Northwest professor turns to drones in quest for Sasquatch
A Northwest anthropologist has risked his career in pursuit of what the rest of science considers a myth.
Jeff Meldrum of Idaho State University is the nation’s lone academic trying to make the scientific case for Bigfoot. It’s no joke. Now he's even raising money to launch an unmanned aircraft that would scan the Northwest's forests for the large, hairy creature.
'This is a natural history book!’
Meldrum gets frustrated when he walks into Barnes and Noble. It's one of the stores that carries his book.
“But if you go into Barnes and Noble and ask for my book," he says, "they'll direct you to the New Age section, you know, somewhere between Bermuda Triangle and crop circles.”
Meldrum tries to tell them: his book is different.
“This is a natural history book! We're simply asking a biological question: Is there a species of primate behind the legend of Sasquatch? And I think, based on the evidence, the answer is yes," he says.
Colleagues see Bigfoot research as ‘waste of time’
In Meldrum’s office at Idaho State University, there’s a framed picture of Darwin on the wall. There’s also a still from the famous 1967 Patterson-Gimlin film. You know the one: Bigfoot supposedly ambling down a Northern California stream bed, arms swinging.
To the rest of science, Sasquatch doesn't belong on the same wall as Darwin.
For the last 17 years, Meldrum has been trying to convince them otherwise. And that’s come at a cost. From eye rolls at academic conferences, to even late-night TV jabs, like one from David Letterman.
Meldrum was recently made full professor, but his Sasquatch research was a big, furry roadblock on the path for many years. Most scientists greet Meldrum with something more biting than ridicule: Silence.
“The typical reaction is no reaction – to ignore it basically," Meldrum says. "And a lot of the treatment I've received has been that.” I ran into that feeling in looking for an anthropologist or wildlife biologist to talk about this story. One professor told me even a brief interview about anything having to do with Bigfoot was a “waste of time.”
For the former non-believer, a turning point
In fact, at one point, Meldrum might have had the same reaction. But something happened in 1996 that was a turning point for him. A Bigfoot enthusiast brought him to a muddy road outside of Walla Walla. There was a set of fresh tracks. Meldrum is a professor of anatomy and in those footprints, he saw tell-tale imperfections of life he didn’t think anyone could imitate with a prosthetic foot.
“There was a moment, as the reality of these tracks set in," Meldrum says. "There was a moment when I thought to myself, ‘Do you really want to go down this road or not?’ And that was kind of the pivotal moment and I just thought to myself, ‘How could I not?’”
But Meldrum knows footprints, reports of sightings and film snippets aren’t enough for most people. He needs something more concrete.
That’s why Meldrum is now taking an aerial approach. He’s has partnered with a Bigfoot enthusiast to raise about $200,000 under the name The Falcon Project. They plan to seek FAA approval to fly a 50-foot unmanned aircraft over the Cascades. It will be saddled with thermal imaging equipment capable of penetrating the thick forest canopy.
The hope: at long last, track down Sasquatch.
“Professionally and personally it would certainly vindicate the efforts we’ve gone through," Meldrum says. "And it will certainly tip the scales. There’s going to be a lot of people who cross the line in support of further research of what will certainly be a remarkable creature.”
’I’m as convinced as I’ll ever be’
But there’s another possible outcome to this experiment. What if he deploys all this equipment, and in the end, he finds nothing?
Says Meldrum: “That will have a negative influence on the perception of the existence of Sasquatch.”
But will it affect his perception?
“Well no, personally, you’re never 100 percent, but short of that, I’m as convinced as I’ll ever be,” he says.
Meldrum may be alone in academia. But he’s beating many of his colleagues at one thing researchers are under a lot of pressure for: He gets funding for his work, all from private sources.
Remember how Meldrum complained about where Barnes and Noble placed his book? Someone at the company told him he’ll get 10 times more attention in the New Age section than in the Natural History section.