This story is part of Future Tense Fiction, a monthly series of short stories from Future Tense and Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination about how technology and science will change our lives.
At first, the hardest part about living on the seastead was the smell.
When Dr. Shelley arrived on the platform built beside a largely abandoned island, it was already overcrowded. “I got there a few years after the first group. Apparently, when they arrived, it wasn’t so bad—two people to a room, laundry whenever you wanted it. But by the time I got there, it was four in each room, and you could only shower once a week. Laundry every two weeks. The experiments with animals had started. It smelled awful,” they say. “I seriously considered asking someone to cauterize my nose.” The good news was that those old television commercials were right—nose blindness exists. “After a few weeks of nausea, I couldn’t smell it anymore.”
Dr. Shelley—a pseudonym—would spend seven years on the platform, leaving only once, for a six-week vacation to visit family and attend a wedding. “Being back in the real world, it was overwhelming,” they say. “I gorged myself. On the platform, the food was all efficient and nutritionally maximized and disgusting. Breakfast and lunch were those meal replacement shakes, and dinner was usually squishy in some way. I basically never had to use a knife on anything there.” On the seastead, each person was allowed only a single carry-on piece of luggage; uniforms were provided. “I wore the same shirt and pants until my mother made me go shopping with her. She couldn’t understand why I kept saying that I couldn’t bring any of it back to work with me.”
Small talk was excruciating, in part because Dr. Shelley couldn’t say a word about what they were really doing. “I dropped a lot of hints to make people think I was working in the Arctic on top-secret climate-change research funded by the government. But you know what people really want to hear about? Working in the Arctic on climate-change research funded by the government.” They sigh. “I should’ve told people I was working on mollusk conservation somewhere really boring. No one ever wants to talk about mollusk conservation.”
But there’s one thing people want to talk about more than top-secret climate research in the Arctic, and that’s what Dr. Shelley was actually working on. They were bringing the Bigfeet to life. Few scientific stories have generated as much outrage—or press coverage. In the four years since the Bigfeet exploded into public view, their story has been covered with equal ferocity in premier journalism outlets, gossip columns, legal journals, business publications, and the world’s most respected scientific forums. They’ve been the subject of countless podcasts, documentaries, even art installations. What happened when the Bigfeet began appearing is well known. But we’ve heard far less about how they actually came to be.
That’s why Matter of Fact magazine set out to create the most thorough accounting to date of the Bigfeet’s origins. For the first time, a scientist who helped engineer the creatures is speaking on the record. The previously unreported information Dr. Shelley is sharing suggests that the Bigfeet may be just the beginning of a troubling new era in humanity’s relationship with the natural world.
Randall Squash was 22 and still going by the surname Catell when he had what he calls his “come to Bigfoot” moment.
During childhood camping and hunting trips in eastern Washington state, his father would break out the Bigfoot stories, but they didn’t make that much of an impression on him. “Maybe something was out there; maybe it wasn’t. I was more focused on the animals in the woods that I could see,” he says.
Squash, now 75, dropped out of school after 10th grade and earned his GED. Then he began working at a logging camp in Idaho located on public land and operated by the company Knock on Wood. His older sister, Rebecca, tells me, “Randall loved logging. He’d go into the woods for weeks at a time, and then he’d come back out and blow his money partying and do it all over again.”
Then came the day that would end up changing far more than just his own life.
“Some of the guys had talked about Bigfoot being nearby, warning us newbies to be careful. But I just blew it off,” Squash says, chuckling at his naive younger self. “Until I went for a walk alone and came to a small clearing and almost walked into this giant thing.”
It’s a story he’s told thousands of times publicly. The creature didn’t charge him or roar—it just stood there, seeming as curious about him as he was about it. “He sniffed a bit and cocked his head to the side, and I swear to God, he smiled. He reached an arm out toward me. He’s standing maybe 10 feet away from me, but he’s probably 7, 8 feet tall. And I tore off, thinking he would chase me. But nope, he just stayed there.” After running through the brush for a few minutes, “branches whacking at my face,” Squash stopped to catch his breath. Instead of terror, though, he felt a serenity he hadn’t experienced before. “It was that smile. And now, whenever I’m feeling stressed out or worried or like something terrible is going to happen, I close my eyes and think about that smile, and wow, my heart rate comes down and I know exactly what I have to do next.”
