In a world where the hunt for unknown animals such as Bigfoot has become reality TV fodder, Ken Gerhard quietly goes in search of the truth behind monster sightings.
All over America and even beyond, when people see monsters or unexplainable animals, they give Gerhard a call or shoot him an email. The Houston-born author and rising name in the field of cryptozoology (the study of unknown or unexpected animals) was previously a star of the goth and dark electronica music scene that once included nationally known bands in our city. He toured and released extensively with the likes of Flowers and Machines and Bamboo Crisis, but two decades in the music industry eventually burned him out.
Now he hunts Bigfoot, thunderbirds, the chupacabra and other cryptids. He says it's a lot less stressful and much more rewarding. He hasn't left stagecraft behind entirely, though. When tracking Bigfoot, he dresses in black leathers and matching cowboy hat.
On this investigation he's in Carrabelle, Florida, at the invitation of the Carrabelle City Council. People claim they've seen a black panther in the woods, a creature described as the size of a small cougar and dubbed "The Carrabelle Cat." As part of his invitation, Gerhard was sent a link to a YouTube video shot by a hunter in a deer stand.
Large cats like the cougar are believed extinct in the United States east of the Mississippi River, save in Florida. Despite sightings, there has never been a 100 percent verified account of an all-black, or melanistic, cougar. If this sighting were confirmed, it would be the first, or perhaps it would indicate the existence of a new species of large cat.
Gerhard comes prepared. He brings with him a cardboard cutout of the panther based on the estimated measurements he received from his contact. Upon arriving, he is able to locate the deer blind spot where the sighting occurred and climbs into the same tree as the hunter. After some tinkering, he carefully positions the cutout so he can re-create the shot the hunter took.
Satisfied with his work, Gerhard will show his photo to experts who gauge ratios in photography to see if the Florida woods really are hiding an unknown large black cat after all. Eventually the analysis is complete and the panther measures in at...
Thirteen inches. No bigger than a common house cat.
The city is not amused, and according to Gerhard virtually runs him out of town, but this is the difference between the real world of monster investigation and the sort of thing you will see on a show like Mountain Monsters. On TV, a team of brave explorers are always just one step away from capturing or shooting some mysterious beastie that at the last second gives them the slip, disappearing back into the mists of the unknown to serve as bait for another intrepid band. It's thrilling. It's exciting. It's riveting drama. It's mostly hooey.
"Cryptozoology is based on scientific process, so I think it's important to keep that in mind," says Gerhard. "Even though it's a discipline that deals with bizarre possibilities, it was designed by zoologists."
Modern-day sasquatchploitation is very different from things like Leonard Nimoy's In Search of..., the show that first inspired Gerhard as a child. Finding Bigfoot, now in its fifth season, is one of Animal Planet's most watched shows despite criticism by researchers that the program is scripted and overly sensational. Gerhard learned early on to be very careful with which invitations he accepts to appear on television to discuss Bigfoot, lest he end up appearing different from the way he intended once the footage is edited.
"The field keeps getting black eyes from fictional stories portrayed as fact," he says. "Lots of very terrible shows full of actors running around pretending to hunt monsters. It's train-wreck television."
Gerhard's approach is different. He moved to San Antonio eight years ago to be closer to the majority of Bigfoot sightings in Texas and maximize the number he could investigate in the field. His apartment is covered in maps on which he marks with push pins each sighting or report he finds out about. He looks for clusters from multiple sources, indicators that something has enough of a presence that it's unlikely to be the result of widespread misidentification or hoaxsters. The best candidates feature nearly identical stories and descriptions from unrelated individuals.
"I'll give Ken credit for actually going out into the field," says Chester Moore, a wildlife journalist who mentored Gerhard when he started out and helped him prepare for a trip to Belize to investigate Bigfoot sightings there. "There aren't a lot of guys who do actually get out and dig around, and that is what matters. He definitely has a passion for it. Ken is aggressive in his pursuit."
