Cryptozoology was a fun thing to read about when I was a child. To me it was just stories about strange fictional creatures. Then I found out that people actually believed in some of these weird creatures. That was only a mild surprise because I knew that people used to believe in all sorts of strange things because they didn't know better (finding out people still believe in these strange things was a slightly bigger surprise).

Then I found out that some people still do believe in the existence of impossibly odd creatures and actually spend vast amounts of time and money trying to prove it. It's probably not a bad thing for people to occasionally tramp out into the wilds to see if they can find anything interesting - it's a case of "so what?". What irks me is the continual insistence of people with too much time on their hands that the missing link strides about the wilds of several American states, conveniently able to locate the worst combination of both poor video camera and shaky hands in the region through means unknown to science.

New Zealand is not immune to cryptozoology. In fact, someone set out to find the Mongolian Death Worm a little while ago (and is going to try again). I bet the people of Mongolia had a great time making up stories to tell to the gullible foreigner. Closer to home, there have been claims of a monster living in Lake Coleridge, going by the imaginative name "Lakey". Since any body of water larger than a goldfish pond will eventually attract such claims (including swimming pools), it's safe to ignore tales of monsters in the water. Unless the water is called "the ocean", in which case skeptical interest can be justified on the grounds that the ocean is a big place to hide, and odd things occasionally surface.

On the other hand, there are some interesting local instances of fanciful stories about mysterious animals that either interest me - or infuriate me.

Alien Big Cats
An "alien big cat" is nowhere near as exciting as you might think. It's just a large feline in a place it normally wouldn't be. This phenomenon came about when the keeping of large felines in private menageries was made illegal in the United Kingdom. Owners concluded that the best way to deal with the big cats was to release them into the wild. At least one out-of-place big cat has actually been caught, though that was in 2001.

Despite the fact that it's always been a lot more difficult to smuggle wildlife into New Zealand, there are people who say there are panthers roaming the South Island. No evidence of panthers (which are actually jaguars where all the fur is one big black spot) has been found. The inexplicable felines are always heralded in the media by people saying something along the lines of, "they'll be taking sheep next!" - yet there is a distinct lack of savaged sheep carcasses littering the hills.

In fact, farmers are more likely to lose livestock to birds in this country. Alpine parrots will happily carve open a sheep and eat part of it while it's still alive (though that's not as common as farmers claim). They'll even try to eat your car. Of course, this isn't wonderful enough for some people, and so they insist that panthers roam the wilds of southern New Zealand. While possible, it's highly unlikely because, frankly, there were probably never that many private menageries in this country. The explanation for these sightings from people who actually deal with animals on a daily basis is that people really don't have a clue what a feral cat looks like, and people are terrible at gauging size over long distances.

The Moa is extinct. Humans ate them all - They must have been quite tasty to warrant such wanton consumption. However, there is always some crackpot (possibly the same crackpot each time) claiming to have seen one out in the bush. This has approximately the same likelihood as the Loch Ness Monster, except with the caveat that if there was any halfway-reasonable evidence for an animal coming back from extinction in this country, hundreds would be out there trying to shoot it so they could claim the bragging rights.

Now, there's a really good reason why people give any credibility to the idea that Moa are still alive, and that's because another extinct bird was found hiding in the mountains. The difference is, of course, that Moa were huge, and claims that they're just hiding away in the undergrowth should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Takahe is a scruffy bird, purple underneath and muddy looking on top. It was assessed as being extinct in 1898. The method used to determine its status as an extinct species was the highly scientific method of killing the last four known specimens.

However, in 1948 a doctor by the name of Geoffrey Orbell, who clearly had a lot of spare time, started roaming the back country just on the off chance that the Takahe was still alive. They were - they'd been hiding out in the Murchison Mountains for fifty years, no doubt assuming that any further assessment of their status as extinct creatures might be fatal. Now there's a colony of them on an offshore island and a few on the mainland.

You might be thinking cryptozoology isn't all bad after that little tale. Well, sorry... It's all downhill from here.

Taniwha are poorly-defined mythological monsters from Maori tradition. Generally speaking, think of a huge scaly serpent with really big teeth and horns (arms are apparently optional). There are many regional variants, which have different behaviours, environments and colours. They function in the mythology that gave rise to them as protectors, guardians, or vicious monsters; depending on the location and the story. They were the object of reverence, and apparently received offerings, though they might have been symbolic.

In the 21st century, their main role is getting in the way of construction projects. A proposed prison was put on hold while a court made a decision about the property rights of a taniwha sleeping under the site. More controversially, a section of the nation's busiest highway had to be re-routed because a taniwha was in the way. Though building a road through a swamp is a silly idea regardless of the presence of gigantic mythical albino eels, it's probably better for the nation's highway policy if these decisions are based on proper site assessments, not someone saying, "Oh, no, there's a monster there."

It should be noted that offerings were required to appease these taniwha. That's right, you can't build anything in certain parts of this country unless you appease creatures of myth. Apparently this is a more sensible course of action than digging up the ground to see if they're there - and then saying "So where's this huge fucking lizard, then?" when all that gets turned up is several tons of earth.