Missouri Locals Scour the Woods for Bigfoot

To some people, the big, hairy, half-man, half-ape known as Bigfoot is pure folklore, but to others, he is a living creature who has eluded capture for far too long.

A local group of believers hopes to change that.

They are on the hunt for Bigfoot.They set up cameras in the wilderness along animal trails. On occasion, they arm themselves with shotguns and venture in, looking for large footprints and nesting spots. They otherwise keep their ears on alert for what they describe as a guttural scream that sounds like no animal they recognize.

"I have hunted all my life, here and in Colorado, and there's no sound that compares to this. It will stop you in your tracks cold. It's a really creepy sound," said Lorain Fender, the gentle-speaking grandmother who co-founded the Tri-County Bigfoot Group.

Fender relayed a story about how a couple of younger members entered the woods at night, shotguns in hand, and were sent running when they heard it. One was so frightened he dropped his shotgun. He went back to retrieve it in the daylight.

The "Tri" in the group's name encompasses Franklin, Jefferson and St. Louis counties. The group meets at 5 p.m. on the third Saturday of each month at the Great Pacific Coffee House, 220 S. First St. in Pacific. At meetings, they exchange Bigfoot stories, evaluate new evidence from around the world, and determine the game plan for the next exploration.

Members of the nine-person group encourage people with their own Bigfoot stories to join them.

"We'd like to get the word out, so more people will share their experiences, and we can compile the information," said member Annie Burnette, adding there is strength in numbers. "Sometimes it takes a group to come out without fear of ridicule."

Burnette said she has not heard the strange guttural sound. She had passed off what others have heard as an animal in pain, but now she is unsure. She wonders if Bigfoot might just be one of those undiscovered animals.

"I'm the type of person who has to see it to believe it, but I can't disqualify people who are so adamant about it," Burnette said.

"There's a lot out there that we don't know yet," she said, which is why she thinks more evidence is needed, and not the kind that can be explained away by something else.

"I would like something more concrete for my own edification," she said.

Other members are not wishy-washy about Bigfoot's existence, even if outsiders put it in the same category as UFOs, ghosts and the Loch Ness Monster.

"Just because they don't believe in it doesn't mean it doesn't exist," Fender said. "They could never convince me that he doesn't. Never. Never."

If one could judge a Bigfoot hunter on looks and demeanor, it would seem the group's sweet-natured co-founder would be more apt to welcome Bigfoot with freshly baked cookies rather than a shotgun blast, but neither is the case.

"We don't plan on shooting anything; we don't want to harm the creature," Fender said. "We just want to gather as much information as possible (and) do something nobody else has: get an actual photograph or other concrete evidence."

So far, the group has stories. Many members have heard the scream, and one reported seeing the creature many years ago in Franklin County.

"When he first saw it, he thought it was a bear standing on its hind legs. It was at least 6 feet tall," Fender said. "It was shaking a tree, and it had hands."

She said it is believed that this half-man, half-ape species travels in packs as a family. They nest in wooded, unpopulated areas near water and feed on whatever they find. She added that there are no reported cases of the creature hurting a human, but Bigfoot does not like barking dogs. She attributes at least a few dog disappearances and deaths in the area to Bigfoot.

In the hopes of catching Bigfoot on film, the group installs a "critter cam" in the woods. The camera is activated by a motion detector.

"We thought we had something one night, but it ended up being a doe," Fender said.

Group members said Bigfoot has gone undiscovered because he has heightened senses. He can hear, smell and see humans coming and go into hiding before they are caught.

Then again, numerous Bigfoot sightings from across the United States are posted at www.bfro.net, the Web site for the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization. The organization boasts one of the most extensive databases on Bigfoot-related topics.

The BFRO site shows 61 reported encounters in Missouri, five of them in the tri-county area.

Anthony "Tony" Gerard, a biology instructor at Shawnee Community College in Ullin, Ill., is a former researcher for BFRO. He said scientists do not run the organization and no longer do the research, so people should be cautious when they visit the site.

He originally joined BFRO because of a lifelong fascination with monster stories. Even now, he is a crew member on "Monsterquest," a show on The History Channel.

"We need monsters," Gerard said. "The world is a sadder place without them."

Science long ago ruined his belief in the Loch Ness Monster, he said, but "I'm still holding out for Bigfoot.

"But I'm not holding my breath," he said.

Even if you take science out of the equation, he said, "I'm unconvinced that in 300 years of gun-toting American history - during which time cougars, bears and wolves were wiped out in Missouri and Illinois - that someone hasn't dragged one in."

Gerard said those animals had keen senses and couldn't escape man. Logically, if Bigfoot exists, he would have been caught, too.

He attributes the guttural scream to a barred owl.

"They make a world of sounds, and one of their screams would raise the hairs on your neck," he said.

When Gerard worked with the BFRO, people told him about their Bigfoot encounters. He recalled talking with a person whose back door was clawed by Bigfoot.

He asked the person, "What makes you think it wasn't a bear?" The person replied, "We don't have bears here."

At that moment, Gerard thought to himself, "But you have Bigfoot?"

He said a few sightings seemed plausible, mostly due to a string of coincidences and the witnesses' demeanor. In those cases, "I can't dismiss the sincere people who saw or heard something they are quite certain about," he said. "Something was going on, and I don't know what."

It is likely that believers will always believe, Gerard said, because a negative can't be proved.

On the other hand, if someone presents a body, the scientific world might recognize Bigfoot as a species rather than folklore.

The scientist recommended that the group keep doing its thing.

"It can't hurt, and it's a lot of fun," he said. "If they come up with any evidence, good footprints or pictures, I'd love to see it."

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