He told some of the loggers about his experience, the ones who had shared Bigfoot stories, but they just laughed. “ ‘You know we were kidding around, right?’ That sort of thing. It infuriated me. They told me all this stuff about Bigfoot being a monster who would snack on my eyeballs, so when I saw him, I ran. But I was communing with that thing even when I didn’t want to. What if I hadn’t been so scared? What if I’d stayed?”
(Squash denies his sister’s allegations that he was under the influence of psychedelics when he had this experience.)
Before seeing Bigfoot, Squash had intended to live in the moment, to work just enough to be able to really enjoy himself the rest of the time. But the encounter gave him a sense of purpose. During his down weeks, he didn’t party much anymore.
Instead, he devoted his time to reading about Bigfoot online. He learned that modern Bigfoot lore is a mixture of Indigenous legend, rooted in thousands of years of storytelling, and much more recent encounters. It’s widely believed that Sasquatch comes from sásq’ets, a Hul’qumi’num word that refers to a giant, wild, hairy man. Hul’qumi’num is spoken by some Coast Salish people of the Pacific Northwest; other Indigenous people from the region, as well as farther south in Arizona and New Mexico, also have traditions of such a supernatural creature.
The Anglicization Sasquatch first appeared in 1929, in an article for the Canadian magazine Maclean’s by J.W. Burns, a teacher at Chehalis Indian School in British Columbia. (Chehalis was another name for the Sts’ailse, a people who live in British Columbia and for whom the sásq’ets is a particularly important symbol.) Burns wrote:
Are the vast mountain solitudes of British Columbia, of which but very few have been so far explored, populated by a hairy race of giants—men—not ape-like men? Persistent rumors led the writer to make diligent enquiries among old Indians. The question relating to the subject was always, or nearly always, evaded with the trite excuse: “The white man don’t believe, he make joke of the Indian.” But after three years of plodding, I have come into possession of information more definite and authentic than has come to light at any previous time.
In the article, Burns shares several stories of Indigenous peoples’ encounters with Sasquatch. It makes for rather offensive reading. (Is it really so “trite” for a subjugated people not to want their beliefs and ancestral knowledge mocked?) Nevertheless, it marks an important moment in the history of Sasquatch.
Still, the idea of Bigfoot was largely restricted to the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia until the 1950s, when the term Bigfoot first entered the lexicon; it was reportedly coined by some loggers who spotted tracks made by something with very Big Feet. (In the same decade, a man published a book claiming that 30 years prior, he had been taken hostage for days by an apparent family of Sasquatches. He was able to escape only when the adult male in the group decided to try some chewing tobacco and began to choke on it.)
Bigfoot became a true cryptozoological blockbuster in 1967 with the release of the controversial footage known as the Patterson-Gimlin film. In that grainy 10-second video, a large, slightly hunched apelike creature lurches past some fallen wood, pausing briefly to look over its shoulder. Biomechanical specialists, primatologists, even special-effects experts from Disney weighed in on its authenticity. Rather than solidifying the existence of Bigfoot, the film more deeply entrenched the divide between believers and skeptics.
Squash joined what more scientifically inclined Bigfoot hunters dismissively refer to as the “woo” camp—those who think that Sasquatch is supernatural and/or extraterrestrial in some way. “I know it sounds completely loony, but those 30 seconds in the woods completely changed my soul,” he says. He figured, though, that even a supernatural or alien Bigfoot would leave some kind of scientific trace. Squash wanted to find and, more importantly, share that proof. “If he could change my soul in 30 seconds, what could he do for the rest of the world?”
“I needed to find Bigfoot again for myself, and for everyone else.” That meant he needed money—real money.
When Squash wasn’t researching Bigfoot, he was studying up on logging, particularly the industry’s changing technology and regulations. While at the logging camp, he began to hang around Knock on Wood managers, soaking up their knowledge, learning how to ingratiate himself to them. “He was a total suck-up,” a former colleague from those days says. “And when he wasn’t brown-nosing, he was talking about Bigfoot.”
