6 Fake Animals People Believed Were Real
Many people think mystical or fake animals were only believed in ancient times (excluding the current run of “Finding Bigfoot”). They think that such mistakes could only happen in a time when people talked of dragons and fairies and a family of three bears who somehow managed to get a bank loan to buy a house only for some greedy, sleepy kid to break in and eat all their curiously abandoned soup. But people continue to believe in the mysterious and unfounded even to this day, as the following examples prove…
For decades dinosaur-loving children (and adults) adored the brontosaurus, the gentle, leaf-eating giant who helped Fred Flintstone get work done at the quarry. (Even though Fred would later go out for “Bronto Burgers.”) But few knew that the dinosaur never existed and was instead the result of a long-standing competition/feud/pissing match between two attention-hungry paleontologists that became known as “The Bone Wars.” (A movie-ready title for a time without movies.) One of the paleontologists/fame whores—Othniel Charles Marsh—unearthed an almost complete Apatosaurus skeleton. All it was missing was the head, which Marsh quickly borrowed from another dinosaur species. But when he later found a complete Apatosaurus skeleton he mistook it for a new creature and quickly renamed it “Brontosaurus” so he could get the jump on his rival. This mistake lasted until 1970, when museums made the correction. But in the scientific community’s defense, Brontosaurus means “thunder lizard” and really, who would want to give up a name that cool so quickly?
Ringling Bros. Living Unicorn
Circuses have never been known for properly caring for—or having the best interest of—their animal performers. So when Ringling Bros. announced in 1985 that they had a real “living unicorn” (named “Lancelot” to capitalize on the connection with Arthurian legend), a lot of people could easily see how circus owners would simply toss a mystical beast into a U-Haul and drag it across the country. Of course, upon closer inspection people realized that the unicorn was in fact a goat they picked up from a state fair. Some believed the horn had been surgically attached to the goat’s head. But one man, Otter Zell, a naturalist (and perhaps the first Ren Faire geneticist), claimed he had come across the ancient secret to unicorn-making and created Lancelot, thereby ensuring he would never be on a university’s science professor tenure track. Zell said he wanted to bring magic and a sense of wonder back to the world, which is why he sold Lancelot and three other mutations to the circus for cash and then disappeared.
History has countless examples of supposed hybrid animals, from the gryphon (head and wings of an eagle, body of a lion) to the chimera (lion’s head, goat’s body, serpent tail) to McDonald’s own Mayor McCheese (who has a human’s body and a head made of hamburger, causing him to forever live in terror that one day he will wake up to see a family of four pouring ketchup on scalped skull and devouring his jaw). So it was with the jackalope, a North American rabbit with antlers first “spotted” in 1829 in Douglas, Wyoming (which declared itself the “Jackalope Capital of America” because it beats having your town’s signs just read “Now with Jiffy Lube”). Cowboys said that late at night the creature would mimic their campfire songs, perhaps illustrating that not everyone had a firm grasp of what an echo was back then. Research now seems to indicate the legend started when people saw rabbits with tumors (known as “Shope papilloma virus”) on their heads and mistook the growths for antlers. But since that is sad explanation lets all go on and imagine an Old West where the Easter Bunny was truly something special.
There are countless variations on the Bigfoot legend, including the North American variety that “Squatch Expert” Bobo thinks he can attract with midnight woodland rave parties in “Finding Bigfoot, ” the Tibetan Yeti most famous for having his teeth yanked out of his head at the end of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and, of course, all those sightings of Chewbacca at the San Diego Comic Con. But whereas the famous 1967 footage of a California Bigfoot clearly looks like a guy hurrying across a park ground in an attempt to return his bear costume before he gets hit with a late fee, the Vietnamese Bigfoot known as “Batutut” has led some to believe that the creatures are actually still-living Neanderthals or Meganthropus Robustus. (A race of giants whose existence no one takes seriously not only because its name would be even less ridiculous if it were “Ginormous Bigguns.”) Other people think that the Batutut may be wild forest men. And some wonder why the supposed creature seems to live on an odd diet of fruits, leaves, and torn-out human livers. But to this day the legend continues, as does the realization that there isn’t a part of the world where boredom doesn’t result in new zoological theories.
Usually fake or mystical creatures have names that sound ominous or mysterious, not like the girl who sat next to you in geometry class. But so it was with these “found” mermaids, which were in fact the carcasses of sea rays that sailors carved and dried to make look like the remains of the famous—though obviously not always alluring—creatures. (Because when you’re out at sea for that long you either make your own fun or you slowly go mad and start picking fights with ever knot on the mast rope.) The sailors then sold the “mermaids” for extra cash, which caused the legend to grow and historians to realize that people back then would have most likely mistaken a Chia Pet for an edible god. Sadly, the reason these carvings were called “Jenny Hanivers” has been lost to the ages, though most likely it was a misheard translation, a misspelling, or the fact that sailors were even lonelier than we first feared.
During the 19th century P.T. Barnum was known as the ultimate showman with his “American Museum,” featuring such live exhibits as the 25-inch tall General Tom Thumb and Chang and Eng, conjoined Siamese twins who spent most of their time screaming at each other. (No doubt thanks to years of never being able to get a break from one another.) The museum was so popular, in fact, that Barnum found people would linger for hours, packing the place and thereby cutting down on continuous ticket sales and profit. So he introduced a brand new, exotic exhibit with colorful signs that boldly read “This Way to the Egress.” Soon everyone was excited to see this animal that would surely astound and delight. Unfortunately, the 19th century was not a time people were regularly studying for the vocabulary section of the S.A.T. Otherwise, they would have known that “egress” means “exit.” And so visitors would eagerly flock to get a glimpse of the wondrous creature only to hear the exit door slam behind them when they stepped outside. And pity the poor individuals who entered the museum and made a direct beeline for the “Egress,” only to realize that they had bought tickets to a three-minute tour of the museum’s floor plan.
Which one was your favorite? Let me know in the comments!