The Centre for Fortean Zoology: Jon Downes Interview - Cryptozoology, The Owlman and Other Monsters...
Dave Walsh talks to the Director the of the CFZ about Owlman and other mystery creatures
You've got to love the Centre for Fortean Zoology, really you do.
I had let my subscription to their journal Animals & Men lapse for a while... shame on me.
I signed up again a few weeks back, and have the current issue sitting in front of me. For an organisation that seems to exist on a budget of fresh air, they never fail to impress. And the staff, while they could be considered eccentric, are all erudite scholars. Fronted by the singular editorial personality of Jonathan Downes, Animals & Men covers not only cryptozoology - the science of hidden, or as of yet scientifically undescribed species, but also out of place animals, and animal-related anomalies.
The current issue has news snippets on weird invertebrates, the Chinese Wild Man of Shennongjia, 'Lucky, the Walsall Snapping Turtle', alleged Nessie fossils, big cat reports from around the UK, an in-depth article on the extinct sabre-tooth cars of Europe, and the CFZ expedition to Sumatra to look for the Orang Pendek - the alleged upright-walking ape.
So, we decided it was time to wave down Mr. Downes for a chat...
From the Centre for Fortean Zoology FAQ:
The difference between fortean zoology and cryptozoology?
There are three main types of mystery animal. The first are simple. They are 'cryptids' - species of animal whose existence is unrecognised by mainstream science.
The second grouping are quasi or pseudo-cryptids. The animals in this group are a little more problematical as they are members of a species which is KNOWN to exist in a place where it is not SUPPOSED to be. This can either be because it is presumed to be extinct in that specific area or, more commonly, because they are exotic species that have escaped or been introduced
The third, final, and in some ways the most contentious of the three groupings of apparently unknown creatures are the ones that may well not be creatures at all!
At the risk of severely angering the folk in the Bigfoot camp and indeed some of my friends and colleagues who have spent so much of their lives sitting on the shores of Loch Ness waiting for something to happen, this is the category into which most of the most well-known members of the iconography of Cryptozoology fit in.
This is not the time nor the place to enter into a long discussion about the veracity or otherwise of the most 'media-friendly' cryptids, the Yeti, Bigfoot and the Loch Ness monster but even the most hardcore nessiephile or traditional cryptozoologist would admit that the volumes that have been written about these phenomena includes a fair amount of evidence that suggests that some if not all of their manifestations may not necessarily be of physical origin.
However cryptozoology per. se. is only concerned with the first type of these animals and the CFZ is concerned with all three and more besides. In 1992, when we first formed therefore we decided that we needed to start a new discipline to encompass all the areas in which we were interested.
- From the Centre for Fortean Zoology FAQ
JON DOWNES INTERVIEW
Q. What is the CFZ, and how did it get started? What have you been up to?
I have been interested in cryptozoology since I was seven years old. I had always been interested in animals but one day during summer of 1967 my mother got me a library book which was essentially a kids' version of On the Track of Unknown Animals" by Bernard Heuvelmans. It introduced me to the concept of real Monsters and I became immediately hooked. Over the next decade I discovered sex, drugs and rock and roll, but - believe it or not - I believe that cryptozoology has been of greater impact on my life than any of the sins of the flesh.
It remained my hobby for the next 25 years or so, but when as a result of changes in my personal life I was able to devote a decent amount of time to the quest for unknown animals I decided to try and join the cryptozoological research community.
Much to my shock there wasn't really any such thing. It was split up into bands of warring factions all of whom hated each other and despite the fact that - on the whole - everybody was supposed be batting for the same team, there was no unified organisation within cryptozoology that actually achieved what it said it was trying to do. I had a background in publishing and promotions and I felt that I could probably do a better job of running a truly global Cryptozoological research organisation than anybody else on the scene at that time.
I formed the Centre for Fortean Zoology in 1992, and two years later - with no funding whatsoever - we started publishing a quarterly magazine.