In the years that followed, Squash made himself indispensable to Matt Fluke, Knock on Wood’s owner and president. When Fluke died, Squash was 28 and found himself heir to the privately held company. “He knew I’d keep Knock on Wood going. And he knew my mission. He loved Bigfoot. He asked me to tell him the story all the time.” Fluke’s niece, who had anticipated being his heir, sued, but the will was clear. “He did everything by the book with the lawyers,” Squash says wistfully.
Under Squash, the company thrived. “I put way more money into tech and into recruiting and into doing the environmental stuff right. It was better for our business to work with the government instead of against it. And it’s better for Bigfoot for us to protect where he lives.” He paid a group of Bigfoot experts to advise him on areas that should remain free from logging, so as not to put Sasquatch’s habitat in danger. (“The twice-yearly meeting with those kooks was the highlight of my time working for Squash,” his former personal assistant says. “They once spent three hours arguing about Squash’s habit of referring to every Bigfoot—at least, every non-Bigfeet Bigfoot—as male. He kept saying, ‘I’m just not convinced they have sex like we do.’ Everyone else kept pointing to the fact that the figure in the Patterson-Gimlin footage has, well, pretty definite breasts.”) He also invested very well, thanks to the counsel of his good friend Thomas Bunch, famed venture capitalist and Silicon Valley oddball.
But no one realized how much, exactly, the company and Squash had prospered until 25 years ago, when he made a major announcement: He was offering $20 million to anyone who could bring him proof of Bigfoot. He was also legally changing his surname from Catell to Squash, to honor his sense of kinship with the creature.
The announcement garnered the expected “zany billionaire” coverage, including affectionate dismissal from Bunch, who said at the time, “The great news is that he’ll never have to pay it out.”
Dr. Shelley, who was then in grad school, only vaguely remembers hearing the story. “It just didn’t make any impression on me at all.”
Even Squash seemed not to believe he’d ever give away the money; he wrote up the competition terms himself and published them on a website built by his cousin Stuart Catell, who was a high school senior. Anyone could visit the website and fill out a form about a supposed encounter. Catell—whom Squash paid a few thousand dollars a year to maintain and monitor the site—would then call them to ask a few questions. If they didn’t seem completely unhinged, Catell would send them a package with preaddressed mailers and instructions on how to submit any samples (hair, scat, bone fragments) to a Cascade State University lab to which Squash sends a hefty annual donation. A few potentially legit tips would come in every year, but the results always came back unremarkable: opossums, bear, deer. One sizable fecal matter sample turned out to be human. According to Catell, the chagrined submitter said it probably belonged to a buddy who had drunkenly disregarded the camping group’s plan to defecate far away from the tents and then, embarrassed when it was found the next morning, made up a story about seeing Bigfoot.
“Looking for Bigfoot means digging through a lot of shit, figurative and literal,” Squash once told Scientific American. In 1958, in a famous incident in Willow Creek, California, some heavy-equipment operators found large, puzzling tracks; a few weeks later, two men spotted a Sasquatch. In a connected incident, another man found fecal matter “of absolutely monumental proportions.”
Generally, though, the website received little traffic after the first year or two, and even fewer submissions. Still, it was kind of fun for Catell (“ ‘I’m heavily involved with the hunt for Bigfoot’ is great for ‘two truths and a lie’ work icebreakers,” he says), and the extra money was nice to have, especially as he made his way through medical school.
And then, nearly 20 years after Squash’s bounty announcement, Catell got home from his shift as an emergency room doctor and found the submission that would unleash the biggest scientific story in decades.
Catell had been expecting a few more submissions than usual. A new crop of videos had recently appeared on social media, and every time Bigfoot was in the news or trending, interest in the bounty would spike. Like most others, he’d already mentally dismissed the videos. Sure, they were pretty convincing, the creatures lurching and, weirdly, mooing through the woods of Michigan and Pennsylvania and Georgia and Washington state. But being convincing—that’s what deepfakes are for, right?
The submission Catell received that day seemed pretty standard. A mushroom hunter in Washington said he had startled a large creature in the woods; before he could take a picture, it ran off awkwardly, leaving behind a large patch of fur caught in a low tree limb.
