Let’s talk about hoaxing. A hoax can and has been defined by many different means, but there are two very simple yet very powerful ways I’ve seen given as the description of a hoax, one being that a hoax is an act intended to deceive or trick, the second is, something that has been accepted or established by fraudulent means. Both are very accurate means of describing a hoax, and both will come into play as we further discuss our topic today, but in slightly different ways.
As people working in, researching, or those of us with just a love of Cryptozoology and the unexplained, we face more hoaxes, frauds, and attempted deceptions than pretty much any other branch of scientific endeavor. Whole books can be written on the history of fabricated sightings, doctored photos, and artificial footprints. To name just a few; we have the Jackaolpe, a rabbit with deer antlers, the infamous Cardiff Giant, a fake giant human skeleton from Cardiff, New York, and dozens of fabricated Bigfoot photos, videos, and foot prints. The reasons why people do these kinds of things varies depending on the person. They range from; monetary gain, practical jokes, boredom, and even malicious intents. Today we’ll look at one such case, discuss how and why we know the story was fake, and what the ramifications mean for those in Cryptozoology.
In 1998, American Cryptozoology researcher, Ron Schaffner, the editor of Creature Chronicles, began to hear about sightings and talk of a ‘new’ cryptid creature, the Ozark Howler. Doing some digging he found, that not only were sightings popping up, but there was now a website dedicated to reporting and studying such incidents, the Howler Research Group (this website is no longer online). At the time, the website featured a few ‘historical’ eyewitness reports and even some alleged photographs. As the site has long been off line, and an internet search on various search engines have turned up none of these alleged photos, I’m unable to comment on them any further, as I don’t want to give analysis on something I was never able to at least see with my own eyes. Come to think of it, I can’t find any description of what the photos even looked like from any other researcher.
But then, Ron was contacted by a man who claimed to have seen the mysterious howler and could offer up a detailed description. The man’s name was Fred Sprout and he described his encounter as follows; one evening in mid-April 1998, around dusk he spied the beast in an unspecified location south of Branson in the Ozark Mountains. The beast he described was about ten to twelve feet in length, about four feet at the shoulder, with a powerful and robust body build, and most striking of all, two large horn-like structures on its head. Needless to say, this is quite unlike anything known to live in North America or anywhere for that matter.
A few more sightings came in, all featuring an almost identical look, but interestingly enough, no further specific people, i.e. names, could be attached to any of these new sightings. Many, and at this point that was not a lot, who had heard these stories laughed them off as nonsense. And yet, people still kept on either reporting these rumors or emailed Cryptozoologists with inquires about them. People like Chad Arment, author of several books and articles on Cryptozoology, and various others were for a time, being plagued by these stories. The vast majority of these researcher where unconvinced about the authenticity of these reports, and yet one question still remained. Why are so many inquires being made about a creature that, to most in the Cryptozoological world, seemed absurd?
Well the answer is a telling one. Determined to get to the bottom of this, world renowned Cryptozoologist, Loren Coleman began to attempt to track down the original reports and try and talk to the runners of the Ozark Howler Research Group. Eventually, he tracked the IP address to a university student, who had been responsible for inventing this whole saga. It turns out, that he didn’t believe in any kind of Cryptid, and thus made a bet with a group of like mined ‘skeptics’. The bet was he could create a Cryptid and then have the ‘gullible’ Cryptozoologist write about it in books, articles, and talk about it on TV shows.
Thus he subscribed to the first of the two ways we’ve chosen to define a hoax, an act which is intended to deceive. And for some, it did. Thankfully, most researchers, legit researchers who actually put time and effort into doing real investigative work, were able to expose the fraud for what it was. While this episode does clearly show that there are those with nothing better to do than create fake reports, it is a success for critical thinking and investigation on the part of Cryptozoologists. However, the saga doesn’t quite end here. For you see, there are those who still are talking about the Ozark Howler, now at times called the Black Howler or Devil Cat.
The Wikipedia page for the beast, does mention the facts about the fraudulent accounts, yet seems to actually be dismissive of the dismissal. Not only that, but reports still seem to trickle in. This may not be too surprising when we do a little further digging and understanding. One such report from between 2005 and 2010 reports about a family reportedly capturing a strange creature on a trail camera in Van Buren in the Boston Mountains of Crawford County, Arkansas. The picture shows a large cat-like black beast, that bares a resemblance to the (in) famous Black Cats reported throughout the US. Howl-like screams has also been reported all across the Ozark Mountains. In 2012, a film crew for the show Haunted Highway did a spotlight investigation of these kind of sightings in Jasper, Arkansas. They claimed to have found paw prints resembling a large cat’s.
So, what appears to be happening here is, that the term Ozark Howler, is now no longer associated with its fraudulent origins, but has been adopted as an umbrella term for the various sightings of large cat-like beasts from this part of the South. Reports of out-of-place cougars and possible large black felines are now synonymous with this name. And thus, we have an example of our second example of a hoax, something becoming accepted or established by fraudulent means. There was never an Ozark Howler, at least not like the one being spread in 1998. Yet, the name now is being used to describe the possible sightings of these large unexplained cat sightings.
So, now that is all out on the table, I have this question to ask you the reader; does it matter? Seriously, does it matter that a fabricated Cryptid is being used to categorize what might be a legit Cryptozoological case? Well, one the one hand, such things as turning terms of disrespect around into terms of indecent is not unheard of. Take for example the now popular Christian symbol of the Jesus Fish. Once a symbol used by Romans to mark and ostracize the followers of Christ in the Roman World, is now a popular image proudly displayed on car bumpers and in Christian iconography. If one group can take something with such an origin, couldn’t Cryptozoologist do the same?
I myself, have urge against the use of the term Ozark Howler as a valid term for describing the Southern Big Cat phenomena. The reason being, I don’t believe, we as a group of researchers, should endorse a name with such blatant hoaxing origins, especially one whose sole purpose was to undermine and discredit Cryptozoology. Loren Coleman, the Cryptozoologist responsible for outing the Ozark howler, has in recent years urged for a purging of non-factual and fraudulent data from Cryptozoology. Namely, the removal of fake Bigfoot tracks from the data base in order to get a better scientific interpretation of the data collected. I completely agree, you can’t base a scientific conclusion or argument based on false data. And while the Ozark Howler name may not be quiet the same as trying to form scientific data flow based on physical evidence it does remind us of an incident in which the whole community was being taken for a ride.
Don’t get me wrong, we should never forget about the lessons to be learned from this episode in Cryptid History, but we need to recognize it for what it is. A good case of solid research, leading to the exposure of a major Cryptozoological fraud. As for the mysterious big cats of the Deep South, they might well be out there, but a huge part bear, part cat, part deer, is certainly best left to the realm of fantasy art.