Wednesday, May 23, 2007

CFZ Director Jon Downes Under The Spotlight

Midway through last week, I interviewed Center for Fortean Zoology Director Jon Downes about the group, its origins, work, expeditions, and plans for the future. And here it is. Enjoy! (Photograph above taken at the 2006 Weird Weekend Conference in the village of Woolfardisworthy, Devonshire, UK).

N: Jon, what, basically, is the CFZ?

J: The CFZ is the world’s largest mystery animal research group. I founded it for fun, rather than anything else fifteen years ago. And, since then, it has slowly become not just the largest in the world, but the fastest growing crypto-zoological group in the world, too. My passion for unusual animals went back to my childhood, and I was determined to follow my dreams of establishing a group one day that would one day put us where we are now, and in a way that benefits everyone who gets involved.

N: What were some of the earliest investigations that the CFZ was involved in?

J: Well, this has been my hobby for years; so even when I was a child and when I was growing up I got involved in crypto-zoology. So, growing up in Hong Kong, I did a few minor researches of my own into tales of strange creatures said to inhabit the island; and I did work when I grew older into the Big Cats that have been seen in the UK. When we started the CFZ in 1992, it was still some years before we did any foreign expeditions. We’ve always been completely self-funded and so just didn’t have the money back then to do too many investigations overseas. So, a lot of our research for the first five or six years was just based in the UK – such as, as I said, the Big Cats that have been reported here. For American readers: whereas in the United States you have quite a few interesting cat species – pumas, bob-cat, lynx – in the UK we’ve only got one species of wild cat, which is the Scottish Wild-Cat. But for decades there have been a string of reports of mystery cats from pretty well every county in the UK. These reports have always fascinated me; and although some of them are exotic pets that have escaped, or are animals released into the wild when the government legislation on keeping these things changed, I’m coming more and more to the belief that the people who have suggested that there actually is an indigenous British species of largish cat are on to something. And it would be unscientific to ignore that.

N: How important did you consider it in the early years – and today, too – not just to focus on conventional animals like the Big Cats, but some of the weirder things like the Owlman of Mawnan, which suggest paranormal rather than pure flesh-and-blood origins?

J: Over the years I’ve done a lot of research into things that can’t be explained in a purely zoological frame of reference. The Owlman has been reported intermittently for the last 31 years; and it is sort of analogous with the Mothman of West Virginia. That’s probably the thing that – even now – I’m probably best known for: my book The Owlman and Others. However, it has to be said that the things I’m concentrating on now are more living creatures. But you have to be scientific about this. If you are investigating reports of an animal in an area, and if it does become more and more obvious that the creature cannot be flesh-and-blood, then it’s just as un-scientific to ignore it as it is to think that all crypto-zoological things are paranormal.

N: You always strive to create for the CFZ and its members a sense of community and a feeling of everyone being in this together. How important is that to you?

J: Terribly important; and in some ways more important than anything else. It was one of the reasons that I set up the CFZ in the first place. Fifteen or twenty years ago, when I first had the idea to do this for the rest of my life, I was looking around at organizations to join. And although there were a few groups to join, they were all at war with each other; and even some of those that weren’t still seemed divisive. Also, it was terribly hierarchical. They did do expeditions; but the only people who seemed to go on the expeditions were those with money or the people at the head of the organization. I found all that totally wrong. What I wanted to do – and what we do now do – was to have ordinary members of the CFZ go along on expeditions. It would not just be the head of the group. So, I’ve been doing my best to build a proper community. And I think we are doing well, and have a close-knit and vibrant community – from all across the world and of various races, beliefs and religions, which has to be a good thing. But then I’m an old hippy, so that’s how I think.

N: On the issue of expeditions, how important is to actually get out into the field and do things, rather than just proclaiming this or that via the Internet?

J: There are too many people in this business who call themselves crypto-zoologists, but who are nothing of the sort. They spend their time never going anywhere anymore exciting than their little computer screen. But the whole ethos of the CFZ is that we questions things; we go out and look for things ourselves. And this has always proven to us to be scientifically valid. For example, last summer, we sent a 6-person expedition to the Gambia and we were looking into local dragon legends. We went there assuming that it was going to be the Gambian equivalent of some sort of living dinosaur, such as that alleged to live in the Congo. We, at the CFZ, have always been of the opinion that all of these so-called living dinosaurs are actually semi-aquatic monitor lizards; albeit very large ones. But when we got to the Gambia, we found that all of the local people didn’t believe in a giant lizard or a dinosaur-type creature. Instead, they believed the creature was a giant snake. So, we went looking for one thing; but came back with stories of something completely different. And you have to go and check these things for yourself; otherwise tales get told and spread by people who have never been out there or investigated something for themselves. So what happens is that legends build up; and it’s usually only cleared up when someone actually personally travels to the area in question and investigates it. And, most important, you have to share your findings. There are so many people in this subject who are just content to quote each other from the comfort of their own armchairs and they continue to perpetuate things that people assume are fact, because they haven't actually gone to the places for themselves to ascertain the real truth.