“I know it’s probably nothing,” the submitter wrote on the form of Squash’s website. “But hey, might as well try.” After their short screening call, Catell, as he had done countless times before, mailed the submitter packing materials and instructions to ship the fur to the lab at Cascade State. It was so routine that Catell didn’t even bother to mention it to his uncle. But six weeks later, Squash got the news: The material came from a previously unidentified primate.
Squash planned a colossal celebration: a press conference with the person who submitted the remains plus his favorite Bigfoot scientists, a gala with proceeds to benefit Bigfoot conservation, and scholarships for three Cascade State doctoral students—one in veterinary medicine, one in environmental studies, one in anthropology—who promised to specialize in the newly confirmed creature. “Keep those samples coming!” he crowed in an interview. (“What a mistake,” he says mournfully now.)
The cryptozoological news site Weird Stuff had taken the new videos seriously from the beginning, with articles like “Bigfoot Invasion! Where Are They All Coming From?” After the announcement, its editor in chief embarked on a social media victory lap, demanding a Pulitzer. He didn’t acknowledge the three dozen other times Weird Stuff had falsely claimed that Bigfoot (not to mention aliens) had been discovered.
A few weeks after the festivities, Catell and the Cascade State lab director—who pleaded not to be named in this story—called Squash again and told him, “We have a problem.” Catell and his teenage son were working around the clock, trying to answer new website submissions. The lab was buried in more scat and fur and hacked-off body parts than it could store, let alone test. So far, four more of the tested samples—all received before the first had been announced—aligned with the first mystery primate.
Squash realized something important: He had never stipulated that there could be only one bounty reward. And he did want everyone to know how many Bigfeet were out there. But this just seemed odd.
He held another ceremony with the four new discoverers, handing over a further $80 million, but the photos show a man with a strained smile. One of that group had found the creature on his own land, shot it, and, with help from his grown sons, dragged it into his meat locker, where he invited local media to visit it after the ceremony. Videos show something that looks like a bizarro A.I. rendering of the traditional Bigfoot, with a purple tongue, oddly short arms, and a faint cow print to its fur.
When the next set of lab results came out—with hundreds more specimens waiting for testing—Squash said he was done. “It was never my intention to pay out $20 million indefinitely. That’s not the point of a bounty,” he said in an interview with NPR at the time.
“I have the money, but I want to spend it on figuring out what’s going on,” he tells me. “Where do these guys live? What do they do all day? Why haven’t we found them before if there are so many out there? Is climate change flushing them out? That’s where my investment needs to be.”
Ignoring the increasingly outraged press cycle and the harassment he was facing, Squash turned his attention to figuring out what had caused this Bigfoot boom. He had a hunch—that it was Thomas Bunch.
Squash and Bunch became friends in their mid-30s, after both had become wealthy. At parties, they would ignore everyone else and debate how to save the environment. They agreed on the goal but not the means.
Squash hoped to leverage business interests to convince the government to work with conservationists in productive, albeit incremental ways. Bunch believed that private investment could solve climate change, animal population collapse, all the terrifying dystopic visions of the future—if only the government would stay out of the way of scientific research and implementation. At a San Francisco dinner party hosted by a billionaire effective altruist, he sketched out an elaborate plan that involved geoengineering the climate, de-extincting certain plant and animal species, and genetically modifying humans to be smaller—so as to require fewer resources to feed, keep warm, etc. He was particularly intrigued with the idea of altering the human genome so people wouldn’t be able to digest meat or other animal products. When asked how he would convince people to go along with this, according to two people present at the dinner, he shrugged. “They won’t have a choice.”
“So you’re more of an ecofascist than a libertarian?” one person reportedly asked him.
“I’m whatever works,” he said before digging into his steak. (“Genetic engineering is the only way I could give up meat,” he told someone who asked whether he was being hypocritical.)
When Squash changed his name and made his big bounty announcement, Bunch was delighted for him, even finding excuses to mention his friend’s quixotic hunt in interviews about more-pedestrian topics.
