Of Abbagoochie and Burrowing Elk Farces and Scams

For some reason, as former Homey Bob Kuhlken (made famous by his search for the “Ghost Trout of the Potholes Lakes”) was sorting and clearing books for his return to current home in Virginia, I started thinking about those Abbagoochies again.

The whole story is well-documented in Alex Boese’s 2003 book, Museum of Hoaxes: A History of Outrageous Pranks and Deceptions. (Alex founded the Museum of Hoaxes in 1997 in San Diego.) Be that as it may, while I loaned my copy of Alex’ book to a forgotten someone years ago, I still have notes on the somehow-ever-alive Abbagoochie scam.

I admire a good tongue-in-cheek story relating to wildlife. If a farcical story turns into a scam, so much the better, since the success of such scams reflects the lack of outdoor and wildlife education of too much of our public. It is always my hope that such obvious prevarications will stir folks to more study of Mother Nature and her vagaries, but it rarely happens.

I have played in this “tall stories of wildlife” realm a bit, myself, but admit to amateur status. An elk-hunting homey a week or so ago asked, “Whatever became of those Utah ‘burrowing elk’ you reported several years ago?” Hmm. You may recall that I reported brother-in-law Jerry Johnson’s discovery of a new subspecies of wapiti (elk) in his southern Utah stomping grounds. This elk actually dug, or Ashook@ itself into soft, sandy ground to escape detection, leaving only brushy-looking antler tips above ground. As you know, the Reecer Creek Rod, Gun, Working Dog & Outdoor Think Tank Benevolent Association holds several of the finest minds in the West – often at the forefront of wildlife science – and we were excited to break the news about Jerry=s Aburrowing elk@ discovery. Jerry=s elk became officially known as Cervus elaphus johnsonii – sort of.

Shortly thereafter, I was in discussion with Idaho family members who spend large amounts of time outdoors. They fish, they hike, and they climb mountains. They do not hunt or intentionally watch wildlife. When the story of Jerry=s elk came up, and I talked about local hunters who enjoyed Jerry=s humor, they wondered what the big deal was. “Why wouldn=t the elk just run away, like they all do?” “Frankly,” the younger said, “I just don’t get that one.” A farcical spoof taken seriously is often both problematic and diagnostic.

Then came the reports from several outdoor magazines, including Outdoor Life and Field & Stream, about the “Abbagoochie.” This strange, terrible creature incited fear and panic in much of West Virginia.

According to the story (with a photo of something like a cross between an owl, a fox, and a deer) in the weekly Webster Echo, published in Webster Springs, West Virginia, wildlife officials had imported the critters from Costa Rica (where they were called “dry land piranhas”) to deal with coyotes, rattlesnakes, mountain lions and other nuisance species. Apparently, West Virginia Department of Natural Resources (DNR) officials traded 372 possums for 13 young of the Tasmanian-devil-type animals. The plan awry.

Reportedly, the 13 carnivorous, chimp-sized Abbagoochies were devouring everything and anything they encountered. It was said that they had eaten everything from squirrels and rabbits to deer and a black bear. People claimed to have heard the pack screaming at night, many actually saw them, and one man called authorities to let them know he had run over one of them with his car. The FBI and state officials were reportedly assigning missing persons to death by Abbagoochie.

No one, of course, wanted to cross paths with an Abbagoochie – said to be willing to frantically consume itself with its own teeth and claws when cornered. People sat up, armed, to guard their livestock, and nervous parents escorted kids to and from school buses.

The whole thing, of course, was a farce. Columnist Jim Wilson had taken a photo of a taxidermist=s creation – a head fabricated from the butt of a whitetail deer, with the intense yellow glass eyes of an owl and the snarling muzzle of a fox. Once Wilson had the photo, the rest was so obvious he made up the story. (This is the kind of guy with whom I would have loved to share a few cool malt beverages.)

The reaction and panic Jim Wilson stirred, in my opinion, is evidence that large numbers of us have too little understanding of wildlife and wildlife communities around the world – or even our own back yards.

Once the regional panic became obvious, the Echo=s editors published a story about the hoax. Google “Abbagoochie scam” today and you will find a continuing interest in these critters. Even in the last year or two bloggers have claimed tracks, sightings and other proof of the existence of these nasty animals which – despite all the stories to the contrary – still exist in the backwoods of West Virginia.

You gotta love a good tongue-in-cheek wildlife farce.

Written by Jim Huckabay. Posted in Uncategorized

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