His ultimate dream is to find enough evidence of something to present to a peer-reviewed scientific journal. To do that, he has staked his claim across southeast Texas; sent after monsters, he's looking for answers.
Most people don't associate Texas and the South with Bigfoot or the Yeti. The most famous cases all derive from the heavily wooded Pacific Northwest. However, when it comes to sightings of Bigfoot and other creatures of unknown origin, Texas and neighboring states are among the most prolific locations in the country. This is especially true of the Big Thicket, where the land turns swampy and inaccessible as the Sabine River bleeds into Texas.
Rob Riggs, author of Weird Texas, In the Big Thicket and other books on cryptozoology and paranormal phenomena, traces the beginning of major Bigfoot sightings in our state to a 1952 Kountze News article that described a "naked hairy wild man" in the woods of Hardin County. Riggs was seven years old then, and was riveted by the reports of coming in from hunters and people who had briefly glimpsed whatever it was from passing cars. The stories were at least credible enough that the Sheriff's Office was moved to investigate the claims, finding strange tracks but little else.
"There were no bears at the time; they'd all been hunted out," says Riggs. "My grandfather didn't think it was a man because he didn't think that a man could live in the woods. The South has as much forest, mountains, swamps and inaccessible terrain as the Pacific Northwest."
Before that there's a famous case from the 19th century involving the Wild Man (Sometimes Woman) of the Navidad. In 1837, sightings of a short creature covered in hair began to occur in the settlements along the Navidad River bottom. Food was taken from caches, but never money or valuables. Sometimes tools were stolen, but they would be mysteriously returned polished.
Slaves referred to the creature as The Thing That Comes, and manhunts were organized for its capture. Some accounts say that eventually a naked African man (or woman) was apprehended in 1850 but that since he or she spoke no English and no one spoke the African dialect he or she used, the mystery was no closer to a solution. According to folklore, the Wild Man or Woman was sold into slavery and died in 1884.
Reports kept coming in from East Texas and still do to this day. According to the Texas Bigfoot Research Conservancy, there have been more than 30 reported sightings in recent years in Liberty and Montgomery counties alone.
That's in the present, though, when "Bigfoot" has become a household name. In the early days, there was no universally established term for what people were seeing in the woods. The name Bigfoot itself wasn't coined until six years after the sightings in Hardin County were reported. Texans referred to it as a wild man, or a woolly booger or as nothing at all. The concept of Bigfoot hadn't really taken hold, and people were unaware of how widespread what was happening actually was.
"People didn't have the mobility they have today," says Riggs. "They didn't know about Bigfoot and Sasquatch up north, so there wasn't any projection. And Hardin might not know that in Polk, the same thing might be sighted."
Riggs is very leery of even using the term "Bigfoot" himself and says that the one book he has published on the subject used the word in the title against his wishes. The generalizations sometimes cause witnesses to see what they expect to see, not necessarily what is actually there, he says.
Forty years of investigating in Texas have led Riggs to believe that not only is there something in the woods, but it is distinctly different from the creature that is more commonly cited in reports from the Northwest. Up there Bigfoot is generally reported as a tall, bipedal hominid, whereas most reports in the South describe a creature that is smaller and moves on all fours.
There is ample fossil evidence of Bigfoot-like creatures until around a million years ago. The massive ape hominid Gigantopithecus, the species most often associated with the Bigfoot, was still leaving fossils behind only 300,000 years ago. However, there is no established tradition of apes such as these in North America, and the few monkeys native to the New World were early forms that reached this part of the world from Africa probably by way of vegetation rafts around 43 million years ago, according to fossil discoveries at the Devil's Graveyard Formation in southwest Texas. That's closer to the dinosaurs than to us, and climate change at the end of the Eocene is supposed to have killed them off 33 million years ago.