But within a year, they had stopped mentioning each other on social media, and friends say they no longer spoke. According to two sources, Bunch had invested in a renewable energy company that planned to put massive solar arrays on cleared forest land. But to his surprise, Squash funded a wildlands-conservation group mounting an ultimately successful lawsuit against the project—because it was an area his Sasquatch council told him was known for Bigfoot sightings. “Tom tolerated the Bigfoot thing when it was just a boondoggle. But now Squash was messing with his money and humiliating him,” one person close to Bunch says.
Others with knowledge of the pair say the lawsuit wasn’t the cause of the split—it was an effect. The real story, they say, was pretty boring: Their long-term romantic relationship went sour. As one venture capitalist puts it, “I see a lot of rich-people divorces, and everything about this screams ‘uber-wealthy couple breaks up and spends a ton of money to be shockingly petty’ to me.”
Whatever happened, Squash won’t say. “I understand why people want to know, but it’s between Tom and me,” Squash says. “I thought we’d both moved on, particularly when I started hearing about the seastead. He always talked about this idea of creating some kind of cow that poops methane-scrubbing waste, which of course would be wonderful for the environment, but there are all sorts of ethical and regulatory hurdles there. He said he’d have to go somewhere offshore to do it.”
Word of the seastead began to spread two or three years after Bunch’s falling-out with Squash. It was a popular topic of conversation at Silicon Valley parties, where attendees debated whether Bunch had set up his gonzo lab in the South Atlantic, the Caribbean, or the South Pacific.
“So when all those Bigfeet appeared,” says Squash, “and when someone from a genetic sequencing lab called to tell me that the genomes were really, really weird … I knew Bunch had to be involved.”
Weird is not a terribly precise scientific word, but if you ask a genomics expert what’s going on with the Bigfeet, it’s the term they often come back to.
A few years after Squash’s announcement, in an event that seemed entirely unconnected at the time, researchers revealed that the first woolly mammoth–esque elephant had been born. Experts were careful to clarify that this was not true de-extinction; the baby elephant wasn’t cloned from the remains of a woolly mammoth that had died thousands of years ago. Instead, it was an elephant that, thanks to CRISPR genetic editing, exhibited traits of the woolly mammoth. The modern woolly elephant lived just a few weeks. But since then, others have survived, and a small herd is expected to be introduced to Siberia within the next decade.
The Bigfeet that emerged four years ago, like the woolly elephants, are chimeras—the genetics of different animals smushed together. But with those examples, scientists took a base species and made edits to transform it into a cousin of an extinct animal. By contrast, the Bigfeet are “basically a designer animal,” says Dr. Honeydew, a pseudonymous researcher from a major Midwestern university who has studied samples of Bigfeet roadkill.
For years, the more scientific camp of Bigfoot hunting has theorized that the animal was, or evolved from, Gigantopithecus, an ape that evolutionary primatologists believe went extinct about 350,000 years ago. In the 1950s, after the first Gigantopithecus mandible was discovered, some suggested that it could be proof of the yeti, Bigfoot’s supposed Himalayan cousin. But anthropologists and biologists dismissed the idea that Gigantopithecus (or its unknown descendants) has survived, let alone migrated to North America.
If the Bigfeet that had begun appearing were truly Gigantopitheci or their descendants, their genetic material would have been a pretty close match to DNA fragments found within 350,000-year-old molars in southern China, Nepal, Vietnam, and elsewhere. But that wasn’t the case. “There’s a little Gigantopithecus there,” Dr. Honeydew says. “But only a bit. It seems as if someone started with a modern-day gorilla and then mixed in a bunch of other stuff: bonobo, Gigantopithecus, black bear, a bit of cow. And then they seem to have messed with the genome to make it a little more Bigfooty.” He pauses. “The best way to think of it is that they de-extincted an animal that never existed to begin with.”
That’s exactly what happened, according to Dr. Shelley, the first person who worked on the seastead who has agreed to speak with a journalist. Like their colleagues, Dr. Shelley signed an extremely punitive nondisclosure agreement; Bunch has publicly taken action against employees on other projects who have violated his NDAs. Nevertheless, they decided to speak with me after seeing proposals gain traction that would allow hunters to shoot the Bigfeet. Dr. Shelley believes that the Bigfeet can ultimately be good for the planet, if people give them time and support.
