Avoiding Pseudoscientific Just So Stories of the Ozark Howler

A few years ago, the folklore blog Into The Wonder attempted to give a scientific explanation for the strange characteristics of the Ozark Howler. The writer suggested:

“Creodonts share a common ancestor with members of the order Carnivora. They bear a superficial similarity to large cats or enormous weasels, but are actually quite distinct. I’m thinking the claims about various large Appalachian predators known as the glawackus, the Ozark howler, and the Beast of Bladenboro might fit the bill as contemporary members of this extinct order of mammals. All three of these cryptids are described as being vaguely feline, but not quite. The glawackus, for example, is described as combining the most fearsome characteristics of a lion, a panther, and a bear. The Ozark howler is bear-sized, but seems mostly to resemble a shaggy feline creature.”

Could the Ozark Howler be a creodont? Well, the Ozark Howler’s carnivorous mass is similar to that of the largest creodont ever, Megistotherium osteothlastes. There are a few problems with this connection, however. 1) Megistotherium osteothlastes lived in Africa, not North America. 2) Megistotherium osteothlastes has been extinct for over 20 million years. 3) The last creodont ever to exist went extinct 9 million years ago. 4) No creodont ever had horns, as the Ozark Howler is described to have.

Let’s have no nonsense about the fossil record somehow hiding the existence of North American creodonts over a period of 9 million years. Yes, the coelacanth was regarded as extinct for a while by biologists before being rediscovered by science, but that was a long, long while ago, and the coelacanth was hiding in the immense space and full darkness of the deep ocean, not walking on the same terrestrial surfaces as human beings.

Over decades, cryptozoologists have searched for mythical animals as if they might be actual, physical animals just like squirrels or cattle. They have never succeeded in finding anything of significance, partly because of their sloppy pseudoscientific methods, but mostly because the animals they are looking for are mythical.

Ozark Howler in Music

Much of the sturm und drang of the Ozark Howler since the Internet became popular has come from cryptozoologists who have angrily protested that the Ozark Howler isn’t real. What they never apparently stopped to consider is that the Ozark Howler could be real even if it is mythical. The Ozark Howler may be real as a myth, not as a biological creature like an armadillo.

Cryptozoology developed in an awkward niche in between mythology and science, accepting the requirements of neither realm. Cryptozoologists demonstrated a profound credulity of the sort that no genuinely scientific field would ever tolerate. On the other hand, cryptozoology was burdened with an astonishing literalism that made its practitioners remarkably inept at comprehending the metaphorical significance of creatures described in folklore.

Cryptozoology has dwindled over the last decade as scientific technology and methods have advanced to the point where it is now quite clear to anyone with a shred of rational ability that no, there are not giant undiscovered apes in the Pacific Northwest, there are not marine reptiles in Scottish lakes, and there are not dinosaurs living in African jungles.

Mythology, however, has prospered as a field of study at the same time. The difference is that, while cryptozoology seeks to promote the idea of fantastic beasts by pretending that there are rational reasons to believe in them, mythology seeks to promote the idea of fantastic beasts even though it’s quite obvious that the beasts don’t really exist. There is now a Fantastic Beasts movie franchise that is wildly popular around the world, even though nobody (except for perhaps cryptozoologists) actually believes that they are real.

The Ozark Howler has been incorporated by fans of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter universe into this Fantastic Beasts pantheon. Artists have drawn, painted, sculpted, and 3D printed the Ozark Howler. Musicians sing songs about the Ozark Howler, and name their bands after them. Commercial enterprises galore have sprung up in celebration of the Ozark Howler, selling yarns and eyeshadows and who knows what else inspired by the beast.

And yes, the sightings of the Ozark Howler continue, as they have for generations, whether or not the Ozark Howler is actually a physically real animal. Cryptozoologists who rushed to declare the Ozark Howler a “hoax” never bothered to research Ozark folklore, which is chock full of descriptions of the Ozark Howler, and other creatures like it.

The cryptozoological community also never bothered to understand Ozark culture, and the relationship that people in the Ozark Mountains have with literal truth. If they had shown any interest in genuine, on-the-ground research where we live, they would have noted the title of a book by celebrated Ozark folklorist Vance Rudolph: We Always Lie To Strangers. Every description of bizarre beasts by Ozark storytellers comes with the open question of whether the eyewitness report is in earnest, or just a prank. That’s how we talk about things around here… but the cryptozoologists wouldn’t know that, because they have remained strangers to our way of life.

The Ozark Howler is not a cryptid. Neither is the Snawfus, or the Gowrow, or the Jimplicute. They are creatures of our Ozark culture, of which we are proud.

Maybe there are Ozark Howlers out in the woods. Maybe not. Whatever the truth is, the truth isn’t the point.

Over in England, Queen Elizabeth’s royal grounds have many depictions of unicorns and griffins. No one goes over and accuses Queen Elizabeth of perpetrating a hoax, or tries to search Britain to photograph a living unicorn. The English are given credit for thinking metaphorically. Please, give people in the Ozarks the same credit.

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