On the 55th anniversary of the infamous Patterson-Gimlin Sasquatch film, I talk with Finding Bigfoot’s Ranae Holland.
For ten years Ranae Holland co-hosted the hit show Finding Bigfoot on Discovery’s Animal Planet. Cast as The Skeptical Scientist opposite a trio of Squatch-believers, Holland used her scientific training to debunk evidence of the perennially elusive cryptid.
Less well-known is Holland’s environmental work. Getting her start as a veterinary technician, Holland is a trained restoration ecologist with a Bachelor of Science degree from the prestigious School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington. She spent years before her stint on TV tagging and tracking wild salmon throughout the Pacific Northwest. She also worked on the Elwha Dam removal project for NOAA. Now after a decade of investigating reports of hairy hominids from China to Ohio, Holland is looking to get back into the green groove.
Don Carr: In your Tedx speech you identify as an “environmental activist.” It’s rare in the academic and research community to put activism out front. The fear many have is being marginalized for not retaining objectivity – much in the same way Grover Krantz was stigmatized. Why do you feel comfortable with the activist mantle?
Ranae Holland: Growing up as a closeted lesbian in South Dakota, I’ve always felt like an outsider. I also think folks who get into the natural sciences are not in it for the money, they’re in it to make change. They want to save the natural world. And unfortunately, it sometimes gets beaten out of them by our pervasive capitalist society. Being an environmental scientist and an activist goes hand in hand. I wear it as a badge of honor. Curiosity and stewardship are my driving forces.
DC: There’s another time when you call out Fox News for deceiving its viewers. A recurring theme in your talk is also trying to show empathy and compassion for those who don’t share your views. How do you square the two?
RH: A great analogy is to pair this with Bigfoot and folks who claim to have seen it. I don’t believe Bigfoot’s an undiscovered, biological species. Most sightings occur in rural, politically conservative areas. Due to my edited tv persona, there’s an initial friction with witnesses who believe in Bigfoot. Many of them assume I’m there to debunk their claims. But after engaging in a mutually vulnerable dialogue, they realize I’m there because I want to better understand their experience. I treat them with respect and they realize we share a fascination with the phenomena. And by the end of our encounter, they invite me over for dinner.
Holland’s interest in Bigfoot was sparked early on by her father. A legendary figure in our hometown of Sioux Falls, SD, “Jumpin’ John Holland” was a daredevil stuntman who was severely injured jumping 50 Chevettes on his motorcycle. After he died in 2003, Holland sought out Bigfoot stories while doing fieldwork as way to stay connected to her father.
DC: Tell me how you got to be on Finding Bigfoot.
RH: The Bigfoot Field Researcher’s Organization, run by Matt Moneymaker, granted me access to their database. From there sprung the relationship and when Discovery approached them about doing a pilot, I joined along for a trip to Alaska. But I wasn’t only reticent to doing the show, I was outright resistant. So, the executives at Discovery said, “Take a week to think about it, go to your mentors at the University of Washington and NOAA and ask them what they think”. It ended up being great advice. A NOAA mentor reassured me and said, “You’ve established your research niche, and everyone knows you love a good Bigfoot story because of your dad. Take the gig.”
DC: You spent ten years traipsing all over the wild lands that America has to offer. What environmental issues did you witness firsthand?
RH: The worst was the meth labs. When you’re conducting fieldwork you come across a lot of meth labs and marijuana grow sites out in the woods. We were once in the Daniel Boone National Forest and a ranger cautioned me. He warned we might come across razor wire and booby traps. Sure enough, I saw evidence of rattlesnake tie offs. (rattlesnakes are tied down to trails to strike out at nosy interlopers.)
In California, for the “Birth of a Legend” episode, three murders occurred during filming and on one occasion pot growers were aiming rifles at our helicopters filming from above.
