The Skookum Cast
by Blake Smith
It's not as famous outside of the Bigfoot research community as the other alleged evidence. The shaky films and blurry photographs appear in more documentaries, and the giant plaster foot castings are more widely recognized. But in September 2000, a team of investigators from the Bigfoot Field Research Organization (BFRO) emerged from the woods near Skookum Meadows in Washington state with 15 square feet of plaster and Hydrocal® that they claim results from a full body impression of the mysterious man-like animal known as Bigfoot. Was this the best new evidence supporting the existence of Bigfoot since the Patterson Gimlin film? Or was it something else?
Before we dig into the question of whether or not the Skookum Cast is evidence for the existence of Bigfoot, let's take a look at how the cast came to be taken in the first place. In late 2000, the Australian television show Animal X was filming its second season. As part of a planned Bigfoot special, they sent a film crew to Washington state to meet with team members of the BFRO to look for Bigfoot evidence in the Pacific Northwest. An expedition was mounted in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The expedition included Matt Moneymaker, Thom Powell, Rick Noll, Dr. Leroy Fish, the film crew from Animal X and several other BFRO members. For six days the team had been blasting recordings of alleged Bigfoot vocalizations, experimenting with pheromone lures, and using thermal cameras. In many ways, they were doing the same kinds of activities that would become the basis for the television show Finding Bigfoot. On the evening of the expedition's sixth day, the team placed fruit bait near a muddy patch by the road in the hope that it might lure a Bigfoot and provide some good physical evidence. On the seventh day, September 22, the team discovered the large animal impression that would become known as the Skookum Cast.
The expedition members used 200 pounds of casting material and some tent poles to make a record of the large impression. But where were the footprints? Clearly a large animal had made the shape in the mud, but there were none of the signature tracks that have made Bigfoot so famous - and from which it gets its name. There was much discussion and finally a scenario emerged that the BFRO suggests explains the situation: A lone Bigfoot was attracted to the bait, but did not want to leave its tracks so it carefully crawled to the fruit. It then reclined on the ground in the mud while it ate the fruit, before departing in a similar trackless mode. With this theory and their 200 pounds of alleged Bigfoot evidence, team members transported the cast to an indoor location where it could be studied by scientific experts.
Some of the leading scientifically credentialed Bigfoot proponents came to study the Skookum Cast and were filmed by the TV crew, including Dr. Jeff Meldrum, a professor of anatomy and anthropology at Idaho State University. During the television episode, the consensus of the experts seemed to be that the cast represents one of the best pieces of physical evidence for the existence of Bigfoot. Their examination of the cast demonstrated anatomical features that Meldrum believed represented an 8 to 9 foot tall humanoid creature. Details of the cast showed evidence of dermatoglyphs — what are commonly called fingerprints — which only primates are known to have. It was just what the Animal X team needed to make their episode sensational. The BFRO, through Idaho State University, issued a press release that read, in part:
While the cast was being made and during the cleaning process, hairs were collected for study. Most were elk hair, but samples were sent to Dr. Henner Fahrenbach, who worked for the Oregon Regional Primate Research Center and is well known in Bigfoot research circles for his collection of unusual animal hairs that he alleges may be from Bigfoot. After examining the Skookum hair samples, Dr. Fahrenbach reported that one hair from the samples did appear to be similar to those in his special collection.
Meldrum wasn't done with the Skookum Cast yet. In his 2006 book Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science, he discusses the analysis of the cast. He describes the findings of the group of scientists:
Dr. Meldrum concludes by adding that the Skookum Cast was examined by Dr. Daris Swindler, a retired professor of anatomy from the University of Washington who had been skeptical of the possible existence of Bigfoot. The evidence from this huge chunk of plaster "...ultimately convinced him of the probable existence of a bipedal North American ape." Primatologist and Bigfoot researcher Dr. Esteban Sarmiento also endorsed the casting saying:
With this level of scientific endorsement by credentialed working and retired scientists, why hasn't the Skookum Cast become the gold standard of Bigfoot evidence? The main reason is that a more plausible explanation for the creation of the animal impression is that it was created by an elk. At the simplest level, the impression is from a large hairy mammal. The bait was apples. Elk live in the area. Elk were in the muddy area where the cast was taken and left hair and impressions - probably including the one from which the cast was made. As the BFRO investigators stood around and discussed the shape on the ground they collectively made suggestions that confirmed their hopes of producing something tangible to show the TV crew that accompanied them. They even hypothesized that the reason there were no classic Bigfoot tracks was that the animal was probably hiding his tracks on purpose. But the idea that somehow the animal would be clever enough to hide its footprints yet leave a full body image didn't strike them as contradictory behavior.
