It`s hard to believe that the CFZ is nearly two decades old!
I became a professional monster hunter more by luck than by judgement. Like everything else in my life, it happened almost by chance. After a serendipitous chat in 1994 with a representative of one of the better-known Sunday newspapers about the "Beast of Exmoor" and the subject of cryptozoology - the study of unknown animals - a subject that had been my hobby for many years, I was quite surprised to read that I was "one of Britain's foremost cryptozoologists".
In a 2001 interview with the Yorkshire UFO Society I was asked how I first became involved in the subject:
"I`ve been interested in this stuff all my life. My interest probably started when I was a little boy. I was brought up in Hong Kong surrounded by all sorts of weird and wonderful animals anyway. Every week my mother used to get me library books and one week when I was about seven years old she got me a book called "Myth or Monster" which introduced me to the wonderful concept that there were real monsters like the Yeti, the Loch Ness monster and sea serpents in the world around us. I was immediately hooked and I`ve been interested in cryptozoology ever since."
Cryptozoology is the study of hidden or unknown animals, and such creatures, belonging to a species wholly or partly unknown to science, are usually collectively referred to as 'cryptids'.
Many researchers, myself included, are interested in a related category of mystery animals often termed the 'pseudo-cryptids'. These are animals which are out-of-place: known species which by accident or artificial introduction (or sometimes both) live in a geographical area where one would not normally expect to find them. An example being big cats on British moorlands.
But the third category - the one that interests me the most are zooform phenomena. These are not animals at all, but are entities or apparitions which adopt or seem to have animal or part-animal form. This is where we, at least partly, enter X Files territory. In many ways, these elusive and contentious entities have plagued the science of cryptozoology since its inception - and tend to be dismissed by mainstream science as thoroughly unworthy of consideration. Zooform phenomena seem to be a mysterious blend of paranormal manifestation and mythological icons..
As I became more deeply involved in the study of zooform phenomena I began to realise that you could no longer study these 'creatures' in isolation. In many cases, zooform phenomena are inextricably linked with a wide range of other paranormal and fortean phenomena, most especially crop circles and UFOs.
It was because of this curious dichotomy of definition that my ex-wife and I finally decided to found the Centre for Fortean Zoology in April 1992. We were staying with friends in Derby and discussing the problem of my being a cryptozoologist who didn`t necessarily want to study cryptozoology per se, when my friend Dave said, "Well, I guess you need to start a new science then."
I had to agree with him. I was already a devotee of the work and philosophy of Charles Fort, the American researcher who had given his name (unwittingly and one suspects unwillingly) to the study of anomalous phenomena and so the name Fortean Zoology really found itself.
No, that`s not entirely true.
I originally wanted to name my nascent scientific discipline Anarchozoology. Taking the political philosophy of anarchism, rather than the popular interpretation of the term, my concept of anarchozoology was to be a discipline where one made up one's own rules, and then stuck to them, rather than being bound by the rigid dogma of the preconceptions of someone else`s scientific world view. It seemed to me then that the omniverse was such a strange and bewildering place that it was only by fusing the two apparently-disparate concepts of `discipline` and `anarchy` that one could make any sense of it all. It still seems like that to me today.
I had been working as a freelance writer and researcher for some years, and it seemed to me that the time was ripe to formalise my research, and to form an institution through which I could share my research with others working in similar disciplines.
However, this was not the full reason. Because of the very nature of mystery animal research, and especially when one is considering the subject of zooform phenomena, which in itself is a strange and disturbing discipline, there is a tendency for some sectors of society to treat you like a bloody lunatic because you dare to show an interest in things that are away from the norm. Perhaps the fact that at the time I was a drug-addled hippie didn`t really help, but I felt that I needed all the spurious credibility that I could get if we were going to have any chance of being taken seriously researching into such diverse subjects as frogfalls, Cornish Big Cats, animal mutilations, and the Owlman of Mawnan (all of which we looked into before the CFZ was a year old)
Although when it started the CFZ consisted of Alison, me and my mate Dave from Derby, after a couple of years it seemed a logical move to start expanding our horizons. Serendipitously, at the time I had recently made friends with a lady called Jan Williams from the North of England who, together with Trevor 'Beast of Exmoor' Beer was running a short-lived organisation called S.C.A.N (The Society for Cryptozoology and the Anomalies of Nature). I became a regular contributor to their magazine, and when after four or five issues, Jan and Trevor went their separate ways I asked Jan, diffidently, whether she fancied helping me start up a Cryptozoological magazine. I wanted to call it Animals & Men (after a line in a song by Adam and the Ants from their unjustly ignored debut album Dirk Wears White Sox). Remember, at the time I was still a bloody hippy and my writings and methodology were horribly imbued with references to anarchic politics and obscure rock records. Much to my eternal gratitude, Jan agreed and the magazine (and thus the CFZ proper) was born.
The rest is history!
