Posted by: Loren Coleman on October 21st, 2006
The Arizona Republic’s Kate Nolan has written an article on what kind of reaction eyewitnesses to strange creatures are receiving in Arizona:
Part of being a wildlife expert in Arizona is fielding calls from people asking, "What the heck is that?"
The Arizona Game and Fish Department gets more than 2,000 phone calls a year from people asking that or requesting help in handling wild animals.
The state doesn’t keep track of how many, but some of the reported beasties can sound pretty weird – from the supposed "Bigfoot" that roamed Prescott to jumbo versions of most Arizona native species.
"We get all kinds of mystery reports. There’s a black mystery cat that regularly appears on Silly Mountain near Apache Junction," said Randy Babb, a wildlife biologist in the Game and Fish Mesa regional office.
One fellow repeatedly brings in blurry photos of a giant chicken-sized quail.
"His pictures are like pictures of Nessie, the Loch Ness monster," Babb said, pointing out that the weirder the claim, the more adamant the budding cryptozoologist,or seeker of mystery animals.
Others swear they’ve spotted a "jackalope," the antlered-rabbit star of a million post cards. Most times it turns out to be an antelope jackrabbit, a giant-eared bunny of southern Arizona that can exceed 2 feet in height.
Volunteer wildlife organizations also check out such reports.
Linda Searles of Southwest Wildlife Rehabilitation in Scottsdale says people inflate the size of animals beyond all reason.
"I hear a lot of 100 pound coyotes and owls that stand 3-feet tall," Searles said.
To the inexperienced, even the most common animals seem exotic. Searles has come to know that reports of Madagascar lemurs – foreign to these parts – are probably sightings of the state’s official mammal, the ringtail.
Experience has made Babb and other wildlife experts skeptical.
Improbable animal sightings are usually explained as cases of overactive imagination or simple misidentification.
Misidentifications are augmented by lack of knowledge, said zoologist Kevin Hanson, the Cave Creek author of books about mountain lions and bobcats. Hanson noted a California study that evaluated reports of mountain lion sightings and concluded that only 20 of 350 reports proved true. Witnesses often mistook far less menacing creatures for lions.
Nature is complicit in the confusion, says Hanson. Often animal camouflage conspires with their nocturnal habits to make them harder to see clearly. Hence: is it a lion, a dog on the prowl or a bush with teeth?
Babb pointed to a common case of mistaken identity in Arizona. "As soon as we hear ‘black panther,’ we know that is bogus," Babb said. No such thing as a black panther (except for members of a radical movement in the 1960s), exists; and only four of the spotted variety, known as jaguars, have been recorded in Arizona in modern history. Yet the idea of the big black cat persists.
Babb tells a story he says is typical: A guy told a local newspaper he’d seen a black panther along the Mexican border near Rio Rico; within days of the press report, the panther was suddenly being "seen" in Douglas, Nogales and in western Arizona. Ultimately the "panther" report led to a black Great Dane that had been allowed to run free.
People like to see a jaguarundi, too. The small black cat looks like an otter and is typically listed as a native to Arizona – yet none has been recorded here. They’re usually seen in Texas.
Nature can be subtle, and fine lines can separate the strange from the commonplace.
Terry Stevens, rescue coordinator for Liberty Wildlife, another Valley rehabilitation group, said people commonly think they’ve found a baby turkey vulture, judging from its spindly neck. He regrets informing them it’s likely just a baby pigeon, which bears the same gristly trait. Someone else reported a great blue heron that inexplicably turned out to be a coot, which would be like mistaking Danny DeVito for Audrey Hepburn.
Babb says he can help identify animals better when people provide good descriptions.
He urges taking time to look closely, pay attention to details and think about what you saw before describing it to someone. Babb cautions that binoculars can make animals look larger than they are, and understanding zoological terms can help. For example, stripes run the length on an animal’s body, while bands run across it; spots are solid and rosettes are ring-shaped markings. Keep in mind that animals of a single species can exhibit a great deal of variety – they don’t all look alike.
"Biologists are trained observers and we can’t expect the public to be that," Babb said.
He even empathizes with the sense of discovery that the oddball reports exhibit. He said every now and then a rare find actually pops up.
A Game and Fish biologist recently spotted a rare albino Big Horn sheep. A few years ago, someone reported a kangaroo on a roadside and that’s what it turned out to be, most likely an escaped pet.
"There are even some persistent reports I would like to believe in," said Babb, allowing himself a moment of wishful thinking.
Since his college days at Arizona State University, Babb has doggedly followed reports of a something called bipes biporus, a two-legged worm lizard native to Baja. Occasionally someone claims to have spotted the ancient creature in Arizona. Alas, poor Babb, none has ever been confirmed.