We Want to Believe

Woods

No matter the evidence (or lack of it), fantastic creatures will always roam the Maine woods.

Paul Doiron

Photo by Mark Fleming

By Paul Doiron
Remember the Maine Mutant? I can’t blame you if you don’t.

For a few short months in 2006, the town of Turner found itself in the international spotlight when the carcass of a strange-looking creature was discovered by a roadside. Photos of the dead animal showed a gray-furred, short-snouted mammal with an unusually bushy tail. To me, it looked like a mangy mutt, but to other people, it looked like some as-yet-unclassified species — “half-rodent, half-dog” with “curled fangs hanging over its lips” like “something out of a Stephen King story,” according to a Sun Journal article that got national play via the Associated Press. DNA tests later confirmed that the deceased beast was indeed a dog — although dissenters continue to dispute the matter online. You can inspect its preserved foot at the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland should you like to make your own determination.

Why did the mutant capture the public’s interest with such a tight grip? Unlike many states, Maine doesn’t have a signature monster. Florida has its skunk ape, Vermont has its lake serpent, and the Pacific Northwest has its Bigfoot. Maybe Turner’s mysterious monster-dog stoked our universal fascination with the unexplained. But in an age when science regularly solves mysteries far more cryptic than weird-looking canines in Maine (gravitational waves, anyone?), why do so many people still seem eager to believe in fantastic creatures?

They don’t really, you might answer. The Maine Mutant was only a joke that most of us were in on.

Maybe, but I’d argue that a need to believe in elusive (if not mythical) beings haunting our woods and waters is all but hardwired. Consider mountain lions. The state continues to deny that a breeding population exists in Maine, but I’ve met dozens of people — many knowledgeable and trustworthy — who’ll swear to having seen them. The fact that physical evidence of the big cats’ presence in the state is fragmentary at best (stray hairs, a few paw prints, some inconclusive images) only seems to stoke our imaginations. Can it be we prefer the possibility of mountain lions to the certainty of, say, lynx, which biologists can count and study?

Recently, I noticed a line in a Wikipedia entry claiming that a population of mouflon sheep (the inspiration for Aries in the zodiac) had escaped an island estate in Penobscot Bay back in the 1990s and bred wild ever since. It amazed me to think these striking animals could hide for decades at the edge of a summer colony (albeit one with more POSTED signs than people). So I started asking around.

The first reports were negative; the islanders I approached knew nothing of rogue mouflons. Then it dawned on me that I found these denials deeply disappointing. I wanted to believe in feral big-horned sheep haunting the spruce forests of that island. I wanted to feel a shiver of wonder at the thought of glimpsing a 200-pound ram with 25-inch horns peeking out from the beach roses.

It isn’t just children who want to believe they live in an enchanted world, one where not every creature has been discovered or every mystery solved. We all do, even if we don’t need Bigfoot or giant rat-dogs to do it. We can find enchantment in simple, tantalizing questions about the world around us. Could there be a stealthy breeding population of cougars in Maine? What about the wild mouflons of Pen Bay?

I could tell you what my further investigations uncovered. But really, isn’t it more fun if some things remain a mystery?

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Paul Doiron

Paul Doiron is Down East‘s former editor and the bestselling author of the Mike Bowditch crime novels, including The Poacher’s Son and Widowmaker.