Wildlife: Load the Stun Gun, Pass the Old Spice

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, November 1995

Wildlife: Load the Stun Gun, Pass the Old Spice

On the trail of 600 pounds of prehistoric phew
By Stephanie Pearson

With a monkey-like head and Lon Chaney Jr.'s overbite, it crashes through the forest, a fanged pied piper trailing a prehistoric stench and an army of dung beetles. Get too close, and you'll become disoriented, then intoxicated, by its very presence.

This may sound like just another bigfoot tale, and in a sense it is. For decades Brazil's forest natives and rubber tappers have stammered about encounters with Mapinguari, a mysterious, apelike beast swathed in red shag. And yet, as with reported sightings of Sasquatch in North America, witnesses of Brazil's bigfoot haven't yet come out of the forest with any proof.

This month, David Oren, a Yale- and Harvard-trained ornithologist and head of zoology at Brazil's Emílio Goeldi Natural History Museum, hopes to change that. He believes he's close to cracking the case of Mapinguari, which, he says, is really the forest-dwelling megalonychid ground sloth, a not-so-formidable nocturnal vegetarian thought to have been extinct for 10,000 years. ("Its meal of choice is heart of palm," he says.) Using funding from a Brazilian scientific foundation, Oren is hitting the trail in the remote western Amazon with a stun gun and a high-powered video camera, hoping to brush snouts with the beast.

"My assistant will zap it," says Oren, "and I'll take blood and hair samples before it wakes up."

Oren's obsession began in 1985, after a friend told him of a gold miner who had stumbled upon a "horrifying creature" that was six feet tall and 600 pounds, breathing hoarsely from a monkey's face. "A light went on in my head," says Oren, who remembers reading about the sloth in a biology class 23 years ago. "I thought, 'My God! It's still alive.' " Needless to say, the hunt was on, and Oren began interviewing more than 100 eyewitnesses during his travels.

One of the livelier, if perhaps embellished, reports came from a rubber tapper who claims to have encountered a giant ground sloth while hunting peccaries. Hearing a humanlike shout, the man turned and saw a raging creature rearing up on its hind feet. He shot and killed it, but an overpowering stench caused the tapper to wander lost for hours. Explains Oren: "The animal's primary defense is a smell that is somewhere between a peccary snake and a possum." Eventually the man made his way back to the carcass, cut off one of its forefeet, and took it back to his brother. The foot, however, reeked so badly that they flung it into the forest. "If you add it all up," concludes Oren, sounding more wide-eyed than skeptical, "there's overwhelming evidence."

Most of the American scientific community, however, is unconvinced. "Until he produces it, I'll doubt that it exists," says Malcolm C. McKenna, a paleontologist at the American Museum of Natural History. Paul S. Martin, professor emeritus at the University of Arizona and originator of the overkill theory, which posits that prehistoric humans caused a flurry of extinctions (including that of the ground sloth), asserts his skepticism more forcefully: "I'll eat my share of sloth dung if this animal is alive."

Undaunted, Oren eagerly prepares for an encounter. "I'm testing a scientific hypothesis that's basically reasonable," he says. "This isn't the Loch Ness monster."

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