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Weird Weekend 2007

Matt Salusbury reports on the Centre for Fortean Zoology’s annual cryptozoological gathering

After a pre-event, Thursday night cocktail party (the aftermath of which found me thrown from my bike and gazing drunkenly up at the stars for a good half-hour), the eighth Weird Weekend proper opened on Friday 17 August with a dragon dance featuring the children of the North Devon village of Wolfordisworthy (aka Woolserey) carrying a huge Chinese-style red dragon. CFZ director and former music journalist Jon Downes (he used to specialise in writing about anarcho punk band Crass) said: “I think this is going to be a very weird weekend… People from all over the world come to it and people from the village get involved.”

Friday 17 August: Britain’s Secret Wildlife

The Friday evening session of talks kicked off with Jon McGowan, who has been on the trail of two new types of lizard on the cliff tops of Bournemouth and also shared his experiences of Alien Big Cats, which, he told us found the cool climate of Britain perfectly acceptable.

Sticking with ABCs, Chris Moiser, of Big Cats in Britain, turned up late for his talk but by way of apology explained he’d been buying a zoo – Tropiquaria in Minehead. Chris revealed there have been several Alien Big Cat (ABC) reports from Cornwall over the past year, as well as plans for a Beast of Bodmin theme park, which will feature a live black leopard! He also commented on the recent series of five or six photos of the mystery Beast of Dartmoor, some of which appeared in Fortean Times. It was variously interpreted as a bear, a wolverine, a pony, or even a shape-shifting creature that changed from one animal to another from shot to shot. The CFZ outed it as a fairly obvious Newfoundland dog. Moiser noted that “slightly eased quarantine regulations mean we’re beginning to see unfamiliar ‘giant’ European (continental) dog breeds” in the UK that could be mistaken for something else.

Saturday 18 August: Avanq, Almasti and more…

The Saturday session of Weird Weekend is always a 12-hour endurance marathon, and this year’s was no exception, with an overwhelming parade of speakers.

The day began with ‘parish announcements’ and then an introduction to cryptozoology, the science of ‘hidden’ animals. This was mainly for the benefit of the citizens of Woolfordishworthy, North Devon, who while they had thrown themselves into helping out with WW with great enthusiasm, aren’t cryptzoological insiders. Richard Freeman also told us of the planned CFZ expedition to Guyana this November in search of the giant bull eating anaconda ‘manatora’ (literally ‘eater of bulls’) and the Dee Dee, an upright clawed creature that could be a ground sloth.

Up and coming cryptozoology researcher Oll Lewis spoke on lake monsters (both folkloric and seemingly real) in his native Wales. One example – the avanq or ufanc – is some kind of crocodile creature, stories about which are confused by the fact that the word is very similar to the word for ‘beaver’ and ‘dwarf’ in Welsh, with its many non-standard old spellings. There are records of something in Llangorse Lake going back to Roman times and huge, 68lb-pike have been fished from its waters. In 1987 a local, Mike Tunnicliffe, met the ufanc when out shooting on the lake. One of his three labradors attacked a ‘basking pike’ in shallow waters, which darted off. Witnesses have seen wildfowl ‘taken’ by something under the water, and a 5-6ft long pike attacked a man in 1997, leaving him hospitalised with bites to his foot. Large pike, Oll noted, can look crocodilian in appearance. Could they be responsible for tales of the avanq?

Dr Karl Shuker showed up to launch Extraordinary Animals Revisited, an update of his classic book on mystery animals. ‘Crypto-books have a habit of becoming as elusive as the animals in them,’ said Dr Shuker of their tendency to go out of print.

Despite being held at Zurich Airport when his ‘hand exercisers’ were mistaken for some kind of weapons of mass destruction, star speaker Grigory Panchenko was on next, the first WW speaker from outside the English-speaking world.

Mr Panchenko works as a recruiter of Russian science personnel in Hanover, although his background is genetics and in his spare time he is the president of a Ukrainian cryptozoological organisation. His talk was advertised as ‘The Russian Snowman’, but the creature he is hunting is, in fact, neither Russian, nor a snowman. It lives in the Caucasus, mostly in Georgia, and is known locally as ‘almasti.’

