The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo

The special invitation came in the mail. Inside an oversized envelope, on a cream-colored heavy stock card, embossed lettering announced:

The Indianapolis Zoo is proud to present


Be among the first in the world

to see this legendary creature

on display in a beautifully prepared exhibit.

The date and time of the grand opening followed—along with the jacked-up price. Without hesitation I marked my calendar and sent in my online reservation.

Bigfoot had been captured by two amateur hunters the previous summer deep in the Oregon woods. Gordon Buller and Timothy Krennick became overnight celebrities as they retold the story of their quest for Bigfoot to every media outlet from National Geographic to Jay Leno. After three years of rigging up digital cameras with motion detectors on several animal trails in Oregon’s Fremont National Forest, they managed to take a couple of blurry images of what might have been a bear on its hind legs—or something far more amazing. Convinced they had located the fabled animal, they set traps to capture Bigfoot alive.

Astonishingly, they were successful within two weeks: Bigfoot had stepped into a camouflaged cage filled with bananas. (When Buller and Krennick were asked why they had used a tropical fruit not found in Oregon as their bait, they frowned and Buller mumbled, “We just thought it made sense.”) The hardest part of their expedition was getting Bigfoot back to civilization. After shooting their prey with a tranquilizer, Buller and Krennick found it impossible to transport Bigfoot through the thick underbrush. Using a cell phone, they had to convince a search and rescue helicopter to come and retrieve an “injured hiker.”

Once Bigfoot was presented to the media, and there could be no question of a hoax, the scientific community jumped from its pedestal. Every zoologist, anthropologist and paleontologist in the world scratched and poked for a piece of Bigfoot. When DNA tests at Oregon State University determined that Bigfoot was a closer relative to humans than chimpanzees were, headlines all over the world screamed that “the missing link” had been found. Then, through a political compromise and a sizable grant from the Lilly Foundation, Bigfoot found a new home in—of all places—the Indianapolis Zoo.

The day of the grand opening was one of those blue-sky Midwestern days when the ninety degree heat is coated with a layer of humidity so thick a fish could breathe in it. I drove to the zoo, parked my car at the edge of a shimmering ocean of automobiles, and walked toward the entrance, twenty minutes ahead of the time stamped on my pre-paid ticket. The zoo had issued tickets with designated entrance times so as to stagger the crowds, but the idea clearly had not worked because a thick line snaked all the way from the Bigfoot exhibit, deep within the zoo, out the main gate, past the flagpoles, and into the most distant picnic areas. Resigned to a long wait, I took my place at the end of the line.

Initially, the line moved along faster than I expected. In ten minutes I was nearly to the flagpoles—which is when I saw the protesters at the front gates, carrying signs with messages such as “Free Bigfoot” and “Bigfoot Is Our Brother.” I recognized some of the protesters. In fact, I had joined them in the past in protesting the Iraq War. I suddenly felt ashamed to be standing in line to gawk at Bigfoot, and I hoped none of my fellow protesters would see me. Where’s a hole in the sidewalk when you need one?

I turned my back on the protesters and tried to merge deeper within the line, but I made the mistake of glancing over my shoulder. When Megan Sorely saw me, her mouth dropped open and then closed in a frown of disgust. She strode over to face me, protest sign in hand, and launched right in: “I can’t believe you’re approving of this inhumane display! Bigfoot is an intelligent being—our closest relative. He doesn’t belong behind bars in a zoo!”

“Yeah,” I began weakly, trying to think of something ethical, “but I think it’s important that I see for myself what Bigfoot is like.”

“And that justifies making him into a carnival sideshow?” she shouted.

My words fell out of my mouth reluctantly, a clump at a time: “But a zoo … is not a carnival…. It’s a … an educational institution … for the preservation of species … facing possible extinction.”

“Oh, get real! Look around you—this is a carnival! This is no more justified than when they put a pygmy in a cage in the Bronx Zoo a hundred years ago.”

“Pygmies are human beings,” I pointed out. “Bigfoot is …”

“Our brother,” she finished.

The nasty side of me decided to play a hunch. “Megan, did you get one of those special invitations in the mail?”

She hesitated a moment. “Yeah.”

“Did you try to buy a ticket?”

She didn’t answer. She walked away and stood once again with the other protesters. I had guessed correctly: She decided to protest the Bigfoot exhibit only after the tickets sold out.

Minutes later I passed my ticket through a little window and I shuffled through the main gate with the pressing mob.

As the sun beat down on my unprotected head, the water fountain in the plaza beckoned me, but there was no way I was going to lose my place in line. Everyone was making the same decision. The polar bear exhibit was only yards away, but no one dared to venture over to the handrail to watch the bears bask on their plastic tundra or plunge into their glass pool. The seals and otters in the next exhibit were similarly ignored by the throbbing rope of humanity that wound its way into a hazy forested area

As we jostled forward in a slow syncopation—sweat dribbling out of every pore, soaking our shirts—the s tench of mingling body odors gradually grew stronger. The man in front of me was particularly odiferous, forcing me to turn my head each time my lungs required a fresh breath. I found myself despising humanity as my personal space was repeatedly invaded. I hated those blobs called toes, kneecaps and noses. Loose flesh and wrinkles irritated me. Even the act of breathing seemed vulgar.