Alison and I were practically bankrupt at the time that the first issue of Animals & Men was published in the early summer of 1994. We hitchhiked to London and gatecrashed the first ever Fortean Times Unconvention with our complete stock of 200 of these magazines. Much to my surprise I sold the lot and sat at the bar feeling rather please with myself
At the bar was a middle aged Irishman with a bodrhan, wild staring eyes and attitude. He was Tony "Doc" Shiels, and he and I soon got talking and drinking. Within an hour we were firm friends. A journalist from The Guardian came up to me and asked me and my companion for an interview. We were both pissed and slightly belligerent. He asked who we were. 'Doc' threatened to curse him, and I replied in my most pompous ex public schoolboy voice. "Dear Boy, I`m Britain`s best known Cryptozoologist"...... Of course, I wasn`t any such thing, but they printed it anyway, and if it's in the papers it must be the truth `cos fifteen years later I`m still here and we`ve just published issue 45 of Animals & Men. Funny old world innit?
By the end of the weekend we had well over a hundred subscribers and our future was secure. We continued publishing magazines at roughly three-monthly intervals but it wasn`t until issue three that we had our first proper break.
At the 1994 Unconvention I met Dr Karl P.N.Shuker, someone with a REAL claim to be Britain`s greatest cryptozoologist at the time, and someone else who has, over the years, become a good and dear friend. He was lecturing, and told the fascinating tale of some alleged monster footage that had been taken at Lake Dakataua on the island of New Britain off the coast of New Guinea. This story galvanised the entire British cryptozoological establishment and we dedicated many pages of the next few issues to the story.
We were the first people in the UK to get a copy, and indeed (sorry to those awfully nice fellows at Tokyo Broadcasting Company TBS) but as far as we know all the video copies currently circulating in the UK originally came from us. Unfortunately for cryptozoology as a whole the pictures turned out to be of salt water crocodile(s) but fortunately for us, not only did it take some time for this fact to be discovered but it was one of our researchers, Darren Naish, who discovered the fact and first published it in our 1997 Yearbook.
In 1995 we decided to start a second publication, the annual Yearbook. This 200 plus page collection of longer research papers has been published annually ever since.
Unfortunately in 1996 Alison and I separated and were divorced after long, messy and painful legal proceedings a year or so later. My old friend and colleague Graham Inglis whose main qualifications for the job were that he was:
a. An old mate
came on board to fill Alison`s roles as administrator and general partner in crime.
Even now, thirteen years after the split I look back at those months with horror and I can truthfully say that if it had not been for the strength and fortitude of Graham and my many other friends in the CFZ around the UK I don`t think I would be sitting here now writing this story. I would probably be dead. And I mean that.
In the mid 1990s the Carribean island of Puerto Rico was plagued by an outbreak of animal mutilations. These were blamed on El Chupacabra (Spanish for The Goat Sucker - also a derogatory term for prostitutes of the lowest order).
The reports described attacks on a wide range of domestic livestock and there were even disturbing reports of attacks on human beings. Researcher Conrad Goeringer wrote in 1997 that:
Believers in the chupacabras say that the beast is a hybrid creature, in appearance something which resembles a cross between a giant dog and a lizard. It is said to walk upright on two feet, is capable of flight, and sinks its fangs into victims and kills them by drinking their blood. News reports of chupacabras sightings come from mostly rural areas; and while the mysterious creature seems to prefer farm animals like sheep, goats, and chickens, it has been alleged to attack humans.
A researcher at the Centre for Fortean Zoology, who shall remain nameless described the animal (most famously depicted by Puerto Rican researcher Jorge Martin) as a cross between a kangaroo and Sonic the Hedgehog (a computer game character) on acid! By 1996 the attacks had spread to Mexico, Guatemala and even the mainland United States.
The reports continued and in September 1997 we were approached by AVP Films, an independent film company, to take an expedition to Puerto Rico, Mexico and Miami in the hope of tracking down some witnesses and discovering the truth about the creature.
The resulting adventures are told in Channel 4's The Fearless Vampire Hunters and in my book, "Only Fools and Goatsuckers" which was belatedly published by CFZ Press earlier this year.
On our return to the UK, Graham and I were only too aware that if we were to expand our activities we needed to take someone else on board. At that time we had been corresponding on and off with a geezer called Richard Freeman for several years. He had co-authored an article on Dog Headed Men with me for the third Volume of Fortean Studies and we had collaborated on a number of short TV shows. He, too, was a party animal with a stupid sense of humour, but unlike Graham or me he had proper zoological qualifications. He had followed up a City and Guilds in Animals Management and he had studied zoology at Leeds University.
We asked him whether he wanted to join us at the CFZ. He did and he is still here over a decade years later.
All the pieces were now in place. By the end of 1998 we were all living in slightly bohemian squalour at my house in Exeter. The CFZ was now in place and all were present and correct.
One of the best parts of my job is that occasionally I get invited to various parts of the world to appear at conferences as a guest speaker, and so, just in this guise I was in the United States during the summer of 1999. I was lucky enough to be out in the middle of the Nevada desert and to meet many friendly and kind people who took me out into the desert on exploration trips. During my sojourn in Nevada I met several people who told me stories of a broadly cryptozoological and fortean nature that I wanted to follow up as soon as finances and time allowed.
