Ever hear about a mass murder and think, huh, I wonder if a yeti did it? Okay, probably not your first conclusion. Or second. Or fifty-fifth. But that was the one explorer Mike Libecki found himself drawn to in investigating the cold case of the Dyatlov Incident, a journey documented in "Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives" (a two-hour special premiering on Discovery Sun. June 1 at 9:00 p.m.). Crazy, right? Well, hold on a minute.
There haven't been a lot of other plausible explanations for what happened on Feb. 2, 1959, when nine college students hiked up the slopes of Russia's Ural Mountains but didn't come back down (not on their own steam, at least). Their bodies were later found scattered across their final campsite, some partially naked and with strange injuries including crushed ribs, a fractured skull, and one hiker whose eyes had been gouged out and tongue removed. Libecki doesn't just pull the yeti idea out of thin air, by the way -- it comes from interviews, the diaries of the hikers and the pictures taken before their deaths. Oh yeah, it was a picture of a yeti.
So, if we're talking about a yeti doing all this damage, it seems only right to pepper the expert featured in the film, Dr. Jeffrey Meldrum, with our burning yeti questions. Currently a professor at Idaho State University, he’s also a Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization (BFRO) curator. He knows from yetis -- and he also can explain why you haven't seen a fossil of one at your local natural history museum. Here's everything you never knew you wanted to know about these big, furry guys (some believe the yeti and Sasquatch are distinct, like grizzly bears and black bears) that you don't read about in schoolbooks.
It seems like Big Foot hasn't been part of the national conversation lately.
In fact, if anything in the digital age with web pages and blogs and all that, there's an ever increasingly large degree of interest in communication about them. The media turns up their nose at reports unless it's a sensational one or someone who is a character that has certain credibility. There was a family psychologist who claimed to see one, and because of his professional stature it got lots of play. A lot of people get ignored. For the documentary cable channel networks, it's an evergreen topic of interest.
Let's address the points skeptics make about Bigfoot, yetis and the like. Why isn't one of these creatures in a zoo? Why isn't there a fossil of one in a museum? And why are the photos and video we see presented as "proof" so blurry?
Definitely Lots of rare and endangered animals are not in zoos, like the mountain gorillas. That doesn't raise a question mark. We also have almost zero remains of animals that inhabit wet forest, so fossilization is very rare. Occupying a wet coniferous forest produces acidic conditions in the soil, so that's likewise a very rare place to produce a fossil. The giant ape is a creature we know that existed in eastern Asia for well over a million years, but we have a very few fossils. The ones we do have exist because porcupines dragged the bones into caves, where they were preserved. If it hadn't been for the porcupines, we wouldn't know the giant ape ever existed.
And why are pictures blurry? When people discuss that, they're usually referring to the Patterson-Gimlin film, and what they see is a licensed copy of a copy of a VHS that gets released by the owners, but I've worked with some film analysts and [the original] is remarkably clear. And as to photos, when you're dealing with smart phones and digital cameras, most encounters are very fleeting. One time I was driving on the freeway with my brother, and I had a camera sitting on the seat next to me. I saw a deer crossing the freeway and thought it would be a good photo to take, but by the time I had a camera and the lens cap off all I caught was the tail. If I see an 8-foot hairy primate, I might not have been so quick to grab my camera [due to the shock]. There was a Facebook site called Facebook Find Bigfoot, and it had all these little examples of the imagery. They established a set of criteria, different aspects, different criteria, and they evaluated each of these. It was kind of fascinating.
The special in which your interviews are featured, "Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives," suggests not only that a yeti exists, but that it killed the hikers. Would a yeti necessarily be violent, or could one have just come upon a crime scene and done some of the damage after the fact?
There remains in my mind a very large question mark about the role of the yeti in relation to this particular incident. Many, many hypotheses about what transpired and what happened to these people exist. Some have hung the yeti theory on the presence of footprints and that, when you look at the cameras, they found this single shot of a ghostly figure emerging from the treeline. You can make what you will of all of that. There's been a lot of discussion about whether any of these wild men figures, if indeed they exist, whether they pose a threat to humans. Perceptions are a varied lot. Its like the perceptions of gorillas. At first, the natives who interacted with them looked at them as hunters. We went from this terrifying creature... to the gorilla being a gentle giant and the victim of deforestation; the poster child of the endangered species. The perception can change depending on the social context. I think that the Sasquatch is not a real threat. If it were, it was a threat to us like grizzly bears were in the U.S., and they were completely exterminated. With Sasquatch, most reports are so remarkably mundane. They see each other and go in other directions. It's also the same with the mountain gorilla.
Given that we're talking about a creature that lives mostly in isolation and covers great tracts of territory, is there a chance that, if they exist, they'd become extinct before it's ever proven?
The fact that everything about them, as inferred from eye witness encounters, suggests we're dealing with a solitary creature quite dispersed in its environment with a limited distribution in refugia habitats. It may be that they do slip off the brink of extinction before they're ever recognized by science. That's an issue in the U.S. with the Sasquatch, that the habitat [they range over] is shrinking and becoming more fragmented.
It sounds like there are some pretty logical arguments to make the case for these creatures. Why does the scientific community seem reluctant to buy in?
I think its a multi-factorial explanation. These creatures have often been relegated to the realms of mythology, something that's part of folklore. The wild man icon has been seen by social anthropologists as a connection to the human [psyche]. The media has glommed on to this with crop circles and UFOs, and even to this day you're directed to the Occult section if you want to read a book about them. I'll look for my book in Barnes and Noble, and I'll see it's not in the natural history section, it's in the New Age section. When I bring it up, they'll tell me, you'll sell twice as many copies in the New Age section, and that's fine, but I'll explain to them that I want at least one next to Jane Goodall's books, because it's the question of a bonafide species of primate. Science has been very conservative, which has served it well, but zoology dictates a specimen must be found. Gigantopithecus, it could be a very legitimate predecessor. Until a specimens is laid before the ivory towers of academia, though, most scientists don't want to risk their reputation.
So, if you see one of these guys, what should you do? Run? Take a picture? Both at the same time?
If you have the composure to document your experience, that would be ideal. People are much more willing to talk about their experiences publicly as a result of social media. It used to be that they didn't want to be seen as crazy. Now you have to question whether someone's vision and imagination takes hold instead of their encounter being with something much more likely like a deer or a moose. The stories only have so much weight. I'm much more interested in scat or hair or footprints or photographic evidence.
Are you planning to watch "Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives"? Do you think a yeti could have murdered the hikers, or something else?