The Fortean Zoologist
We reckon cryptozoology - the study of hypothetical creatures, or unidentified mystery animals - just about tops the list of exciting career paths for nature enthusiasts. Hayley Birch meets a man who knows more than most about monsters.
In November, Jonathan Downes' team will leave the sleepy surroundings of Woolfardisworthy in North Devon, for the swamps of Guyana. Their mission? To track down the world’s biggest snake, which, according to legend, measures in at somewhere around 40 feet. This, he says, is pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge.
Downes likes to think of himself as the "ringmaster of this circus" - a team of scientists experienced in the art of solving animal mysteries. Meanwhile another 470 worldwide members of the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) will be keeping tabs on their progress. Downes is the director of what is now the globe’s largest organisation for research into cryptids – no mean feat for an establishment that he admits once consisted of “me, my ex-wife and a little bloke called Dave” - and editor of the CFZ’s quarterly journal, Animals & Men.
Downes says his unorthodox career choice has raised eyebrows, not least within his immediate family. “My mother used to say, ‘When are you going to get a proper job?’ The answer is, to be honest, I haven’t had my hair cut in years, I drive a Jaguar, I travel round the world doing wonderful things. I don’t want a proper job. I think I’m doing okay.”
Ironically, it was his mother who sparked Downes’ interest in mysterious animals in the first place. “One day she brought me a book from the library called Myth or Monster and it just blew me away. It was the idea that people believe there are monsters in Loch Ness, or that Bigfoot, or the Yeti, or sea serpents exist. It was on a par with a few years later when I realised that girls were different to boys, or a few years after that when I first heard The Sex Pistols, and I thought ‘bloody hell’.”
Downes has no official zoology training; his childlike fascination with nature and modest administration abilities are what have landed him in his current position. Although for someone whose profession - with all due respect - is chasing monsters, he maintains a remarkably scientific attitude to his work. “I’ve always set out to try to be as open minded and as scientifically pure as possible. The trouble is, there are an awful lot of people in cryptozoology who are true believers. They are the X-files mob. They are the people who really, really, really need stuff to exist in order to validate their own lives. I don’t.”
But Downes has reason to be sceptical. In many of the cases the CFZ deals with, he says, it’s simply a matter of going back to the original source of the mystery and digging around a bit. He spins a tale of two youths attacked by a “feathery birdman” in the Cornish village of Porthtowan in the UK. It wasn’t difficult to figure that one out, he says. “If you went back to the original story, which appeared in the parish magazine, you found that it was actually two teenage boys who were pecked by an injured goose.”
So what of his successes? “We’ve got the first ever evidence for a warm water species of lamprey,” says Downes. “The only trouble is, I can’t bloody prove it.” Ten years ago Downes was on a film shoot with Channel 4 Television in Puerto Rico. Being easily bored and always in possession of his collapsible fishing net, Downes skipped off during a break in filming for a spot of paddling in a nearby stream and came across something that resembled the eel-like creatures he used to catch in North Devon as a boy. “I didn’t think twice about it. I looked at it for about five minutes and then I let it go again. It was only when I came back to England that I realised not only are there are no lampreys in the Caribbean, there are no lampreys in warm water anywhere in the world. I had the type specimen in my hand and I let it go.”
Downes is still offering $500 to anyone in the area who can catch him a live lamprey. But the team have bigger fish to fry. Last year, members of the CFZ devoted their summer to hunting down the ‘ninki nanka’ or African dragon. Although they returned empty handed, Downes says his researchers were able to gather eyewitness accounts together with plenty of circumstantial evidence that something like the creature exists. “There was quite a lot of evidence that people had seen it, that people believed in it and that people’s relatives had seen it. But it was also obvious that the whole thing had become mythologised to a ludicrous extent and what was originally an unknown species of snake had become imbued with all these paranormal and mythical qualities.”
The legendary African dragonThe sociology of monsters is what really interests Downes. Referring to the big cats said to stalk the moorlands of the west of England, he adopts a tone that conjures up early horror movies. “The Beast of Bodmin!” It’s the sort of term, he says, that the press would use for a murderer or a rapist. “The thing which I find peculiar is the way that the press can influence people’s perceptions of things and so a perfectly ordinary bone fide example of a foreign species introduced into Britain suddenly becomes a monster, suddenly becomes demonised.”
Downes doesn’t believe that all of his monsters are new species. He is, in fact, just as concerned with hunting down giants of species that we already know exist. “A 40-foot anaconda is not beyond the bounds of possibility,” he says. By way of reasoning he cites his own Goliath-like stature. “I’m 6’7” and my father was 6’4”. We’re not pituitary giants; we’re just different sized members of the human race. And in cryptozoology sometimes, we’re looking for freakishly large individuals from known species."
So what’s cryptozoology all about if it’s not about discovering monsters? “An awful lot of cryptozoology is not about looking for freakish undiscovered creatures,” says Downes. And it’s certainly nothing to do with the financial rewards. “The thing is, with what we do, there’s no money in it. The people that fund most scientific research are the drug companies, the international chemical companies, the cosmetic companies, the medical welfare companies, the government. There’s absolutely no money for anybody in us discovering a 40 foot anaconda.
"But I think it is actually likely to give us a hell of a lot more information on how and why individual members of the human and other known species do get so large in particular races. It’s about the way population dynamics work, looking at the way that known species actually behave and exist. I mean, to me this is just as important as trying to get a new species with your name on it.”
Finally, the monster man answers some quick fire questions:
|First off, Marmite – love it or hate it?
Er, totally indifferent.
|Now that's unusual...
I know it is! My wife loves Marmite and various other people I know hate it. I don’t care. I can eat it or not eat it.
|Do you believe in Bigfoot?
Yes. Probably not in the same way that most people do but yes I do believe in Bigfoot.
||Do you believe in God?
Yes. I don’t believe in God as some bloke with a long grey beard. That’s just superstitious bollocks. I believe in both the alpha and the omega, but again not in a superstitious way, not in the sort of way that most people do.
|What are you most afraid of?
|Very good answer. And finally, Indiana Jones or Back to the Future?
Oh Indiana Jones.
|I thought you might fit into that category.
Yeah Indiana Jones, that’s easy. That was a real quick fire answer. Not even a thought for that one.
To find out more about the CFZ, click here. You can even compete to join the team on the hunt for the giant anaconda.
The Null has been speaking to all sorts of late:
Jon Tickle - ex-Big Brother housemate and Braniac presenter
The man who wore speedos to go swimming at the North Pole
Coast presenter and physical anthropologist, Alice Roberts
Title image: Jonathan Downes
Other image: kindly supplied by our (probably) Polish friends at Kryptozoologica
Other image: kindly supplied by our (probably) Polish friends at Kryptozoologica