On the other hand, just because a creature disappears from the fossil record or the public eye is not necessarily a reason to dismiss the possibility of its continued existence. The last Tasmanian tiger was thought to have died in captivity in 1936, but sightings of the creature have remained so numerous that while the Tasmanian government says there's no conclusive evidence for its survival, the state's wildlife management office hedges its bets by saying the animal is only "probably extinct."
There's also the case of the coelacanth, a bony fish that was believed to have become extinct 66 million years ago but which was discovered alive in 1938. Even fairly large animals are sometimes rediscovered. The Caspian horse, a small equine indigenous to Iran, was believed to have died out in the 7th century, but was found to have survived among the peasants in the mountains of northern Iran in the 1960s. Today there is a small but healthy breeding stock.
When Riggs went to work for the same newspaper that inspired his interest in the subject in the first place, he asked readers for any reports of apes in the Texas woods. Not Sasquatch or Bigfoot, just unexplained creatures that might have been spotted. He was astounded at the number of people who came forward and how similar their stories were. In keeping with what little is known about primates in North America, many reports do seem comparable to what paleontological knowledge we have of ancient Texas primates. So despite the unlikelihood of a large surviving primate of some kind existing in remote or hidden parts of Texas and filling some sort of forgotten ecological niche, there's no particular reason to think it's out of the question entirely. It's merely unproved.
"What I often tell people is that if you immerse yourself in the field, you'd be blown away by the amount of evidence," Gerhard says. "They just get pieces of the puzzle. There's a literal ton of eyewitness accounts, foot casts, hair samples and the like. It's a situation where from a mathematical standpoint, it's highly probable that these creatures exist in North America, but it's also statistically impossible that nothing is out there. It's a weird juxtaposition of highly unlikely realities, but one of them has to be right."
An open mind like Gerhard's is very important in Bigfoot and other monster hunting because the field is full of hoaxsters, the mentally unstable and people who refuse to acknowledge the more mundane truth behind what they might have seen.
The elder statesman of cryptozoology is Loren Coleman, who has been a leading name in the field for more than 50 years and has authored more than a dozen books about monsters on land, in the sea and in the air. One of the reasons his reputation has endured for so long is that he is, in his own words, neither a true believer nor a debunker.
"I don't like true believers or debunkers," says Coleman. "Ken and I are the middle ground. Skeptically open-minded or open-mindedly skeptical. People want mystery in their lives, but Ken is a very good researcher because he knows a lot about misidentification. He looks for the natural explanation."
For instance, there is the famous chupacabra that many Texans claim to have seen. First sighted in 1995 in Puerto Rico, the demonic, doglike creature is believed to be responsible for gruesome and mysterious cattle mutilations. It's been sighted as far north as Maine, but reports are most numerous from the southern United States and northern Mexico.
People often ask if cryptozoologists have ever truly discovered anything, and in a sense they have. They have discovered that the chupacabra is a coyote afflicted with mange. Sometimes it is a dog/coyote mix or has Mexican wolf blood, but that is all it ever has been.
"Nearly 100 percent of chupacabra sightings are dogs with mange," says Coleman. "It's not that people are trying to hoax us, but they believe what they believe."
Hoaxes are a major problem in the field, maybe even more so than misidentification. Recently a man named Rick Dyer claimed to have shot and killed a Bigfoot outside San Antonio in an area Gerhard describes as "50 feet from a Starbucks." Dyer celebrated this amazing feat by touring the United States with the alleged corpse of the Bigfoot, charging admission to view it. Our own Alamo Drafthouse hosted a showing alongside some Bigfoot films.
Though the corpse was an obvious fake to most people, Dyer kept making appearances until finally admitting the whole thing was a fraud earlier this year. This was actually his second Bigfoot corpse scam, and he made around $60,000 from the endeavor.
"Rick Dyer is interested in celebrity," says Coleman. "Negative celebrity, but celebrity nonetheless. And money. He sold the corpse of his Georgia Bigfoot for $50,000. Poor guy that bought it never even took him to court because he was so embarrassed."