Unlike the ‘almas’ reported in Mongolia, or the apparently similar ‘aubasti’ reported in Central Asia, which are supposed to be like yetis, the almasti that is “more advanced… Like Homo erectus… of the genus Homo, but not Homo sapiens.” It uses tools and makes basic clothes, like belts, out of natural materials, and has been known to steal clothes from washing lines and rubbish dumps, and to wear them. Mr Panchenko described reports of an almasti wearing a pair of trousers, holding the waist with one hand and stuffing the potatoes it was digging up down the waist with the other. He had even heard of an almasti, seen for several years, wearing a discarded military hat!

The situation is different to the vast forests of the Pacific Northwestern USA, supposed to hide Bigfoot, or the empty snowfields of the Himalayas, allegedly home to the Yeti: the almasti are ‘forced to live next to humans’ in the Caucasus mountain chain that stretches between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea for 1,200km, an area populated by modern humans for a very long time. “How can the almasti eat in such an unusual environment?” asks Mr Panchenko. Well, it occupies the “same niche as a bear; it’s omnivorous; plants are the leading part of its food.” Almastis often “borrow food from human neighbours” – as well as neatly digging out potatoes, they eat nuts, almonds, horse manure (for its vitamins) and sometimes steal newborn foals and cows or milk cows into their mouths. Frogs, lizards, toads, rats, hares, salt left out by shepherds for sheep to lick, and eggs stolen from chicken coops are all part of the almasti diet.

They are “mainly evening, night creatures,” and Mr Panchenko told us that “if you saw an almasti yesterday, you won’t see them for a year.” It hides from humans, seemingly able to smell their scent and then stay away from it – although they can be heard, making a noise like a male chimpanzee, and also whistling. Mr Panchenko has heard its whistles four times on three expeditions, and says that, when afraid, the almasti has a high-pitched scream.

Mr Panchenko and his team have found almasti remains, mostly in caves – a shin bone is currently at the University of Paris for DNA analysis. He has come within 10ft of a teenage almasti, who didn’t know he was there, but says his camera was out of batteries at the time. The team have heard over 2,000 stories of almasti sightings, but the animals are rare. Post-Soviet Georgia has many abandoned collective farms, and encounters with almasti often happen in these, and other abandoned buildings used by the almasti to shelter in.

Young almasti look “almost like human children”. Around the late 1990s, there were only reports of older almasti, and there were fears that the species was nearing extinction, but this threat appears to have been averted, with reports starting up again of almasti children being sighted. A recent German expedition by Marojan Kaufman heard reports of new almasti children having being born – so perhaps the future is looking up for these mysterious denizens of the Caucasus.

And then, a complete change from the day’s crypto-fare in the form of Peter Roberts and Larry Warren – US servicemen serving at the RAF Rendlesham air base in Suffolk on that fateful 1980 night when something descended and fired ‘pencil beams’ into the sheds containing the nukes they were guarding. In their talk, they described how samples of soil taken in the area of Rendlesham Forest where whatever-it-was landed showed that the sand in the sandy soil had been turned to glass. Peter Roberts then went on the deliver a workshop on UFOs especially for kids, as part of the first Weird Weekend with special child-friendly events on the programme.

There was also the now traditional mad hatter’s tea party – Richard Freeman in his everyday top hat, joined by Corrina James (recently married to Jonathan Downes) as the Red Queen, resplendent in a red Renaissance-style dress.

Child-friendly though Weird Weekend may be, parental advisory stickers were needed for Dr Charles Paxton’s ‘cetacean porn’ half hour, in which he demonstrated how an eighteenth century sea serpent sighting off Greenland, and some other such sightings, could be explained as misidentified whale penises.

Adam Davies
reported back to us on his sometime hazardous search for ‘mokele-mbembe’, the cut-down sauropod that allegedly lives in Lake Tele, a spectacularly remote and inaccessible part of Congo, Central Africa. Along with being shot at, having termites nest in his boxer shorts and eating a monkey for his Christmas dinner, Adam met a Minister of Forests who had seen a brontosaurus-like creature in a hunter’s camp just south of Lake Tele, and pygmies who told him that mokele-mbembe could shoot lightning from its eyes. Adam shared with us – ‘God, it’s so beautiful!’ he said – some of the very few photos ever taken of Lake Tele, which looks likes it’s remained pretty much unchanged in the last 20 million years.
While he didn’t see mokele-mbembe, Adam remains a believer; following local tip offs, he intends to come back, but to the nearby Lake Macule, about the size of Switzerland and apparently a better place to see mokele-mbembe.


