Friday, August 11, 2006

For Tappie, In Praise of Mysterious Beasts

On Monday, I saw TV news reports claiming that a manatee was swimming up the Hudson River. The New York Times also covered the story on Monday (probably where the TV news got their info), although a little research turned up smaller, local papers that were covering the story last week.

Manatees are wonderful creatures, not so much because they seem all blissed-out and gentle, but because I find them exotic and a bit mysterious. A big part of this is that manatees have been considered a possible cause of mermaid sightings among early colonial-period sailors.

Fortunately for grown-up monster nuts like me, our NY manatee, which is being called "Tappie" for the Tappan Zee Bridge that spans the river, is even a bit mysterious because no one has taken a picture of it yet. A follow-up “color” story in the Times certainly included a lot of hand-waving in its coverage as to what Tappie actually is, although I can’t tell if this was to inflate the mystery or to cover journalistic behind.

More on the wonderful world of monster-hunting after the jump.

Creatures like manatees still excite the 11-year-old in me precisely because they connect the familiar world of zoology with the more exciting world of cryptozoology (the study of creatures whose existence is uncertain). Please, if you have anything like that monster-loving kid in you, check out the super-excellent cryptozoology blog Cryptomundo.

Mermaids were never exciting monsters for me, but I did like the angle that we might have an explanation for what caused sightings: Mermaid sightings weren't total fantasy, they were a combination of human imagination and this exotic creature. Manatees are like lenticular clouds that way.

Yet I still wish all those monsters that fascinated me in my youth were real: aliens (of course), Bigfoot, the Yeti, the Loch Ness Monster, the Jersey Devil, the Dover Demon, Champ, Ogopogo. That’s just off the top of my head. The list could go on if I just refreshed the memory some with Google.

Yes, I also like vampires, ghosts, wolfmen, and the like, but even as a kid they seemed too supernatural to me. I think it was because they are all very people-like. I knew people and didn’t see any way they could become vampires or ghosts. I preferred monsters that hovered just at the edges of biological understanding. Maybe if we just explored the world a bit more we could find these beasts, I hoped.

So manatees still excite me because they are emblems of a time when the world was full of monsters, when the Americas seemed to hold beasts to terrify the European imagination. And they keep me in touch with that boy who just wanted life to be a little more exciting and mysterious than it seemed to be shaping up to be.

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