Yet even though the hoaxes receive a ton of media attention, Coleman says they make up barely 1 percent of all sightings. Another 80 percent are written off as misidentifications, but that still leaves a solid 19 percent where something strange and unexplainable happened.
According to Riggs, the strange and unexplainable often happens in clusters in Texas. There are plenty of isolated Bigfoot and wild-man sightings, just as there are plenty of isolated UFO sightings, but in many places, they happen in close proximity to one another.
"One theory is that Bigfoot sightings are part of a range of paranormal activity in specific places," Riggs says. "Like in Hardin County you'll get a report of a Bigfoot creature, but also UFOs, unusual luminous phenomena, magnetic disturbances, blackouts, etc. All these things occur regionally in places like Goodrich and Lee counties."
Riggs also says that howling vocalizations -- which people often say they hear when they see something that looks like Bigfoot to them -- are known in this type of regional activity. As other sources have noted, these vocalizations may offer an explanation for many sightings.
Infrasound is lower in frequency than 20 Hz, the bottom of the normal range of human hearing. In 1957 a French robotics researcher named Vladimir Gavreau noticed that the vibrating of metal pipes in his lab induced nausea and bleeding from the ears in himself and his lab assistants. According to Steve Goodman's book Sonic Warfare, through experimentation, Gavreau deduced that sounds between 7 Hz and 19 Hz had the effect of creating fear, panic and dread in human beings through resonance with internal organs, and he even sought to militarize the discovery.
Richard Lord, an acoustic scientist at the National Physical Laboratory in England, was reported to have done experiments with infrasound in 2003. In an interview with NBC, he and his colleagues described how they would play audiences selections of music laced with infrasound and then gauge their reactions. Twenty-two percent of those who heard the infrasound pieces reported feeling frightened, uneasy or nervous.
Another English scientist, Vic Tandy, further experimented with the way infrasound causes humans to react after he started seeing what looked like a gray ghost seated near his desk. Eventually he found an exhaust fan that produced sound at 18.5 Hz. After he modified the fan, sightings of the ghost and mysterious feelings of depression in the lab ceased. Tandy later went on to show that the "haunted" cellar of a nearby abbey where ghost sightings were common was actually vibrating from infrasound produced by nearby factories and amplified by the shape of the cellar. His work was eventually published in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research.
What this has to do with Bigfoot sightings is that many animals can produce infrasound as well. Elephants, for instance, do so. Tigers are especially good at it, with a roar pitched at 18.5 Hz and well known to paralyze prey with fear. According to a 2000 study by Elizabeth von Muggenthaler, a bio--acoustician with the Fauna Communications Research Institute in North Carolina, infrasound is the reason.
There are no tigers in the woods of Texas, but there are big cats. Chester Moore has spent years attempting to show that the jaguarondi of Mexico ranges much farther north than science generally accepts, and he believes they are responsible for many black panther sightings like the one Gerhard investigated in Florida. Moore himself saw one cross the road in front of him near Port Arthur in 2001. He later confirmed there were jaguarondi tracks at the scene.
Moore also says that cougars are increasingly showing up in places from which the public has long thought they had disappeared. In 2011 a 140-pound mountain lion was hit by a car and killed in Connecticut. Genetic testing revealed it had traveled all the way from the Black Hills of South Dakota. Young males usually travel up to 100 miles in search of a mate, but this was the first time a wild cougar had been confirmed in the state of Connecticut in 100 years.
The third-largest cat in the world, the jaguar, is North American, and prior to 1940 it was seen far into east Texas. The jaguar is one of only four big cats capable of roaring like a tiger and producing infrasound that causes fear. As with the jaguarondi, there are also known to be all-black jaguars. It's not outside the realm of possibility that such creatures have more to do with Texas Bigfoot legends than we realize.
