Monday, February 11, 2008

The Great Snipe Hunt

A snipe hunt is something that adults do to children about three days into a camping trip when it becomes painfully evident that there is no television around to keep said kids occupied. The adults tell the kids that there are “snipes” in the woods, and the only way to catch the elusive snipe is to run around making clucking noises for a couple of hours. Of course, there are no such things as snipes in the woods, and the adults get a good chuckle over their children needlessly running around the woods while they get to kick back, drink some beer, and vaguely worry that it may be deer hunting season.

These same kids grow up to be the “reliable eyewitnesses” on shows like The History Channel’s Monster Quest. “I’ve lived in these woods all my life, and I can tell you, that was no bear,” they say referring to some blurry monkey-like creature spotted in the Wisconsin forest after a good night’s whiskey binge. This incident is the most exciting moment of their lives, second only to being interviewed for basic-cable filler.

If you watch one episode of Monster Quest, you’ve seen them all. Each episode starts with a reenactment of a run-in with a giant bird/bigfoot/lake monster/yeti/vampire possum. Then we meet a group of “scientists” ready to set out on an “expedition” to prove such a creature does indeed exist. This is followed by more eyewitness accounts, a quick interview with a skeptic who offers a reasonable explanation for the sighting, and even more scientists that believe the creature may really walk among us. “I see no reason why a vampire possum couldn’t exist” they tell us with a straight face, their correspondence degree in cryptozoology hung prominently over their shoulder.

The last half of each episode features the snipe hunt where the small group of scientists heads off into the woods looking for the creature. But instead of making clucking noises to attract whatever creature they are intent on catching, they douse the ground with monkey urine and string a banana to a tree. The scientists set up motion-capture cameras around their trap, camp for a few days, and find some random tufts of hair that are immediately sent to a lab for DNA testing. Right before the commercial one of the scientists reviews the pictures from the motion-capture camera and says something like, “Oh, my gosh!”

After the commercial we learn that the motion-capture camera took seven pictures of a raccoon eating the banana, and the “Oh, my gosh!” was just the scientist remembering that he left his toaster oven on. The DNA sample turns out to be deer hair. But could it be a half-man/ half-deer hybrid? I see no reason why a deer man couldn’t exist.

If anything proves the futility of these programs, it’s the shows themselves. A recent episode of Monster Quest, titled “Creatures from the 4th Dimension,” is about strange, flying torpedo-like creatures called “rods.” The creatures look like squiggles and can’t be seen by the naked eye, but show up on film. Sure enough, there are plenty of examples caught on video camera, none actually seen by the witnesses who all believe they caught something extraordinary with their camcorders. Then come the theories as to what these things actually could be-- creatures from another dimension, an undiscovered species, or military weapons (look out Iran; we have squiggles!). Some college students even reconstruct the figures in a wind tunnel to see if they can get homemade rods to fly.

So after an hour of theories, experiments, and evidence, the crew of Monster Quest sets up a camera and a light, shakes a nearby bush, and, sure enough, captures a rod on camera. It turns out that rods are nothing more than flying bugs being distorted on film. (Oh, sorry.... Spoiler Alert!)

And therein lies the nature of the snipe hunt. It’s a diversion, a waste of time-- the perfect product for television. So while it’s probably better to be outside getting some exercise by searching for creatures that don’t exist, I’ll continue to perform my weekly snipe hunting session via television. They have to eventually find something, right?

(Incidentally, the snipe really does exist. It’s a slender-billed bird found in Europe and Asia known for an erratic flight pattern and effective camouflage thus making it difficult to hunt. It’s where we get the word “sniper” from. And it tastes like duck.)