Occasionally a child whined or an adult complained or a senior citizen made grunting noises, adding to what was already an unpleasant experience. I wished that all talking and disagreeable sounds were grounds for immediate expulsion from the infernal line. Please—let us all simply endure in silence.

My conscience bothered me. Should I be paying to see Bigfoot in a cage? Were not several experts claiming that Bigfoot was a kind of Neanderthal cousin, perhaps a different kind of human being? Should such a being be placed in a zoo?

But that was exactly why I was there. Ever since Time printed Bigfoot’s visage on its cover as “Person of the Year,” I was mesmerized by the need to see that face for myself. Beyond my desire to embrace mystery, to put wonder back into my mundane muggle world—deeper than my yearning for a unicorn in the garden and a mythical reality—I wanted to look into those eyes and see if I could see myself looking back. I hoped for some insight into my own humanity, an ancient wisdom from the dawn of human evolution that revealed to me the secret of how to be.

As hours passed, I inched past the red pandas, the warthogs, the baboons and the tigers. Ahead and to the side I could see the old enclosure for the snow leopard, now replaced by the meticulously prepared habitat for Bigfoot.

A kind of electricity passed through the line as visitors caught their first glimpse of Bigfoot behind the bars. The line stopped moving altogether, no one willing to give up a place at the railing. A forest of arms lifted up cameras, attempting to get a clear shot of the creature. Zoo officials prodded everyone to keep moving, but the crowd ignored their barking. Based on the price they had to pay, everyone felt the right to gaze as long as they wished.

So there I was, thirty feet from the enclosure, but stalled in line and fenced out by immovable bodies. I nearly screamed.

As if sensing my mounting madness, people at the rail let go of their privileged positions and melted back into the mob, replaced by a sluggish circulation. I surged forward a few steps, and then some more, and then a few more. Up against the bars of the enclosure I glimpsed a tuft of reddish fur. I stared at it, straining out any significance I could from the strands of coarse hair. I considered taking a picture of the patch of red, decided I was being absurd, then took the photo anyway just in case.

I stumbled closer, and gradually the entire back of Bigfoot came into view. He was sitting on the ground, his massive back against the bars, his head stubbornly turned away from all of us. Even though his legs were not visible, he was taller and more massive than I had imagined he would be. The back of his head, covered in thick, matted fur, merged into his wide shoulders, with no discernable neck. A ridge ran along the top of his head, but I couldn’t tell if it was hair standing on end or the contour of his skull. His left hand lay curled on the ground beside him, displaying dark and dangerous fingernails.

With one last push I made my way to the railing. I couldn’t believe how close I was to Bigfoot—I could almost reach out and touch his dirty back. I took several pictures with my digital camera, zooming in and out, and holding it up at various angles. What I wanted most of all was to see that face. But aside from some tufts on his left cheek, I could see nothing.

And then, as if on cue, he shifted his weight, angled his left shoulder into the bars, and turned his head to look at us. He didn’t look human at all. He looked like a bear. I looked into his eyes and saw nothing—nothing but an animal. I took the obligatory picture of his face and then backed away into the hungry crowd.

Bigfoot pulled in large crowds at the Indianapolis Zoo for about a year, and then the attendance dropped off. Perhaps that was because by then other zoos had acquired their own Bigfoot creatures, or, more likely, the public had come to the unspoken realization that Bigfoot was, after all, just another animal. And not a very interesting animal at that. He didn’t swim, climb, fly, jump, run or make faces. He mostly just sat in his enclosure, uninterested in the tourists. Despite a DNA heritage that put him close to human beings in the animal kingdom, he showed us no wisdom about ourselves that we hadn’t already learned from the water buffalo

Interestingly, around this same time I noticed that there were no longer any articles in the National Inquirer concerning sightings of the Loch Ness Monster and abductions by space aliens, as if all our silly fantasies had finally been deflated

Two years after coming to the Indianapolis Zoo, Bigfoot became ill. He stopped eating, quickly lost weight, and died. An autopsy failed to reveal the source of the illness or cause of death. The carcass was then frozen and sent to the Smithsonian for storage.

To commemorate the first Bigfoot in captivity, the Indianapolis Zoo soon unveiled a life-size bronze statue of the creature. Now, when you enter the zoo, next to the fountain you will see a noble-looking beast sitting on a rock, deep in contemplation, its chin resting on the curled knuckles of its right hand, elbow supported on the left knee, with the left arm draped over the same knee. The massive feet of the creature gleam unnaturally, rubbed bright by every passing child who believes that doing so will bring good luck.

I saw the statue for the first time last week. Standing in front of its brooding visage, I looked into its metal eyes and saw myself. Before I left, I rubbed its burnished feet.

About the Author

Ryan  Ahlgrim

Ryan Ahlgrim is a pastor who always wanted to be a writer. He has served First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis for the past fifteen years, and has written frequently for various denominational magazines. He has authored a youth curriculum, Morphed: New Life in Romans, a book on preaching, Not as the Scribes, and contributed a sermon to the anthology, Keeping the Faith: Indiana’s Best Sermons. His first published short story, “The Day I Saw Bigfoot at the Zoo,” appeared in the New Fiction issue of The Journal of the Center for Mennonite Writing (see Archives). Many of his sermons, as well as his Bible study blog, can be accessed through his church’s website:www.indymenno.org. He and his wife Laurie have two teenage children, Garrett and Savannah.