It may surprise people to know there are several Bigfoot conferences in the United States each year; in fact, the Ohio Bigfoot Conference, held recently in a town some 100 miles south of Cleveland, is considered one of the biggest in the world and provides insight into the monster-hunting community.
Guests at the Ohio Bigfoot Conference in Cambridge April 29 included biologist John Bindernagel, who was part of a group of researchers claiming to have found hard evidence and "Bigfoot nests" in Russia last year. (Other prominent Bigfoot researchers denounced the event as a hoax for the publicity.) Also on hand was veteran investigator Peter Byrne, who has led many unsuccessful expeditions searching for Bigfoot and Yeti evidence over several decades.
There's rarely much new in the way of Bigfoot evidence to offer or discuss; after all, it's not as if researchers can give presentations comparing, say, a Bigfoot body found in Oregon in 1984 with a Bigfoot body found last year in British Columbia. Without hard evidence grounding the discussion, conferences are often heavy on personal stories by people who swear they encountered the world's most famous mystery monster, if only indirectly.
Other than the exotic subject matter, Bigfoot conferences are pretty much like any other conferences. There are guest speakers of varying quality, plus lunches and networking opportunities. And, of course, merchandise: Bigfoot is the most commercialized monster in the world, lending its name and likeness to everything from monster trucks to pizzas to beef sticks. Bigfoot-themed sundries include plaster footprint molds allegedly recovered from sightings, DVDs, books, hats and posters, as well as general camping and hunting equipment that might plausibly be used in an amateur Bigfoot hunt.
How do you organize a conference around a subject that has never been proven to exist? Often the answer is by accepting the assumption that the beast exists, and offering theories about it: what Bigfoot monsters eat, where they sleep, their mating and social habits, and so on. Discussions on the details of Bigfoot ecology and morphology often resemble the classic debate among medieval theologians about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. It makes for a fun parlor game among interested parties, but it's all opinion, theory and wild speculation until we know they exist.
Many discussions at conferences and within the Bigfoot community tend to put the cart before the horse, a classic example being the long-running "kill or capture" debate: whether it would be ethical to shoot or kill a Bigfoot if it meant that the creature's existence was finally proven. (Ironically, this would be the first step toward protecting these presumably endangered animals.) This debate is taken very seriously and is highly contentious in some circles, especially since it was recently ruled legal to shoot Bigfoot in Texas.
Amid all the talk, one question never comes up: Is Bigfoot real? Is it possible that everyone in the room is discussing something that does not exist? Among this crowd, that is a silly — almost taboo — subject. The question of Bigfoot's existence isn't really treated as a topic for discussion; it is instead an assumed fact or premise. Most Bigfoot buffs seem confident that conclusive Bigfoot evidence is just around the corner — a faith that has sustained that community for over half a century.
Benjamin Radford is deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer science magazine and author of "Lake Monster Mysteries: Investigating the World's Most Elusive Creatures." His website is www.BenjaminRadford.com.