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Professor puts his stamp on the legend of Bigfoot

His book on the science of Sasquatch, the fruit of a lifelong fascination, troubles his Idaho State University colleagues.

December 10, 2006|Sam Howe Verhovek | Times Staff Writer

POCATELLO, IDAHO — At a glance, professor D. Jeffrey Meldrum would seem to be a star on the Idaho State University campus here.

A popular instructor, Meldrum has written or edited five books, written dozens of articles in academic journals, and ranged across the American West and Canada for his field research. Famed primatologist Jane Goodall wrote a blurb for his latest book, which she said "brings a much-needed level of scientific analysis" to a raging debate.

The problem is the debate: Is Bigfoot real?

Meldrum, a tenured associate professor of anatomy, is in pursuit of the legendary ape-man also known as Sasquatch.

Some of his colleagues are not amused. They liken Meldrum's research to a hunt for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, and 20 of them signed a letter earlier this year expressing worry that Idaho State "may be perceived as a university that endorses fringe science over fundamental scientific perspectives that have withstood critical inquiry."

Or, as Douglas P. Wells, a physics professor here, puts it: "One could do deep-ocean research for SpongeBob SquarePants. That doesn't make it science."

An affable father of six sons, with a mop of brown hair and a bushy gray mustache, the 48-year-old Meldrum declines to say whether he believes Sasquatch exists. But he adds that based on the evidence he has gathered over the last decade, he thinks the likely answer is yes.

"I believe it would be more incredible to dismiss all the assertions about Bigfoot as a series of hoaxes and ruses," he says with academic precision, "than it would be to at least entertain the possibility that an unrecognized large primate exists in North America."

Even as they defend the concept of academic freedom, some who teach here worry that Meldrum's new book, "Sasquatch: Legend Meets Science," is "pseudoscience," in the words of Steven Lawyer, a clinical psychology professor.

"It's the kind of thing that will make Idaho State the butt of jokes," Martin Hackworth, a senior lecturer in the physics department, says of the book, born out of a 2003 program on the Discovery Channel and published by an offshoot of a science-fiction house.

The controversy over Meldrum's work is testimony to the enduring fascination with Sasquatch, as the Salish Indians called the ape-man; or Bigfoot, the term the Humboldt Times in Eureka, Calif., coined in an August 1958 article about a local logging crew's purported discovery of giant footprints.

But although there have been plenty of books on the subject over the years, Meldrum's is one of the very few that could put its author in the middle of an academic fracas.

Twice passed over for elevation from associate to full professor, Meldrum says he would proudly present his Sasquatch research as part of future consideration. As the book's overleaf puts it, he is "willing to stake his reputation on an objective look at the facts." (None of his other books deals with Sasquatch, and he covers the topic in just one lecture of a survey class he teaches, on living and fossil primates.)

Pervasive lore

Skeptics say it is absurd to think that a huge ape roams the American wilderness.

No carcass has ever turned up, and many footprint "discoveries" over the years have been correctly dismissed as hoaxes, Meldrum concedes in his book.

Ray Wallace, a force behind the 1958 footprint discovery and a source of Bigfoot photographs over the years, famously confessed on his deathbed four years ago that the hulking creature once captured on film was really his wife dressed in a gorilla suit.

On the other hand, no one has ever proved that Bigfoot doesn't exist.

Into this void comes the 297-page book, published by Forge. It's an entertaining compendium of Bigfootology.

A chart compares estimated physical dimensions of one purported Sasquatch with Arnold Schwarzenegger "at the peak of his bodybuilding career." The California governor comes off as a pipsqueak next to the 7-foot-4, 700-pound creature. Sasquatch's 68-inch waist is twice the size listed for Schwarzenegger, and he -- or she -- takes thigh size going away, 46" to 28.5".

Meldrum's small office here is crammed with plaster casts of strange footprints and handprints, even a buttocks print, that he has collected in the wilds and that he firmly says do not belong to any known mammal.

The professor says he has heard the strange wailings that some attribute to Bigfoot, and once he was in a cabin in Ontario when a big rock got thrown against an outside wall.

Bigfoot, he presumes.

Academic status

It is unclear how his new book will affect Meldrum's review when he comes up again for full professor, perhaps in a year or two.

"Jeff is a great teacher, and he does real good things for his department," says John Kijinski, dean of arts and sciences at Idaho State. "He runs the cadaver lab, and it's excellent."

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