best way is to pass laws protecting them before
they're discovered. That's usually not the way we go about it, but it does
seem to be a way to offer immediate protection."

Coleman isn't worried that a creature like Bigfoot would really face any
serious danger if discovered. Proof of its existence would create loads of
publicity, he says, and would undoubtedly spur federal and state officials
to act quickly -- within 24 hours, Coleman predicts -- to enact protective

The actions of an adventurer, though, out to make a name for himself? There
isn't much protection against that, even from Congress. That's why, back in
the swampy Everglades, Shealy hopes his skunk apes one day receive the same
consideration as Champ, Whitey, Bigfoot, and other legendary creatures.

He even has an idea of how simple the regulation should be: "I'd like a law
passed that says if something out there looks like a man covered in hair,
don't shoot it."||