Q. Who's involved? How many people are directly involved, and how many
Ten years on and we are now what I always claimed that we were - the biggest, and fastest growing cryptozoological research organisation in the world. We have over 300 members on five continents, and we are funding and carrying out research all over the world
Q. Of which of the CFZ's accomplishments are you most proud?
Probably the work which we have done to tidy up loose ends within fortean zoology around the world. For example, in 1975 a mysterious carcass was washed up on a beach in Cornwall. But if you read any of the books on British forteana written before about 10 years ago they all quote each other and claim that it was the body of a sea-serpent. It wasn't, of course - it was the highly decomposed carcass of a half-grown pilot whale. The skull of the beast now resides proudly in the CFZ collection, but if it wasn't for us, the same tripe about it being an unknown animal would still be being propagated.
In a similar case it puma skull was found in the 1980s on southern Dartmoor. Many books are full of imaginative descriptions about how the two teenagers who found it dug it - half buried - out of the Bank of the side of the road. It wasn't until we tracked the teenagers down and spoke to them directly that we found that they had indeed found it where they said they had - but that it had been wrapped in a plastic bag. This incident had been cited over and over again as supportive evidence for the existence of big cats in the British countryside when of course it is no such thing. It is poor research like this that makes a complete nonsense of cryptozoology in many people's eyes. Until we prune away the bullshit people like us are never going to be taken seriously.
Q. Tell us about the expeditions (Sumatra, etc.)
We have carried out a number of foreign expeditions over the past few years. Mexico and Puerto Rico (1998), the United States (1999), Thailand (2000), the USA again (2003), and the one of which I'm most proud, Sumatra (2003). This is by far the most important of the expeditions because it is the first - and to date the only one which has been completely self funded without the need to be in hock to a TV company. We sent a three-man team to Sumatra for three-and a-half weeks in search of the semi mythical Orang-Pendek - a fabled bipedal higher primate and a mystery cat called the Cigau. The team returned with footprints, hair samples and a plethora of anecdotal evidence. It is our intention to carry out similar trips on an annual basis from now on.
Q. The CFZ's public persona is a hell of a lot more lighthearted than most organisations. You could never be po-faced! Did this 'just happen', or do you have a policy of being informal and fun?
One of the things that really pisses me off about the Cryptozoological research community - and indeed the fortean research community - as a whole, is that they take themselves two damn seriously. I truly believe that the International Society for cryptozoology (ISC), came to grief because of their attempts to adhere strictly to the rules of academic publishing. Not only was I amazed that people could make such a fascinating subject so goddamn dull, but I am certain that their practice of peer reviewing papers, and allowing their journals to be filled with refutations and comments on previously published research papers led to their downfall. Unless you have the moral backing of a university or long established scientific organisation, such practices and merely lead to bickering, in-fighting and eventually to all-out warfare. Even today - in the UFO community for example - you have a situation where different factions spend half their time denouncing each other as putative government agents. Sadly, in parts of cryptozoology, the situation is equally ludicrous. As far as we're concerned life is too fucking short to indulge in such silliness.
We also manage to exist without any major sources of funding. All our money comes from membership fees, donations and sales of books and merchandise. As I believe I said above, the main aim of the CFZ is to foster a sense of community - and how can we expect people to join a community if it ain't fun? I think a good case in point was at the most recent [Fortean Times] UnConvention. Richard and I gave an utterly ludicrous presentation during which we sang, swore, drank, and generally fucked about. However, during the course of an hour's onstage lunacy we managed to get our point across and we described the modus operandi - and more importantly the results of three different investigations. We also presented the bare bones of a theory which - we believe - will overturn most established Fortean zoological thinking. Despite at least one crypto-zoo major member of the cryptozoological establishment being so incensed with our buffoonery that he complained to everyone who was listening that we were - in some way - bringing the name of cryptozoology into disrepute, we must have been doing something right. That weekend we made over two grand and gained 60 new members. That is how we managed to pay for the Sumatra expedition.
