By Robin Wilson, The Chronicle of Higher Education
Pocatello, Idaho - On a Sunday afternoon in June, Jeffrey Meldrum jumps into his navy-blue Suburban and follows a beat-up red pickup truck heading out of town. Willie Preacher, an American Indian artist, is leading the way in the pickup. He wants to show Mr. Meldrum some Indian drawings he’s seen on a large pile of volcanic rocks.
The men stop at the side of the road and work their way through a patch of prickly foxtail weeds to the rocks, where Mr. Preacher points out drawings of block-like footprints. Are they Indian renderings of bear prints, he wonders, or could they perhaps represent print of a giant primate known as bigfoot?
Mr. Meldrum, an associate professor at Idaho State University here, is a scientist, not an artist. But it is not unusual for him to get visits, phone calls, and e-mail messages from people all over the country who think they’ve found evidence of an overgrown ape that walks on two legs. Mr. Meldrum is considered by many to be the nation’s foremost scientific authority on the existence of bigfoot, and one of the few academics involved in a hunt to track down the alleged eight-foot-tall primate.
How can a serious scholar believe in bigfoot?
It’s a question Mr. Meldrum’s colleagues at Idaho State frequently ask. His research on bigfoot—also known as sasquatch, yeti, and the wildman of the woods—has made him a celebrity of sorts: Mr. Meldrum has appeared in a documentary on the Discovery Channel and on the National Geographic Channel’s series, “Is It Real?” His book on the subject, Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science (Forge Books) is due out in September.
But some science professors here say his work is an embarrassment to the university. Studying sasquatch, they say, is like studying Martians. “He might as well be investigating Santa Claus,” say D.P. Wells, an associate professor of physics at Idaho State.
Mr. Meldrum’s work certainly hasn’t earned him points at the university. He is an associate professor of anatomy and anthropology with a specialty in the evolution of human locomotion and bipedalism. His lab houses nearly 200 plaster casts made from alleged bigfoot prints. It is the nation’s largest collection, and the professor has spent years studying the casts for what they might say about how bigfoot walks in unique ways.
Still, Mr. Meldrum’s road to tenure was “bumpy,” he acknowledges, and his department—biological sciences—has twice turned down his bid to become a full professor, saying that what he does is not real science. To Mr. Meldrum that simply proves that the scientific establishment is close-minded. “Why can’t we take a serious look at this as objective scientists?” he asks. “It’s almost as if the spirit of exploration has kind of died.”
Mr. Meldrum is hardly an eccentric professor who relishes going against the grain. Apart from his thick mustache, he looks like an overgrown kid with floppy brown hair (which he recently cut before taking one of his six sons on a Boy Scout camping trip).
Despite his all-American image, Mr. Meldrum’s work on bigfoot has sometimes thrust him into the seedy world of tabloid journalism, hoaxes, and crackpots. Bigfoot is the subject of legend for which there is very little proof. Countless sightings and footprints have been reported, but so far there is no body, no fossils, no identifiable hair, no DNA.
To Mr. Meldrum, though, it is irresponsible to ignore the possibility that bigfoot is real. “The skeptics say, well, you have to have a body. But that’s ridiculous,” he says. “To say you’ll sit on your hands on the sidelines until someone drops a body into your lap is hokum.”
Mr. Meldrum’s interest in bigfoot started as boyhood fascination, after his father took him to the Spokane Coliseum when he was 11 years old to see a now-famous film clip shot in 1967 in Northern California that purported to capture a hairy, oversize ape striding on two legs.
Mr. Meldrum’s parents bought him a copy of Abominable Snowman: Legend Come to Life (Adventures Unlimited Press) when he was 13 and the well-worn copy now sits on a shelf in his office. The young Meldrum was so enthused about bigfoot that he told all of his friends that he would be the person who eventually found the large primate. “Good luck hunting for bigfoot,” one friend wrote in his 1976 Boise high-school yearbook. In graduate school at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, Mr. Meldrum was a charter member of the now-defunct International Society for Cryptozoology—a scholarly group that evaluated evidence of animals that have been reported but not proven to exist.
Growing up in Idaho and Washington State did put Mr. Meldrum, who is 48, in prime bigfoot territory. The Pacific Northwest and the Canadian Rockies are home to most alleged bigfoot sightings. “There is no escaping the fact that bigfoot is in the cultural landscape of this region,” says Mr. Meldrum. Here in Pocatello, Big O Tires sells a “Bigfoot All Terrain” brand, and Big Foot Pizza’s logo features a Cookie Monster-like creature carrying a pizza box above his head.