Dr. Shelley says that that toward the end of their time on the platform, it was home to roughly 500 people—half scientists, the rest support staff—alongside a menagerie of research animals. Some were mercenaries who just wanted to get enormous paychecks with room and board covered. (“But I would have given half my salary back to have better food,” they say.) A few were fleeing the law: Two were facing designer-drug charges in China; another had been accused of botched biohacking surgeries in the U.S.
But not everyone was there for purely self-interested reasons; Dr. Shelley says they and many others were there for the thrill of the science and the sake of the environment. “On the seastead, there was a rumor that Bunch mostly wanted to screw over his friend. But I just didn’t think that could possibly be the real motivation. There’s a really compelling case that adding the right kinds of animals to the right ecosystems would be good for the environment.” Dr. Shelley points to the introduction of those woolly elephants to Siberia, which their creators and environmentalists hope will help heal the ecosystem from damage caused by humans. “That’s an active step. That’s doing something. We wanted to increase biodiversity and create a species of large herbivore that could thrive within the forests of North America. We thought it could be another food source for large predators like wolves—OK, maybe only the young Bigfeet for wolves—or maybe grizzly bears. It could eat a ton of plants and poop out seeds, fertilize the soil and help even more plants grow. It’s hard to overestimate how good this could be.” And if it became beloved, they hoped, it could be declared endangered and its habitat protected, though they and their colleagues often argued about whether that would be ethical, or whether the U.S. government would even consider it.
Dr. Shelley is reluctant to talk about the actual science (“It’d get too easy to identify me”), but they gave some outlines. “It was a lot of trial and error. Of course, the hardest part was waiting for gestation.” The gestation period for a large primate like a human or gorilla is almost a year. What’s more, most large primates tend to breed at an older age than other mammals. Gorillas generally don’t reproduce until they’re at least 10 or so. All Dr. Shelley would say is “We made some tweaks to speed up reproduction.” (Many observers have cheekily suggested that there must be some rabbit DNA involved, since the animals seem to be reproducing at such rapid rates; Dr. Honeydew says they did not identify any rabbit DNA in the genome.) “I actually think this could end up being really useful in humans, too—who wouldn’t want to be pregnant for two months instead of 40 weeks?”
Even so, especially early on, there was a lot of waiting around to see whether an embryo with an edited genome would survive implantation into a surrogate, then whether it would survive pregnancy and birth. Dr. Shelley says the size of a Bigfoot in popular lore also presented a challenge. “The best surrogate would have been a gorilla, but that was impossible, because all gorilla species are endangered. Instead, we used cows, which meant that every surrogate required a C-section; the vast majority ended up dying.”
And then there was the habitual bipedalism. Though many mammals can walk on two legs for short periods, most of the time, nonhumans use all fours. But bipedalism was nonnegotiable when creating a Sasquatch. “We had to monkey—forgive me—with the genome on that, since we couldn’t just insert genetics from an existing species. Bunch suggested we could accomplish it by inserting some Neanderthal DNA that had been recovered from fossils—God knows how he got it—but he was persuaded it was a bad idea, thankfully.” Whatever the kluge was, it worked, but it means the Bigfeet’s gait is a little herky-jerky. (“Like a drunk circus bear,” Dr. Shelley says. “But they seem happy enough about it.”)
There were a lot of false starts and unexpected results, a lot of dead animals and dead ends. But eventually, over more than a decade, it started to work—they ended up with an animal that looked an awful lot like Bigfoot, though not exactly. (“We have no idea why their tongues are bright purple. There’s no giraffe in them!” says Dr. Shelley. “But the purple tongues are better than the underdeveloped lungs we saw for a while there.”) The researchers built enclosures on the island next to the seastead platform—a sort of bizarro zoo, attempting to simulate the environment in which the Bigfeet would eventually be placed. “The trees and weather weren’t right, of course, and it wasn’t hilly enough. We had to hide extra food for them to hunt for. But it indicated that they could probably live at least a little while in the wild.” They were docile animals, thanks perhaps to the cow DNA, which also explains the mooing and the subtle patchy fur patterns. (Dr. Shelley declined to comment on popular rumor, first reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, that Bunch wanted the final Bigfeet to be violent predators and was dissuaded only upon hearing that dangerous animals could mean frequent death and dismemberment of the care team and researchers, delaying things further.)