N: What sort of relationship do you have with the mainstream media – TV, radio, newspapers, etc.?

J: This is an incredibly important area that a lot of people don’t appreciate. There are a lot of people in this who refuse to talk to the press; and I’ve actually been verbally attacked for sending out press releases when we’re doing things, amid claims that we’re just self-publicists. But this is nonsense. In fact, if you don’t work with the media and don’t highlight what you are doing, then you don’t get coverage of a sort that might lead to help in terms of funding, publicity, and assistance on expeditions - and you don’t get your findings out to a large audience. As long as the media treats us with respect, then I’m happy to work with them. For example, in the north of England last year there was a series of sightings of giant eels in one of the lakes. A local newspaper approached us for comment; and then they ran a story. That led to more eye-witness reports, and it ballooned to where we were able to go up there with a full-scale team on-site and really look into this.

N: What led you to set up CFZ Press as an outlet for your books and those of others in the field?

J: Without exception, when I’ve been published by other companies, there is always massive editing; they want control of the cover design, the artwork, the editorial content, and I won’t play that game. CFZ Press offers to anyone who wants to write books for us the ability to have control of their books in terms of content, style, etc. We publish the books; but we are not in the game of changing people’s books to suit our terms or beliefs. No-one messes with the original concept. Plus, all of the money we make from our own self-written and published books is put back into the research; and for other people that write books for us we do, of course, pay a royalty rate to them.

N: And what do you have coming up over the next year?

J: In a couple of weeks’ time we are off to do some follow-up work in the Lake District as part of our project to record giant-eel data in the UK. I’m hoping to get to Hong Kong in September to do some research there into the mystery animals of the island – part of which will be to make a film on the sightings of the last tigers of Hong Kong; and another on sightings of unusual monkeys seen there. We have CFZ TV now, which allows us to make our own films, on our terms, for all to see. At the end of September we’re off to an island off the coast of Scotland where there have been reports for more than a century of giant eels. Then in November, the CFZ will be sending a team to Guyana, looking for giant snakes. And sometime next year with Corinna, my soon-to-be-wife, I’ll be going to a little South Atlantic island called St. Helena, which is home to a giant type of earwig.

N: What would you say to anyone – young or old – who wants to get involved with the CFZ and crypto-zoology?

J: I think that joining the CFZ is a good introduction to crypto-zoology; and I’m not just saying that because I set the group up! Doing so gives you access to a whole data-base of material, to a community of people on a day to day basis. It also gives you access to our magazine, Animals & Men, and the chance to come along on expeditions, share information, make friends, and really become part of a community that actually does something worthwhile. I do this because it’s my calling; you have to be passionate; and you have to be prepared for a lot of struggling in the wilderness. But it all pays off if you are doing it for the right reasons. It’s a wonderful thing to do with your life. Too many people today are obsessed with incomes, mortgages etc. So, I would encourage particularly young people with an interest to follow their dreams if this is what they want to do, and don’t get caught up in the 9 to 5 world, mortgages and such responsibilities. People should be adventurous and follow their passions – that’s what we do, and it’s what I always tell people who want to come into this field, too.

N: A final question, and it’s one that I hope won’t sound too depressing; but after you are gone, will the CFZ continue? And if so, what are your hopes for the group in, say, a century from now?

J: That’s a very good question. I hope it will be a long time before I have to hand things over to someone else, as there is still much that I want to do. I still have that drive and passion that I had as a child; and so things for me are still on-going. One of the things that has always annoyed me about a lot of researchers and groups, is that while there are a lot of good people out there doing good work, when the head-honcho dies it invariably all falls apart and comes crashing down. I don’t ever want that to happen to the CFZ. It will continue. My health isn’t particularly good; and so I want to make damn certain that what I have dedicated my life to – the hunt for mysterious animals – survives after my death. And we are taking those steps. We have the beginnings of a proper visitor center, we have a worldwide network, and we have many people who now play a significant role in the group. So, in a hundred years time I am confident that the CFZ will still be there, even though those involved now will be long gone. And who knows, perhaps in one corner of the 22nd Century CFZ Visitor Center there will be a little statue of a fat bloke with a beard, and a cigarette in his hand. But that’s not what it’s all about. I’m doing this to ensure that those who are interested in the things we investigate have a place to go and people to turn to, to work with and to create an on-going community with. And that has to continue; and I have no doubt that in 2107 the CFZ flag will still be flying high.

N: Jon, many thanks indeed.

J: My dear boy, you are very welcome.

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