"Cryptozoology isn't always about the fabulous or the unbelievable," says Gerhard. "It's just about the unexpected."
The mainstream media perception of cryptozoology and the search for the truth behind legends like Bigfoot has recently taken a sensationalistic turn. In 2013 the Discovery Channel ran a "documentary" on the extinct giant shark known as the megalodon that used actors and staged footage to make it appear that attacks by megalodons had been reported recently. The program drew on oceanic cryptid sightings like The Submarine of South Africa and the giant shark known as The Lord of the Deep that was reported off the coast of New South Wales in 1918, giving it even more credibility as fact.
Though there was a disclaimer saying the program was fiction, a post-show poll revealed that nearly 80 percent of viewers thought it was real.
Loren Coleman spoke to the Houston Press concerning the show, saying, "I taught a documentary film course for 20 years at the University of Southern Maine to 100 to 200 juniors and seniors a semester. We examined these kinds of programs routinely. This may be one of the worst examples of a production trying to pull the wool over the eyes of the public with a docudrama presented as a documentary. The flash of the disclaimer at the end was unprofessional and verged on the unethical. Discovery Channel should be ashamed of itself."
Animal Planet did the same thing a year earlier with its show Mermaids: The Bodies Found, which followed a similar format and also fooled viewers. The response to the fauxcumentary was equally overwhelming. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration received so many calls regarding the program and the revelation about the existence of mermaids that it was forced to release a statement saying, "The belief in mermaids may have arisen at the very dawn of our species. Magical female figures first appear in cave paintings in the late Paleolithic (Stone Age) period some 30,000 years ago, when modern humans gained dominion over the land and, presumably, began to sail the seas...But are mermaids real? No evidence of aquatic humanoids has ever been found."
"I still get asked about the mermaids," Gerhard admits. "All the time."
Fall and hunting season are approaching, a time when the weather is pleasant enough to head out into the woods and the presence of hunters means more sightings. It's these months that keep Gerhard the busiest, and he looks forward to going wherever the call of Bigfoot takes him.
Maybe even home. There's a Bigfoot sighting right here in Houston that he's been meaning to come look at in person. A couple jogging in Terry Hershey Park who had a penchant for venturing off the path into wooded areas had a frightful encounter three years ago.
"It happened on Sunday, April 2, 2011," says Gerhard. "JM (Not his real name) and his girlfriend were near a creek and spotted a caved-in area on the shore. At first they thought it was a very tall homeless man, but he didn't look quite normal. Somehow inhuman. He had a hairy face and large black eyes. Startled by the couple, it ran. A few days later, they returned to find some hair, which I have not had for analysis yet, and a half-eaten fish. It was tall and thin, and there was a foul smell around the area."
The couple also described low-pitched grunts and moans.
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Another recent sighting might involve Houston's most famous unexplained monster, The Bat Man. In 1953 something monstrous was sighted in the Heights. Hilda Walker, a 23-year-old housewife, and two of her neighbors saw a large shadow flying over their lawns. It was man-size and manlike, dressed in what looked like a paratrooper's outfit. After being spotted, it faded into the night, never to be seen again.
Or did it? Gerhard recently received two emails from a Cloverleaf woman who said a "large man bat" swooped down on her in her backyard. The thing was so large that it blotted out the light from her porch, and the woman was so scared it would attack her that she fled inside with her dog.
From then on she began taking her smoke breaks on the front porch instead, only to see another shape crash down into her tree. It was large enough to dislodge and break several dead branches, which fell to the ground. That's when she contacted Gerhard. It's the sort of thing Gerhard loves. He initially made his name reporting on unexplained large flying creatures over the Texas skies, including a supposed pterosaur sighting in Houston in 2012. It's not as glamorous as TV makes it look these days, but it's still what he calls his job.
"You have to be objective," says Gerhard. "This is about the pursuit of knowledge. It's about trying to find the answer behind what people are seeing."