At last, Bunch decided that the time had come. In groups of five—“They really are social animals; they don’t like to be alone,” says Dr. Shelley—the Bigfeet would be taken to six remote spots across the U.S. Each location had a long tradition of Bigfoot sightings. “I think there are more scientists still out on the platform, but I quit after the transportation. I was really sick of the food. I’m only eating meals I can chew for the rest of my life. Plus, I wanted to be back here to see how it would play out. When I found out the rumor was right—that he really did it just for revenge—I was so disappointed.”
Bunch has commented publicly on these allegations just once. After news about the Bigfeet’s weird genomes began to circulate, the popular conservationist forum Leaf It—where Bunch was a known poster, and one of the founding investors—exploded with discussion. After one person posted, “This billionaire really genetically designed a fake Bigfoot to screw over his rival?” Bunch apparently couldn’t resist replying. Using his verified account, he wrote, “Pretty impressive stuff.”
Except, to a lot of people, it’s not impressive—it’s horrifying.
The Bigfeet released in Georgia appear to have died off fairly quickly. But in Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, Washington, and Pennsylvania, they’ve thrived. Some have made it across state lines to Idaho and over the border to British Columbia, and they’re being found far from the woods where they were originally released.
As they have proliferated, so has legal action. First, there’s the class-action suit against Squash, brought by people who found Bigfeet without receiving bounty payments. It’s led by Kayley Porter, a middle-school teacher from Washington state who claims that she should have been among those who received the second set of bounties, if only the website had been working properly when she went to fill in her information.
There are other civil suits: against Bunch by farmers who say that hungry Bigfeet have eaten their crops (apparently they love kale) and by the family of someone who died when his car collided with a Bigfeet in the middle of the road. A group of Native American tribes from the Pacific Northwest and the Southwest have sued, alleging that the Bigfeet have damaged their land and coopted legends that were sacred to them.
Squash’s favorite—one that he denies supporting himself—is against Bunch for interfering with the bounty, from someone who claims to have found a real Bigfoot.
Weeks before an early hearing in the class-action suit against Squash, he called me at 3 a.m. He had a theory—one he said his lawyer was hesitant to endorse—that if he found a genuine Sasquatch, then all the legal trouble would go away. “I shouldn’t have paid out a single one of these claims,” he told me that morning. “None of them are a real Sasquatch. Yes, they’re a primate that had never been identified before living in North America, and that’s what the rule said. But it was only living there because someone designed it to live there. Someone brought it over from the labs and just dropped them in forests across the country. How is that finding Bigfoot?”
But his real worry, he said, wasn’t financial. “I just keep thinking that these monsters are going to run out the real thing,” he told me. I pointed out that in his conception, Bigfoot was at least a little supernatural—wouldn’t he be able to survive this incursion? “Maybe,” he said, sounding relieved, as if I had just uttered a sentiment he’d been trying to convince himself of. “But I can’t be sure.” The only solution was for him to head to the Idaho woods, outside the small town of Sully, where he first saw his own Bigfoot all those years ago. “If I can find proof of this one, I can get all these suits tossed out. Then we can start focusing on eradicating these things to protect the real Bigfoot.” He invited me along with him.
We didn’t find a real Sasquatch. But we did encounter Bigfeet—three of them, a female with two juveniles. They were about 50 yards from us, but we could smell them even from that distance. The babies played as the mother stared vacantly at us, chewing some plant matter slowly. “They’re like bipedal cows,” our guide, Marissa Tarbaugh, told me. “They’re actually really chill. I love them.” Tarbaugh said they’ve been great for business and for the local economy. “People pay a lot of money to go camping, to hear Sasquatch stories, and then see these things. And they’re perfectly safe, so it’s better than taking campers to try to see bears or bison or something. The gift shop in town sells a ton of Bigfeet stuffed animals. Kids love them—they’re basically like cartoons come to life.” Next year, Sully will host its first Bigfest, where people will compete to see who can produce the most authentic-sounding Bigfeet moo-like call, and a Bigfeet-themed band will play.