On my return to the UK I was thrown into a particularly unpleasant situation. I had been employed by Top Events Ltd of Tarporley in Cheshire - a company owned by a bloke called Roy Bird - to edit their magazine, "Quest". During that time, I commissioned a large amount of work from various friends and colleagues throughout the fortean community. Unfortunately, after a few months it became obvious that Bird was a complete [allegedly - CFZ legal department! ] crook, and had a record of fraud and misappropriation of funds.
Many people including all three of the main CFZ faculty members, my own father, and a lot of the major players in the fortean community ended up being owed a lot of money as a result of this short lived liaison with Bird and his company, and I resigned at the end of November 1999.
However this liaison did me a lot of harm on a personal level. As a result of my relationship with Bird I lost my publishing deal with Domra books and fell out with many people whom I had considered friends. The whole episode left a nasty taste in my mouth.
At the end of 1999, however, we were approached by NM News of Solihull to work on their new project - a national Sunday newspaper with an ethical `green` remit. From the start I had grave reservations about the project and felt that it was too idealistic to succeed. However we were all willing to try, and our brief sojourn with the project (which only lasted eight or nine issues) finally gave us enough money to set the CFZ up properly. From being a rather grubby and sordid bachelor pad, we invested time and money, acquired a housekeeper and eventually made some semblance of order out of the ongoing chaos.
We also used some of this new-found wealth to promote our first annual convention, which was a great success.
Unfortunately the year 2000 was in all other respects a particularly horrible one. Toby, the CFZ dog and a very dear friend to us all, died in June - and over the year other friends, pets and projects painfully passed away.
Then, as always seems to happen, someone came to the rescue. The Hong Kong-based TV production company, Bang Productions, took Richard out to the rainforests of northern Thailand in October in search of a legendary giant snake called The Naga. His adventures, and the ensuing publicity carried us forward until the end of the year. For the first time in years all three of us celebrated the advent of the New Year separately, and I am sure that none of us looked back upon the death of the old year with anything but undisguised loathing.
However, with 2001, a new year was dawning and we slowly began the long, slow job of clawing ourselves back towards some sort of equilibrium. By the early summer things were looking pretty rosy with new books, new expeditions and new projects peppered all over the horizon and even a new CFZ doggie asleep on the carpet in our sitting room.
In 2002 there was a series of sightings of a giant creature in a lake at a wildfowl reserve in the north of England. We were called in by the authorities at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust and we mounted an expedition there in late July. Two members of the team saw the giant wels catfish which - it transpired - had probably been lurking in the west Lancashire waterways since the end of the 19th Century. This was our first major media success for years, and the resulting publicity brought us many new adventures.
Then in 2003 our old friend Chris Clark financed and led the first CFZ expedition to Sumatra in search of the fabled upright walking primate Orang Pendek, and the same year I returned to America in search of Bigfoot type creatures in the swamps of Orange County, Texas. The following year, Richard and Chris returned to Sumatra, I made two trips to the United States - one in search of Black Panthers in the Shawnee National Forest of Illinois, and one to Texas in search of the blue dog of Elmensdorf. I also returned to Puerto Rico with Nick Redfern; a trip which is documented in my book The Island of Paradise (2008).
However, on my return from Puerto Rico things started to go wrong. The first body blow was when Richard's father Ian Freeman died in mid-July. Richard, quite understandably, needed to spend some weeks helping his family sought out the arrangements for his father's estate, so I was left to organise that year's Weird Weekend pretty well single-handed. We lost several of our funding source clients over the autumn and winter of 2004. Early in 2005, my father was taken seriously ill. My mother had died in 2002, and for the intervening three years he had lived alone. In the early summer of 2005, I left my house in Exeter for the last time and moved to the old family home in Woolsery, North Devon, where I looked after my father until his death in February 2006. This is where the CFZ proved, as if any proof was needed, that they are a remarkable bunch of people, because - some on a full-time, and some on a part-time basis - they came with me, and not only helped me through a very difficult time, but nursed my father with me, and helped me establish the CFZ in the rural peace and quiet of North Devon.
After my father's death, we decided to stay here. From 2006, the Weird Weekend has taken place in the village, and imperceptively the CFZ has changed from a peculiar bunch of outlaws (we were once described as the "last gang in town", which I believe is from a song by The Clash) to being a truly community organisation, and an integral part of the local society. In 2004 we published our first book as a perfect bound paperback through the good offices of LightningSource. At the time of writing - just after Christmas 2009 - we have over 50 titles, and something in the region of twenty more titles in the pipeline. We have also carried out expeditions to The Gambia, Guyana, Russia and Sumatra (again) all based from our new home in North Devon.
The increased space of my new rural home has meant that the long planned CFZ Museum is now - to a certain extent of least - a reality. Building work finished during the summer of 2008, and we are now planning exhibits and layouts. I married for the second time in July 2007, and my old family home is now home, not only to the CFZ, but my wife and I, my two lovely stepdaughters, and several members of the CFZ. It is a strange old life, but I don't think I would change any of it.
We`ve had the good times, we`ve hit the bad times, and now we`ve got another eighteen years to look forward to. They look like it's gonna be fun.