Bigfoot believers gathered over the weekend in western New York, convinced the legendary Sasquatch has left its footprints all over the region.
About 100 people sported buttons saying “I believe” and swapped stories at the fourth annual Chautauqua Lake Bigfoot Expo.
Organizer Peter Wiemer knows it may not be the first topic that comes to mind in the rural county, best known for the Chautauqua Institution, a summer retreat devoted to scholarly and artistic pursuits.
“You say Bigfoot in a room full of people and watch everyone stop and look to see who’s talking,” he said with a laugh.
And while he may have started the event as a way to draw people to the tourist-dependent region and his family’s rental cottages, he said he has since met dozens of people who are certain they’ve seen one of the ape-like creatures in the area, far from the oft-cited Pacific Northwest.
Wiemer is now enough of a devotee that he’s tried to get New York state to put Sasquatch on its list of endangered species, alongside the mud turtle, the golden eagle and the cougar.
The Department of Environmental Conservation isn’t convinced. Its 2012 response in part: “This mythical animal does not exist in nature or otherwise. … No program or action in relation to mythical animals is warranted.”
Don’t tell that to Julia Karanasky, who was afraid she had a peeping Tom when she became aware of a large figure clearing his throat outside her bedroom window on her second night in her Niagara Falls home in 2009. Then she heard the stories of regular Bigfoot sightings on the nearby Tuscarora Indian Reservation.
“I keep telling people, ‘I think he came to my house that night,”” said Karanasky, who sat in the front row for the expo’s lectures.
Speakers included Steve Kulls, an Adirondacks-based Sasquatch detective who debunks Bigfoot hoaxes while seeking out credible reports, and Ken Gerhard, a cryptozoologist in pursuit of evidence of mystery creatures including the Loch Ness Monster, the chupacabra and werewolves.
Dave Wargo said that years ago he smelled the pungent beast before he saw it standing on railroad tracks near the Allegheny National Forest in Pennsylvania.
“People make fun of you,” said Wargo, who has appeared on Animal Planet’s “Finding Bigfoot” series. “But I know what I saw.”
Yeti, Sasquatch, Ape-Man, Bigfoot. No matter the name, sightings have been reported in virtually every state, with more than 100 listed in New York and more than 250 in neighboring Ohio. Washington state leads, with more than 600 reports, according to the Bigfoot Field Researchers Association.
DNA testing is taking a bite out of the Bigfoot legend. After scientists analyzed more than 30 hair samples reportedly left behind by Bigfoot and similar mythical beasts like the Himalayan Yeti, they found all of them came from more mundane creatures like bears, wolves, cows and raccoons.
In 2012, researchers at Oxford University and the Lausanne Museum of Zoology issued an open call asking museums, scientists and Bigfoot aficionados to share any samples they thought were from the legendary ape-like creatures.
“I thought there was about a 5 percent chance of finding a sample from a Neanderthal or (a Yeti),” said Bryan Sykes of Oxford University, who led the research, the first peer-reviewed study of Bigfoot, Yeti and other “anomalous primates.” The study was published online Wednesday in the journal, Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
Sykes and colleagues tested 36 hair samples from Bhutan, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Russia and the U.S. using DNA sequencing and all of them matched DNA from known animals. Most were from bears, but there were also hairs from a Malaysian tapir, horses, porcupine, deer, sheep, and a human.
While Sykes said they didn’t find any proof of Bigfoot-related creatures, he acknowledged their paper doesn’t prove they don’t exist.
“The fact that none of these samples turned out to be (a Yeti) doesn’t mean the next one won’t,” he said. The scientists did find two samples from ancient polar bears in the Himalayas, who are not known to live there. That suggests there could be a new or hybrid bear species out there, Sykes said.
Others said proving that Bigfoot is real requires significantly more than a mere hair sample.
“I would want visual or physical proof, like a body part, on top of the DNA evidence,” said Todd Disotell, a professor of anthropology at New York University. He warned Bigfoot enthusiasts not to make assumptions when they find weird things in the forest. “Every mammal in the forest leaves hair and poop behind and that’s what we’ve found,” he said. “Just not the big guy himself.”
Some experts said that if Bigfoot existed, there would be a lot more to find than just a few errant hairs.
“Those who believe in the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster need basic instruction in sex,” said Stuart Pimm, an ecologist at Duke University, in an email. “Each Yeti has two parents, four grandparents and so on,” he said. “There should have been herds of (Yetis),” he wrote. “Where were they hiding?”