But Squash was appalled by our Bigfeet encounter. “It’s like hearing a recording of a recording of a recording of a recording of a symphony.”
Squash now spends most of his days on the phone with lawyers and has surrogates running his company, which has struggled in the face of new regulations around timber. His former Bigfoot friends have largely deserted him, saying that if he hadn’t put forth the bounty in the first place, none of this would have happened.
Bunch, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found. Dr. Shelley says he isn’t on the seastead, from what they’ve heard. If he does return to the U.S., the legal risks he faces are almost entirely financial. No state or federal law in the U.S. criminalizes the introduction of a novel species into an ecosystem. “If he had put in some human DNA, yeah, we’d be able to charge him with something with teeth,” a U.S. attorney who gleefully asked to be referred to as “Mr. Henderson” told me. “But he was smart enough not to do that.” (Mr. Henderson was unclear on what the government could have done if Bunch had indeed used Neanderthal DNA. “I genuinely have no idea whether that would count as human.”)
The best the federal government was able to do was charge Bunch with violating the Endangered Species Act—the Bigfeet, it turns out, really enjoy eating harsh paintbrush, a plant that sometimes grows on the edge of forests in the Northwest U.S. and British Columbia. Harsh paintbrush is also favored by the Taylor’s checkerspot, an endangered butterfly found in just a handful of locations in Washington state, Oregon, and British Columbia. Thanks to the Bigfeet, the butterfly has all but disappeared from one of its few remaining habitats. Bunch has been convicted in absentia and fined $50,000; if he ever surfaces, he could face a prison term of one year, though it’s unlikely he would serve all or even most of that time. The prosecution’s case depended almost entirely on that single forum message in which Bunch seemed to admit to his role, and the general “We all know he did it” atmosphere that has developed over the past four years. (“He could easily appeal it if he wanted to, but clearly he doesn’t,” Mr. Henderson says.)
Congress recently debated a law that would have made Bunch’s actions a crime going forward, but it died in committee after lobbying by agricultural biotech companies that claimed it would interfere with their climate-change mitigation work.
The Washington state government is currently debating whether to classify the Bigfeet as an invasive species. Dr. Shelley thinks it’s too soon for them to make such a declaration—“I bet that in 10 years, everyone will see they’re a good thing. But they’re too impatient.”
For the past few years, Dr. Shelley has lived off the riches they made working on the platform. Readjusting to life off-seastead has been difficult. “At first I took about six showers a day. I got a two-bedroom apartment, and it felt cavernous. I gained 30 pounds—that part was a lot of fun, though.” The hardest part is when the Bigfeet come up in casual conversation and they can’t talk about their role. “When people say they like them, I want to take credit! For all that’s gone wrong, I’m so proud—we did an amazing thing! And when they say they hate them, well, it’s so hard to bite my tongue. Someone once told me that they heard the Bigfeet were preying on people’s pets. Of all the nonsense. They don’t eat cats! They don’t eat meat! Why would you say that about such a gentle creature? We worked so hard to make sure they would be gentle and good for the environment.”
They pause. “Sometimes people say what we did was playing God, but really, it was playing parent. I helped birth them and usher them into the world, and now I have to watch people talk about whether we should be hunting them. I want them to have a chance. I feel terrible about putting them out in a world they weren’t prepared for, that wasn’t prepared for them. But they will find their way if we can just give them time.”
Dr. Shelley wants to help repair some of the unintentional damage done by the project. “I really thought we had done this for purely altruistic reasons. I certainly did. I feel pretty used.” In particular, they want to work with a new startup that aims to engineer more-resilient pollinators. Their first project: a Taylor’s checkerspot with a wider-ranging appetite. But they can’t figure out how to do that without giving themselves away. “I don’t know if I’d be able to sit there in meetings while they talk about the evil of the Bigfeet without confessing everything.”
Sometimes they miss the seastead. “Everything seemed so clear and easy there. You knew what you were wearing, what you were eating, and what you were working toward. Out here … everything is just a lot more complicated.”
Read a response essay by a conservation researcher.
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Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.