The most enchanting sci-fi movie of 2021 reveals a lasting scientific debate
What if an actual “cryptozoo” existed? The ethics of putting a bigfoot in a zoo are more complicated than you think.
Visit almost any big zoo and you will see witness the standard menagerie: lions, tigers, and bears, bugs, monkeys — maybe a seal or two.
Visit the International Cryptozoology Museum in Portland, Maine and you’ll find such museum exhibits as hair samples of abominable snowmen and Bigfoot, fecal matter from a small yeti, and a letter written by the actor Jimmy Stewart.
But what if an actual “cryptozoo” existed? The answer might look a lot like animator Dash Shaw’s bizarre new movie Cryptozoo, in which a conservation-minded group of humans opens a zoo filled with mythological creatures like gorgons, griffins, dryads, tengus, luz mala, manticores, and a tarasque.
These are the creatures of myth and legend. But then again, the stars of Shaw’s film — an animated drama for adults that premiered at Sundance in January — might be more real to some than we’re willing to acknowledge.
“I met a woman in the Czech Republic who said that she had seen some of the mythological beings in my movie in real life,” Shaw tells Inverse. “They did look like how they appeared in our movie, but that they were semi-transparent in real life and not as solid.”
She might be telling the truth. She might think she’s telling the truth. Or she might be full of hokum. Thanks to the null hypothesis (basically: you can’t say something doesn't exist if there is no evidence to say it doesn't), there’s no way to prove her or any of the many other cryptid believers wrong.
Either way, cryptids — animals some people think exist despite a lack of proof — are on full display in Cryptozoo. The film sidesteps the entire question of whether these creatures exist and instead focuses on should be treated. In the process, this wild new movie shines a light on an enduring, decades-long debate going on in the real-life cryptozoology scene.
In Cryptozoo, Lauren (voiced by Lake Bell), travels the globe in pursuit of cryptids that she collects for the zoo’s idealist founder, Joan (Grace Zabriskie). Joan’s concept is simple — it’s in the name. The Cryptozoo is a safe haven where various creatures can live under Lauren and Joan’s protection and care. But care comes at a cost.
The Cryptozoo needs paying customers, which means it’s a business first and a sanctuary second. Ideals, as well as the creatures’ preservation, are easily compromised when money is necessary to keep the lights on. This animated cryptozoo certainly is not a vast game preserve, but it’s not Tiger King either.
Lauren and her partner in animal liberation, Phoebe (Angeliki Papoulia), disagree over the Cryptozoo’s purpose. To Phoebe, the place looks like a shopping mall instead of a haven. To Lauren, the gaudy, noisy setup is a necessary evil to make sure the zoo stays open, because if it doesn’t, what’s the point?
For Loren Coleman, American cryptozoologist and the founder and director of the International Cryptozoology Museum (the one in Maine and the only one of its kind), that’s a complicated question.
“This is a grand debate that's been raging in cryptozoology, at least since the 1930s,” Coleman tells Inverse.
The hot question used to be whether or not to kill cryptids. As time passed and ecological conservation movements took hold, that question faded and gave way to new concerns.
“A friend of mine, Mark Hall, actually coined the word telebiology,” Coleman says. It’s “where you would capture a sasquatch, let's say, for instance, and you’d take blood samples or photographs, measurements, all of those kinds of things, keep it on a reserve, and then let it go — capture and release.”
There’s a certain surreality to this discussion, which is fitting given that Cryptozoo’s strikingly coarse artistry gives the film a psychedelic quality of its own. Cryptozoology is both a genuine field of study and pseudoscience, focused on subjects treated by most as hoaxes perpetuated by con artists and dyed-in-the-wool weirdos.
But to the cryptozoologist, any animal is technically a cryptid until it’s discovered. History brims over with cryptids becoming not-cryptids: Komodo dragons, giant squids, even mountain gorillas. If Mother Nature can produce critters as goofy and creepy as the duckbill platypus then perhaps anything’s possible.
In Cryptozoo, Shaw’s protagonists fall in the middle of the spectrum Coleman outlines: They’re certainly not the “kill” types and they’re not what he calls “bigfoot contactees.” Those are people who, in Coleman’s words, “would never share with any scientist where these creatures are living” if they managed to locate one. Bigfoot contactees seek encounters with cryptids, but their ultimate goal is preventing anyone else from finding them and ostensibly harming or catching them.
Linda S. Godfrey, a journalist, investigator, and author of 18 books on supernatural and paranormal subject matter — notably Haunted Wisconsin, Real Wolfmen, and I Know What I Saw — is familiar with contactee psychology.
“It’s hard not to get hooked on going and looking for these things,” Godfrey says. “A nice side effect of being able to go hiking and camping, and having this experience with nature and the outdoors, is that you would hopefully see the creatures in their natural habitat and not caged up in zoos, or places that wouldn't really be pleasing for them.”
For the person Godfrey and Coleman are describing, the only way to see a cryptid is out in the world, not behind glass barriers. A Cryptozoo would be anathema to a contactee.
However, the other side of contactee behavior isn’t particularly benevolent.
While Coleman is resistant to the “kill and capture” approach, he does favor verification, because “verification is one way to preserve and conserve the population.”
Denying science the knowledge of a cryptid’s existence doesn’t actually protect it from, say, hunters, or in the case of Cryptozoo, Nick (Thomas Jay Ryan). Lauren’s diametric opposite, Nick is a Belloq-style figure who stalks Lauren in an effort to steal her finds on behalf of the United States military.
Cataloging cryptids in the scientific canon would better insulate them from the schemes of men like Nick, while allowing them to roam freely in their own environments. There’s no need for a Cryptozoo if the cryptids can be properly verified.
That conflict between defending cryptids from nefarious interests and treating them like commodities is baked into Cryptozoo. But put a gun to filmmaker Shaw’s head and demand he give away the film’s allegory, and he’ll tell you it’s about imagination and radical ideas.
“Often in the good intentions of introducing radical ideas to the general public something about those ideas is damaged,” Shaw says. “If the ideas roam free they might damage each other. There's a chaotic, possibly harmful world to free imagination.”
Imagination, much like dragons and centaurs, shouldn’t be confined.
Shaw and Cryptozoo stand on the side of “wild” imagination. Imagination, much like dragons and centaurs, shouldn’t be confined. The film echoes Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park in arguing that there’s no value in putting such creatures in captivity because, in the end, the whole enterprise is going to collapse anyway.
“Nature has a way,” Coleman quips, “but humans have a way of messing things up.”
He does emphasize that he’s not a crypto-evangelist. Coleman’s not against capturing cryptids for study, but he doesn’t favor keeping them in zoos forever.
“I would not want the first bigfoot to end up in the Saint Louis Zoo or something,” Coleman says.
He points out that some of the first giant pandas were whisked off to zoos immediately on discovery. It was only years later that China came upon the notion of relocating them to breeding centers in wilderness preserves.
These concerns all find their way into Cryptozoo, but the conclusions drawn after chewing it over are down to the viewer. Coleman sees merit to a broader concept of captivity, where cryptids can live unbound under watchful eyes. Shaw believes cryptids, like human creativity, should have no boundaries. The movie, of course, argues that endeavors like the cryptozoo in Cryptozoo would end in chaos.
For Godfrey’s part, whether or not such an establishment is moral or ethical is beside the point. She thinks a zoo for cryptids wouldn’t actually help humans understand these creatures or give us the answers to the questions their existence raises.
“What are these things?” she asks. “Are they creatures from another dimension? Are they spirit animals from the Earth?”
We’ll never know. We might try anyway. But we’ll learn as much about cryptids in zoos as we would about rainbows.