Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Athens, Georgia Nature Center hosts Bigfoot Exhibit

How does this question grab you?

"Could an undiscovered ape live in Georgia?"

A really big one, as tall as your ceiling at home, maybe more, with feet the size of car mats.

That's what naturalists at Sandy Creek Nature Center are asking those who dare slip into the corner of its interpretive science area, where one exhibit challenges conventional thoughts on, you guessed it, Bigfoot.

"We think it's fun from kind of a natural science standpoint," said Randy Smith, the facility supervisor. "Why couldn't there be one? We're kind of arrogant to say we know everything."

But he and his staff certainly understand why people do question the legitimacy of what's believed to be an unidentified hairy species that appears more man than ape and is expert at hiding from people.

The exhibit probes the cultural intrigue surrounding the mystery, as well.

Part of the encased-glass display includes a bottle of Sierra Nevada's Bigfoot beer, a movie poster for "Harry and the Hendersons" and a reference to a popular television advertisement for beef jerky titled "Messin' with Sasquatch." The takeaway line: "Feed your wild side."

What the center is encouraging, however, is visitors feed their minds. Camouflaged material, life-size cutouts, leaves and tree shrubs provide the display's backdrop. Replica footprint casts of those collected by credible scientists as well as images isolated from the 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film are presented as possible evidence.

Perhaps the most compelling context clues show other mysterious species, which were once considered fiction before being found. Among them: Photos and explainers on the Laotian rock rat as well as a particular fish that stymied scientists for decades until 1938. It's called a coelacanth.

"It's a really fascinating story," Davis said. "There were all these stories about these strange fish. Smart, sciency people didn't believe it until the '30s, when (someone) actually caught one in South Africa."

In the same vein is a photo taken of a model developed from actual fossil finds from Southeast Asia named Gigantopithecus blacki. And yes, the replica looks a lot like what we perceive today as a Bigfoot.

"I don't see any reason why there can't be," said Berkeley Boone, a naturalist who helped put together the exhibit. "It would be fun and add a lot to science."

A flat-screen video that plays an hour-long loop of a Discovery Channel documentary probing the Bigfoot mystery accompanies the display at Sandy Creek.

But what most captivates visitors, Boone said, is the chart relative to Georgia. All sightings reported to Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization are referenced.

There is only one sighting listed for Athens-Clarke, according to the organization's Web site, www.bfro.net.

"People seem to take the, 'Hmm, that's interesting (approach),'" Davis said. "That's the kind of the response we hoped for."

The sightings listed on the chart do not include the national hoax launched last month in Georgia. Two Clayton County men claimed they recovered the corpse of a Bigfoot, before selling their ice-covered "creature" to a promoter in California. But when the freezer contents melted, a rubber costume emerged.

Naturalists at Sandy Creek put up the display months before the firestorm that captivated serious researchers as well as nonbelievers.

It's a good thing.

Just as their exhibit suggests, Bigfoot remains a scientific mystery.

"No one can make a decision," Boone said. "We'll leave it up to you."

Erin Rossiter is a staff writer for the Athens Banner-Herald and can be reached at erin.rossiter@onlineathens.com.

Originally published in the Athens Banner-Herald on Saturday, September 06, 2008

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