DC: Is there a Venn Diagram of overlapping Bigfoot belief and climate belief? Or is it the other way around? Because people are more inclined to believe in something they can’t see? Or because they come from rural and conservative places where climate denial is stronger?
RH: First, I’m appalled we’re still talking about whether climate change is real. It’s not a theory, it’s happening all around us. But to answer your question, I don’t know. However, there is MRI evidence and fascinating studies that correlates the size and responsiveness of the primitive amygdala brain and conservatism. These studies speak directly to your question. Personally, I strive to not let emotion and my amygdala drive me. I’m led by curiosity and science. To me science is a verb, it’s an action, it’s a lens through which I view the world and it’s why the “Skeptical Scientist” is my brand and social media handles.
There are plenty of academics that believe in Bigfoot and I applaud them. I support people asking questions, getting out of their comfort zones, and applying science to the unknown. But anecdotal reports, blurry photos, grainy videos, and footprint casts doesn’t prove Bigfoot’s existence. To my point, most prints, photos, and videos turn out to be faked and simply don’t stand the test of time, let alone scientific scrutiny.
Succintly, there is no current peer-reviewed, scientific evidence of Bigfoot’s existence. Mind you, I would love Bigfoot to be real. Wouldn’t it be great if discovering Bigfoot is real would stop environmental destruction? But this would require a massive global paradigm shift because we’re actively destroying the planet and not protecting the animals that currently exist. Maybe climate change and “Finding” Bigfoot will finally teach Homo sapiens the importance of stewardship.
DC: Today is the anniversary of the Patterson-Gimlin film. What’s the legacy of what many believe is the best evidence Bigfoot exits?
RH: Despite the cloud of conspiracies surrounding JFK’s assassination, at least in that instance you can conduct a legitimate forensic analysis. Unlike the Zapruder film, which has landmarks within Dealey Plaza, the Patterson-Gimlin film lacks any landmarks to align and analyze. As a result, when we went back to the spot with Bob Gimlin for the first time since he shot the footage with Patterson, all the rocks and trees, all the potential landmarks from the film, had been blown out in subsequent cataclysmic landslides and washed out into the Pacific years prior. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to analyze and measure the film for forensic analysis because you have no geologic, forensic benchmark. But the controversy will perpetuate ad nauseum and the Bigfoot nerd in me loves it.
DC: Groups like the North American Wood Ape Conservancy advocate hunting and killing a Bigfoot to prove its existence and therefore protect the species. Do you embrace the idea that killing one is worth saving the rest?
RH: No. If humans are the apex predator on Earth and Bigfoot is a biological, known species, we should be able to capture it, alive.
DC: What’s your take on another cryptid and efforts to resurrect the Tasmanian Tiger through CRISPR gene technology?
RH: Well, the Thylacine is a known, extinct species. But I consider it misplaced efforts. What’s the point? We don’t have adequate habitat for endangered species we are keeping alive in zoos as it is. I know that sounds cynical, but we’re putting the cart before the horse here. Let’s prioritize habitat conservation and restoration before resurrecting extinct species.
DC: What gets you fired up about the environment today?
RH: I grew up with Native Americans in South Dakota and was beyond frustrated to be tied down with filming while friends were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline. However, those filming obligations kept me from participating and getting arrested alongside my friends. And following countless hours researching up in Alaska, it now holds a very special place in my heart. Nothing gets me angrier than the shortsighted greed behind the Pebble Mine project. If they build it, it’s not a question of if there will be a catastrophic, salmon fishery collapsing event, but when. Finally, our addiction to plastic and its devastating impact on our planet.
DC: Now that your TV career is on hiatus, what’s next?
RH: Restoration ecology is my passion. Specifically dam removals and river restoration. My niche is riparian corridors, from the alpine environment all the way down to the estuary.
Currently, I’m dipping my toe back into restoration work after ten years in media. My other passion is working with kids, getting them excited about science and the natural world. If there’s anything that can bring those ideas together, I’m on board.