Seeing Isn’t Necessarily Believing

By Scott Shalaway
INFORMATION is power. That, in a nutshell, explains the success of the Internet. Details on just about any subject can be accessed in minutes.

Unfortunately, not everything on the Internet is true. Anyone can host and post just about anything, regardless of its accuracy, and bogus e-mails may outnumber legitimate ones. So readers, beware. Question all sources. If something sounds too amazing to be true, it probably is.

Even nature lovers can be snookered by Internet misinformation. Almost daily, I receive e-mails from friends, relatives and readers with amazing stories and photos that simply defy belief.

A Pittsburgh reader recently wrote that a friend of his brother took some photos of a Mountain Lion the porch of a cabin near Seven Springs. He asked if I’d take a look at the photos. But first, I sent him some photos with a similar back story. He replied almost immediately: “Those are the exact photos that were sent to my brother, so it appears to be a hoax.”

Here are some other classic examples of outrageous e-mails that I’ve received over the last few years:

  • One from 2001 depicts a Great White Shark menacing a navy diver hanging on a ladder suspended from a hovering helicopter. The caption describes the scene as “a real photo taken near the South African coast during a military exercise by the British Navy.”

A Web site that debunks myths and legends, www.snopes.com, reports that, in fact, the image is a composite of two real, but unrelated images: a picture of a Great White Shark taken by a South African photographer and an Air Force photo of a helicopter from a California National Guard unit, with San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in the background.

  • Another terrifying shark photo appeared in 2003. It shows a surfer paddling into a wave in which the shadowy form of a huge shark appears. It turned out that the photo is real, but the creature was a dolphin, not a shark.
  • In May 2005, I began receiving copies of a monstrous “50-pound, 8-ft-long rattlesnake caught in Clay County, WV.” In October, I received the same photos, this time describing it as a Timber Rattler captured in Potter County, PA. Having lived in both Arizona and Oklahoma back in the 1970s and 1980s,

I knew immediately this was hoax. The snake was obviously a Western Diamondback Rattlesnake, which does not occur east of the Mississippi River. Prominent black and white bands on the tail make western diamondbacks easy to identify. Snopes.com describes the snake as being 11 pounds, six ft. long and taken in Texas.

  • The most egregious example of Internet nature fraud first appeared in my e-mail box last spring, and it’s been forwarded to me many times since. It was entitled, “Rebirth of the Eagle.” I hesitate mentioning this for fear of giving the tale credibility, but I’m hoping knowledge trumps ignorance. This hoax claims that when a Bald Eagle reaches the age of 30, it retreats to a mountaintop and over a five-month period, plucks its talons and feathers and knocks off its bill by slamming it against a rock. These body parts then grow back, and the bird lives another 30 years. What folly! Eagles can live as long as 30 years. They simply cannot survive months of starvation without a beak and talons. I can’t even imagine the origins of such a ridiculous story.

Unfortunately hoaxes and rumors are not confined to the Internet. West Virginia and Pennsylvania, for example, are perpetually plagued by rumors that state wildlife agencies introduced Coyotes to control the deer herd. That’s absolutely false. Coyotes have been expanding their range naturally for at least 50 years.

And every year I hear from West Virginia hunters who complain that, “a friend of my brother-in-law’s boss” saw rattlesnakes being dropped from a helicopter. The explanation is that rattlers control the turkey populations. Again, this is pure bunk spread by people with too much free time.–Pittsburgh Post Gazette

EDITOR’S NOTE:To see more wild tales confirmed or debunked, visit www.snopes.com/photos/animals.