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Media Article # 634

Saturday, October 17, 1998

Stalking The Wily Bigfoot

By Phil Luciano
Peoria Journal Star

It's important for college instructors to keep on top of their fields of study. So biology professor Angelo Capparella embarked on revolutionary research, a first-ever scientific journey that combined state-of-the-art equipment, meticulous methodology and cutting-edge technology.

And Bigfoot.

He spent last summer in northern California baiting Bigfoot in the hope of proving the existence of the hairy beast.

No, Capparella doesn't work part time for the National Enquirer. He teaches taxonomy (the cataloguing of species) at Illinois State University in Normal. Capparella, 46, belongs to the International Society of Cryptozoology, which promotes scientific searches for mysterious creatures like the Loch Ness Monster.

Some scientists poo-poo cryptozoology. For one, they laugh at the notion that any big animal could escape the eye of biologists; to that, Capparella says that several large creatures have been identified only this century, such as mountain gorillas in the 1930s and a species of hoofed mammal in Vietnam just a few years ago.

Moreover, many scientists think those who look for the legendary beasts are crackpots, and Capparella agrees. But Capparella, who has made several identifications of new birds in South America, says it's time to mix legend with science.

So, last summer (while on unpaid vacation), he joined two other biologists in the hunt for Bigfoot -- what he calls the first scientific search for the animal. "There have been plenty of people wandering the woods with shotguns, but that is not an effective approach," says Capparella, whose easy laugh and laid-back patter reminds one not of a professor but a surfer.

You Bigfoot neophytes might be interested to know that there isn't just one. I don't know if they're called Bigfoots or Bigfeet, but they're estimated to number between 1,000 and 3,000, living along a vast chunk of real estate from northern California to Washington State.

Thus, they're hard to find. So the trio hauled along a hefty supply of sophisticated equipment -- and a simple plan of chicanery.

By all reports, Bigfoot (which gets its name from footprints reported to reach 15 to 18 inches long), ranges from 4 to 9 feet tall (which could indicate child-to-adult growth, Capparella says) and weighs up to 800 pounds.

The theory is, Bigfoot is gigantopithecus, an ape that supposedly went extinct 500,000 years ago in what is now China. However, perhaps some of the species made their way across the Bering Strait and relocated in the Great Northwest.

They're ape-like in another way: They rarely show aggression. In fact, they're elusive and like to remain solitary, Capparella says.

So, Capparella & Co. tried to woo Bigfoot by blasting tape recordings of other primates, such as apes, along with recordings purported to be of Bigfoot. The scientists reasoned that if a Bigfoot heard something familiar, he might stomp over to investigate.

Also, they laid out the types of food, such as oatmeal and fruit, that Bigfoot is reported to have stolen from campsites. Not that Bigfoot likely would be strictly vegetarian; to support a body that ranges from 4 to 9 feet tall and upwards of 800 pounds, Bigfoot also would eat meat, Capparella says.

To detect Bigfoot's approach, the scientists rigged seismic equipment in the surrounding area. If he were to show up, the scientists would use night-vision scopes to snap pictures and videos.

They had no plans to try to capture the beast. Rather, around the food they placed brushes; if Bigfoot were to lumber by, it might leave hair on the brushes. Later, the hair would undergo genetic testing -- as would any excrement, if Bigfoot demonstrated such an urge.

DNA would be the key to a scientific search, Capparella says, because only genetic markers can show if an animal is truly a new species.

In the end, they never sighted Bigfoot. But they did recover some hair from a tall tree broken in two by a strong animal, which likely was a black bear, Capparella says. Still, the hair has been sent to a lab for testing.

"It's possible we might have hairs to what has been reported as Bigfoot," Capparella says matter-of-factly, so as not to imply false hope.

So does he believe Bigfoot exists? "I don't know," he says slowly. "I think there's enough suggestive evidence to continue looking. . . . It's intriguing."

He hopes to go on another hunt but doesn't know if he and his colleagues can find the financial support.

"There's no scientific organization that will fund us, because it's too controversial," Capparella says.

The last trip, which cost $8,000, was partly underwritten by the Discovery Channel, which sent a film crew and aired a story on the search on its Discovery Magazine show this week.

But Capparella had to fork over $2,000 of his own money, which he cannot afford repeatedly. Still, he warns that, without the interest of the scientific community, Bigfoot will always remain a legend.

Well, maybe.

"Who knows? " he adds with a chuckle. "Someday, a truck driver may hit one. Then we'll have it. "

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