From the very start, the BFRO was under a lot of pressure to produce substantial evidence for the television crew of Animal X. While there has been a lot of speculation about possible hoaxing, I did not find any reason to suspect a hoax. What I did see was a lot of people with strong motivations that could easily lead to confirmation bias - the classic psychological process that causes people to see evidence that confirms their beliefs and be blind to evidence that disagrees with their beliefs. Everyone is subject to confirmation bias, which is one of the reasons why peer review is such an important part of the Scientific Method. Hoaxing or deliberate fraud do not need to be invoked to account for the differences in interpretation between skeptics and believers in this case.
The Skookum Cast was handled as a sensational discovery, but not as a scientific one. The researchers who examined it already had preconceived notions that they were dealing with a piece of Bigfoot evidence. What they found wasn't presented as a scientific journal article, rather it was issued as a press release. When Dr. Meldrum compiled his research into book form, it too came out as a popular rather than an academic title. Would trained elk experts who didn't know the story behind the cast also conclude that it was created by a Bigfoot? Were any of the researchers findings replicated by peers who didn't have an agenda to prove the existence of Bigfoot? Did it matter that a TV show was giving the BFRO its first big exposure to a large audience?
Even now the BFRO website prominently displays the records of the Skookum expedition on their site. The Animal Planet book Finding Bigfoot from 2013 contains numerous references to the expedition and the creation of the Skookum Cast, even listing it on a timeline of notable events in Bigfoot research history.
The alleged dermatoglyphs in the cast are described by Dr. Meldrum and retired forensic expert Jimmy Chilcutt as being consistent with other tracks that allegedly contained these markings. Such features, they assert, could only have come from a primate. Primates don't have fingerprints like humans, but they do have distinctive markings formed in a similar biological manner. For a while, the surprising discovery of these markings on some of Meldrum's other alleged Bigfoot casts was indeed a tantalizing hint that perhaps there was a mysterious animal roaming the wilds of North America. But then skeptical investigator Matt Crowley discovered that these alleged dermatoglyphs could be re-created through the drying process of the casting agent - that they were in effect artifacts from the casting process itself, not dermatoglyphs.
The Skookum Cast is widely dismissed, even by some prominent Bigfoot proponents, as nothing more than a cast of an elk wallow. An elk wallow is any patch of muddy ground on which an elk can roll around. Mud wallowing is a common elk behavior. Even BFRO members called the mud patch an elk wallow, though they agreed that this particular impression couldn't be that of an elk. Multiple scientists with relevant expertise have shown how the shape in the cast readily corresponds to an elk in repose. Matt Crowley has posted on his website some video-stills that not only show how the wallow could be made by an elk, but also how such an animal might bound up from such a position without leaving deep hoof marks.
Physical access to the Skookum Cast has been limited, preventing examination by some skeptical investigators under the claim that they're not qualified, despite the amateur status of the BFRO and stewards of the cast itself. While some researchers assert that the cast represents an elk wallow, others suggest that like the Patterson-Gimlin film, it is just another ink-blot where people project their worldview concerning cryptozoology.
Neither the BFRO nor Meldrum and his credentialed associates have explained by what means they were able to rule out an elk as the cause of the impression. Here is a good place to use Occam's Razor. When considering the probable cause of this body impression, which scenario requires the least number of assumptions: that an elk, from a forest known to contain elk, walked into a mud patch where there were elk tracks and elk hair and sat down and enjoyed some apples? Or that a Bigfoot, an animal whose existence has not been confirmed by science, but whose very name comes from its alleged habit of leaving large footprints, came upon a food bait and stealthily crawled across the mud, lay in repose eating an apple and departed the mud leaving one hair, no footprints and a full body impression?
Dr. Meldrum and the BFRO took this story public through a press release and television show. Because of this approach, they had many reasons to become entrenched in their support of their initial claims in order to save public face. Perhaps if some unbiased scientists with the relevant expertise were given an opportunity to conduct an experimentally-blinded examination of the cast we could obtain a definitive answer, but I don't expect that to happen. Despite what may be very good intentions by Dr. Meldrum and the other investigators, the Skookum Cast has not made a very good scientific impression.
When it comes to the question of Bigfoot, the proper skeptical position is that until there is sufficient evidence to prove the animal's existence, then we must accept the null hypothesis. Cryptozoology is a fascinating subject wherein we can see the whole of belief writ small. The case of the Skookum Cast is a great example of how bias can drive people to see the same evidence quite differently.
By Blake Smith
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