That is why it made sense to bring the Bigfoot Rendezvous to town this summer. Half festival and half conference, the rendezvous started with an outdoor welcome party downtown, where a man in an ape suit mingled with the crowd. Then the gathering moved to the ISU campus for films, storytelling, and live music by Canadian singer Li’l Liza Jane. Her songs are featured on Big Gilyuk: The Bigfoot CD, which Mr. Meldrum plays in his Suburban. The festival also featured talks by an archaeologist, a wildlife biologist, and a panel of American Indians.
Mr. Meldrum spoke, too, but kept a certain distance from the event. “I am constantly struggling to convey that my involvement in this is serious science, and if I go too far it’s taken as grist for the skeptics’ mill,” he says. “I don’t want to be perceived as a promoter, or have a link to the commercialization of bigfoot.” Alongside free fly swatters in the shape of a foot, however, the professor did have duplicate casts of his bigfoot prints for sale: One for $40 or two for $70.
Mr. Meldrum keeps the original casts in stacks of wide, thin, drawers in his cramped ISU lab. Some of the casts he made himself, including seven from the first set of tracks he saw with his own eyes in the Blue Mountains of Eastern Washington in 1996. The prints were nearly 14 inches long.
According to Mr. Meldrum, the casts provide evidence of a flat, flexible foot much like an ape’s. Unlike a human foot—which is more rigid and has an arch—the bigfoot prints, say Mr. Meldrum, show signs of a pressure ridge across the midfoot. The ridge means that whatever left the prints had a foot that could bend at the halfway point, allowing the animal to balance on the entire top portion of the foot as opposed to just the ball, like a human. Prints from different locations share the ridge characteristic, and would have been difficult to make by someone using carved, wooden blocks, as some skeptics have alleged.
The American Association of Physical Anthropologists has accepted two posters on Mr. Meldrum’s work for display at its annual meetings. But its reviewers have rejected two others, saying they would be of questionable interest to academics and inferred too much from too little evidence. The professor has received private research money for his bigfoot work totaling about $30,000, and ISU has given him a $6,000 grant.
Before the Bigfoot Rendezvous, 30 scientists on the ISU campus wrote a letter to university officials as a reminder that “you know, folks, we are a science-based university and let’s not forget that,” says Curt Anderson, as associate professor of physiology in Mr. Meldrum’s department.
The possibility that a large ape is roaming the American West is simply outlandish to many scientists. “All hominids known to exist live in social groups—they’re not solitary,” says Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in ISU’s physics department. Apes live in tropical climates. How could an apelike creature exist through the frigid winters of the mountain West where “there is not possibly enough food to feed them?” he asks.
As a physicist, says Mr. Meldrum, his colleague is simply unaware of the facts about primates. Orangutans, for example, live largely on their own, he says, and in Japan, some primates live at high altitudes where it is sometimes frigid and snows in the winter. bigfoot, he says, most likely survives on lichens and thornberries, as well as by eating hibernating rodents.
But Mr. Meldrum’s colleagues say there are other problems with his work. He does not operate like a traditional scientist by stating a hypothesis and attempting to nullify it, they say. Instead, says Terry Bowyer, chairman of biological sciences, Mr. Meldrum does the opposite: tries to prove the existence of something with questionable data.
Mr. Meldrum does have a couple of supporters at the university, including Trent Stephens, a professor of anatomy and embryology. “Scientists are extremely conservative and have blinders on,” says Mr. Stephens. “Most of the people who have written off his research have never set foot in Jeff’s lab, and they are in the same building.”
In August, Mr. Meldrum will once again attempt to trump his critics when he and a fellow enthusiast head out for a weeklong camping trip to look for bigfoot. This time they will go to Wyoming’s Wind River Mountain Range. It will be Mr. Meldrum’s seventh such quest.
In the past, he has seen 16-inch-long footprints, heard mysterious teeth clacking, and felt something that he thought was too large to be a bear brush against his tent. This time he’ll set up cameras hoping to catch some live footage of a giant ape and put out snares that could capture samples of skin and hair. “What better activity to pursue,” he says, “than to solve a mystery?”
In: The Chronicle of Higher Education, 4 August 2006, Volume LII, Number 48, page A44.