Sunday 19 August: Sea Monsters, Bigfoot and Monkey Man

The Sunday session included a report by Graham Inglis – one of the ever-expanding cryptozoologist colony that lives in Mrytle Cottage, Wolfordisworthy – on the CFZ Museum, which he is now building in an old chicken shed at the bottom of the cottage’s garden. The museum, with large tanks for marine life, an aviary and greenhouses with ‘habitats’, has been delayed by bad weather, but should be opening in late 2008.

Dr Charles Paxton
’s interest in marine biology has led him to move into what he calls “the dark side” – statistics and statistical ecology. He currently works at the Maths Department of the University of St Andrews, home of the government sea mammal research unit, where he is developing statistical models and curves on graphs to predict sea animals over two meters long yet to be discovered, which was the subject of his talk.
“Professional scientists have lost sense their sense of wonder", he lamented – and proved it in his own survey showing that less than five per cent of scientists cite “wonder” as a motivation for their career choice.

He argued that eyewitness reports are unreliable, and that cryptozoologists are wrong to approach the evidence for “sea monsters” on a case-by-case basis. Mainstream biologists aren’t going to be influenced by individual case reports: it’s the clear signals send by the patterns in statistical data sets that will convince them there could still be undiscovered creatures out there.
Dr Paxton’s statistical model for “large sea animals of over two meters that remain to be discovered” is based on a graph that plots a curve with the dates of discovery of sea animals over time, to see if it tells us anything about what is still to be found. The graph starts from 1758 (which saw the 10th edition of Carolus Linneaus’ Systema Naturae, the book which established today’s classification system for species) and goes up to the present. There were 35 large marine mammals in the 10th edition of Linneaus; there are 306 now.

Dr Paxton admitted there were some problems with the first version of curve, which predicted ‘minus 1’ animals waiting to be discovered; his conclusion was: “My model is rubbish.”

After taking a number of variables into account – the non-constant nature of the search, differing population sizes, the fact that not all ‘monsters’ are equally easy to detect, and so on – Dr Paxton has now adjusted his statistical model and come up with a revised figure of 306 already known sea animals over two metres long, with the curve predicting a total of 321 of these – meaning there are 15 such creatures yet to be discovered (with a margin of error of plus or minus five).

Next, Nick Redfern gave a talk on one of those 'zooform phenomena' (a term that describes animals that are way too weird to possibly exist, but which are nonetheless still being reported): the Man-Monkey of Ranton, in Redfern’s native Staffordshire. The Man-Monkey was first reported in 1879, and Nick has uncovered a further 20-30 descriptions of this phantom creature from around the UK. Look out for the Man-Monkey story in a future issue of FT!

Paul Vella, a forensic expert witness on computers, gave a talk on 40 years of the Patterson/Gimlin film, the definitive footage of Bigfoot. In forty years there hasn’t been a better film, which is ammunition for the sceptics. If it’s there, they ask, why hasn’t there a better film in all those decades? To put this in context, suggested Paul, there were over 590 drive-by shootings in LA last year, and only one of them was filmed.

After providing a comprehensive overview of the film’s genesis and the controversies that have dogged it ever since, Paul told us that nobody now knows where the original film is. There were five copies made; Vella says he knows where two are and has suspicions as to the location of the third, but the other two remain missing.

Next, palaeontologist Dr Darren Naish described some of the weird island fauna that the fossil record has thrown up. These include the pointy-head horned tortoises of New Caledonia, and the chickhairnie – a group of large bipedal Carribean tree-dwelling animals like giant barn owls that could turn their heads right round, and similar flightless Bahamian running owls encountered by early humans in the islands.

Darren also 'fessed up to having a collection of toy dinosaurs which he said numbered 1,000 (see pictures of Darren's toy dinosaur collection here) which certainly puts my collection of a mere 300-odd in the shade.

As with last year, Weird Weekend concluded with a humorous talk by Ronan Coughlan, which wasn’t really about cryptozoology at all; indeed, it was so bizarre I don’t know what it was about!

CFZ Director Jon Downes rounded off proceedings by quoting father of cryptozoology Bernard Heuvelmans: “The great days of zoology are not yet done.”

© Matt Salusbury 2007

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Author Biography
Matt Salusbury's job as a teacher working with Kurdish refugees covers his secret identity as a freelance journalist, contributing to BBC History magazine and the sci-fi fanzine This Way Up.

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