Despite the fact that we do have a light-hearted approach to public performances, I believe that our research is peerless. I don't think that anybody can fault any of the stuff that we have published either in our own publications or elsewhere. If I may quote Ozzy Osbourne " drink? of course I drink. You spend half-an-hour in my head and you'd be drinking too". However, despite claims from Jan Ove Sundberg and his ilk, none of us drink or take drugs whilst on Field Research. The only stimulant I have ever ingested whilst in the field are cigarettes and chocolate. If we really were the alcoholic lunatics that we have been portrayed as, we would never have achieved half of what we have done.
Getting pissed and behaving badly at conventions is one of the few perks in an otherwise underpaid and very difficult job.
Q. What mystery/beast/phenomena is currently obsessing you?
In recent years I have become fascinated with the global phenomenon of animal mutilations. I have researched and investigated such things in the UK, the USA and Mexico. We are now official consultants to the police force on such things. Whilst, it must be admitted, that 99 per cent of the cases which we have investigated have proved to be the work of sick human beings, that elusive one per cent intrigues the hell out of me.
Q. What's on the agenda for next year? I hear talk of Mongolia?
Sadly, its looking as if the Mongolia trip will have to be postponed because of lack of funding. Because Mongolia is a communist country only a certain privileged few people are able to set themselves up as licensed guides. Because they have a monopoly they charge Westerners through the nose to take them anywhere. We are currently talking to several TV companies who have expressed an interest in financing a Mongolia trip and so we hope that we shall still be able to do it. But even without Mongolia, we have agreed to join our friend and colleague Chester Moore in his research into the survival of the ivory billed woodpecker, the swamps Bigfoot, and reports of giant snapping turtles - all in Texas. I have recently returned from an exploratory trip to southern Texas and Louisiana in order to set the ball rolling. We also hope to return to Puerto Rico, and to visit a monastery in Greece where they claim to have the skeleton of a sea-monster. We also plan to take a party of CFZ volunteers to Loch Ness, and no doubt we shall be doing other stuff as and when it arises
Q. The Owlman. What the hell was going on there? And isn't the Max Ernst connection a bit freaky?
The Owlman was seriously weird. My research into the series of sightings which began at Easter 1976 took up something like six years of my life. It cost me my marriage and - for a while at least - my sanity. However I found the story of a grotesque feathered Bird-Man haunting the woods of southern Cornwall to be utterly irresistible. It was during my researches there I met and became friends with the legendary Tony `DOC` Shiels. The links between Max Ernst and his owliness were just one of many theories which DOC came up with in a vain attempt to explain the inexplicable. When I wrote my book on the subject - the Owlman and Others - in 1996, with the benefit of hindsight I can see that I was writing as much in Tony's voice as I was my own.
But freaky? Yes, the whole damn thing was freaky, and Doc's suggestion that the phenomenon had somehow been triggered by Surrealchemical invocations by a bunch Surrealist artists in the 1930s makes as much sense as most of the other stuff which has been written about the phenomenon. It is also a damn sight more fun
Q. How can people get involved in the Centre for Fortean Zoology?
Simple. Check out the website, write to me, and send in yer membership fee. We are proud that we're not one of these organisations where the many have to pay for the foreign trips of the few. Any member of the CFZ can join us either at home or abroad on one of our investigations.. Any member of the CFZ can become involved to a greater or lesser degree. We have an ever growing network of regional representatives across the world. These people work very hard for no pay gathering information, investigating cases and doing the groundwork for future investigations and expeditions. The CFZ is truly a grassroots organisation and without the grassroots we wouldn't exist. If you're interested in this stuff please do not hesitate to get in touch. The more the merrier.
Centre for Fortean Zoology »
daev at December 15, 2003 5:35 PM
More about Jon Downes »