Q&A: Michael Rugg, Bigfoot museum curator, talks curiosity, environment and that smell
Cryptozoology — and the study of cryptids — has never been a joke to Michael Rugg, proprietor of Felton’s Bigfoot Discovery Museum. He believes the truth is still out there.
He was just 5 years old when Michael Rugg witnessed the stuff of legends.
While camping with his family, Rugg had wandered off into one of the many swaths of thick woods in Humboldt County when he saw it: a huge, manlike figure covered in hair. The mysterious cryptid was gone by the time Rugg returned to the spot with his parents, but this event sparked what would become a lifelong passion.
As curator of the Bigfoot Discovery Museum and a Santa Cruz County resident since 1958, Rugg owns a vast collection of books, videos and artifacts pertaining to the hairy hominid, which he’s had on display since 2004.
The museum is rather unassuming — a simple, red, two-room shack that sits on the side of Highway 9 near Felton. However, one quick look around at the detailed sighting maps, primate skulls, huge footprint molds and loads of Bigfoot comics, sculptures and other memorabilia shows a Sasquatchian arsenal robust enough to flatter Bigfoot itself.
As an undergraduate at Stanford University in the mid-to-late 1960s, Rugg tried to get credit to study the quasi-scientific field known as cryptozoology as a whole, and the legend of Sasquatch in particular, but did not get the green light. That didn’t stop him from writing a 37-page paper on the creature for one of his classes, much to the chagrin of his professor. For Rugg, though, the work was no joke.
“People in learning communities and teaching communities should be open-minded and open to new ideas,” he said. “Not to go around squelching people just because you don’t agree with what they’re trying to prove.”
The museum has earned a soft spot among locals. Rugg had to close up shop for about 10 months due to COVID-19, and there was concern that it might never reopen. But a GoFundMe set up by his niece and stepson raised more than $10,000, allowing Rugg to continue paying the mortgage.
These days, Rugg splits time between his small residence behind the delightfully quirky museum — open Friday through Monday from 1 to 5 p.m. — and Capitola, where he spends time with his partner of 28 years.
We went to Felton to talk to Rugg about his sighting, the environment, and Santa Cruz’s weirdo reputation.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
Lookout: So walk me through your Bigfoot encounter. What did your family think?
Michael Rugg: I was camping with my parents up in Humboldt County. My dad used to have a sawmill in Laytonville, which is where the Eel River turns east — he knew all the best fishing holes, so we’d go up there when we wanted to go fishing.
He woke us up at 5:30 in the morning and said he was gonna make some breakfast, which consisted of some fish he caught the night before. I looked at the frying pan and saw the dead fish there and didn’t really want to eat that for breakfast at age 5. I asked him to make pancakes and he said no, so when they weren’t looking, I left. Boycotted breakfast and followed the river and went up about 100 yards out of the view of my parents.
I followed the edge of the river and was looking downstream and then upstream, and then I turned back towards the forest and this great, big, hairy man was standing there. We made eye contact for about the count of three and then I heard my mom yelling for me. I went back to them and said, “Come check out the big hairy man,” and of course, by the time we were back, it was gone.
They said, “Don’t worry, it’s probably just a tramp,” which is what they called a homeless person. They said sometimes they stay in the woods and don’t shave or bathe much and that’s probably what you saw. So I learned that day that a tramp is a person 10 feet tall and covered in hair!
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Lookout: Have you seen any evidence around here?
Rugg: I was part of an investigation around here once. We would, on occasion, go sit in the backyard of those conducting it and wait in the middle of the night. We had some success with that: We recorded their screams a number of times, and we got a video of one. The video is from far away, and it’s just a shape going through the trees, but had you been there and heard it and smelled it like we did, then you would agree that we got a video of one.
The smell is hard to describe. It’s like a bunch of skunks rolled in dead animals or something. Very bad. They don’t always smell that bad, though. Only when they’re worried about an encounter with another human being that they put it out there. Because they know we have weapons of mass destruction and that we shoot first and ask questions later.
Lookout: Highlighting habitat conservation is one of the missions listed on your site. How does the issue of environmental conservation play a role in the Bigfoot Discovery Museum?
Rugg: For a while, the teddy bear kind of symbolized the conservation movement back in the days of Teddy Roosevelt. The story is that, on a hunting trip, Roosevelt’s assistants tied a bear to a tree so that he could shoot at, and he refused because he didn’t want to shoot a tired, old bear, and would only shoot one that might kill him. Hence, the teddy bear became the name for the stuffed animals.
Bigfoot is a symbol for that too, in a way, because the woods are their home. They don’t want us to mess with them and we shouldn’t mess with them either, just like we shouldn’t be filling the ocean with plastic. That’s in line with what we’re doing, too. It’s all about conservation and awareness of wildlife and how we interact with it. We should be protecting the homes of all these animals, even the ones you don’t see.
So, nature conservation certainly is an integral part of what we’re doing here. And I do appreciate what this does for kids. We want to teach kids about reverence for wildlife and the importance of conservation. For many of them, it will be an introduction to that concept. It gets them turned on to cryptozoology, which will turn them on to biology, and then get them concerned with environmental issues. The place really does connect with multiple issues.
Lookout: How did the idea for the museum come about?
Rugg: The museum was a function of several things. I tried to study this in college at Stanford but they wouldn’t let me. I did manage to write one paper on the subject, which I still have. It was supposed to be seven to 12 pages on a subject of your choice. I brought this up, and my professor said no because it’s “bogus.” I said that that was begging the question. I simply wanted to put up some evidence to indicate that at the very least, it’s worthy of further study. Not something to be ignored or pushed aside completely.
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He said that I could do it after I showed him a bibliography from an Ivan Sanderson book [one of the earliest serious publications arguing for the possible existence of such creatures], but told me to not expect a passing grade. So instead of seven to 12 pages, I gave him 37 with illustrations. They gave me a C, probably because I did so much work. I doubt the professor actually read it, probably a teaching assistant. The note says, “I don’t think you’ve made a case; this is still in the realm of UFOs.” Well, really, the only case I was trying to make was that it’s worthy of study. To use UFOs as an example of something not worthy of study is stupid, because the government still talks about UFOs to this day.
I was also the editor of the humor magazine at Stanford called the Stanford Chaparral. I decided to do men’s adventure magazines. A buddy and I wrote a story about two men who go to the Trinity Alps in California and get the first picture of a Bigfoot.
Funny enough, this story predicted the Patterson-Gimlin film because later that very same year (1967), just like in the story, those two guys got the very first footage of Bigfoot in Northern California! So it’s like this was all in the stars.
Lookout: Are there any other cryptids that you take an interest in?
Rugg: Of course, I’ve always been interested in the Loch Ness Monster, but I probably won’t be getting to Scotland. Some larger marine animal could have gotten into the lake since there is a connection to the ocean.
I think that I have an answer to lake monsters in general, though. You know the diagram of the big fish eating the smaller fish which eats the smaller fish, and so forth? Well, in a landlocked body of water, if you’re the biggest fish, you’re going to continue to grow, right? A lot of the other life in the lake will be eaten and obviously will not grow.
So, at some point, the largest fish will become a monster compared to everything else in the lake. When somebody sees one of these giant “creatures” because there’s nothing big enough to compete, it seems like a monster. But it’s probably just the one at the top of the eating hierarchy.
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Lookout: Did the weirdness of Santa Cruz influence the museum?
Rugg: I’ve been in Santa Cruz since the eighth grade, so I’ve been affected by the weirdness of Santa Cruz since way back. Obviously it’s long had that reputation of being an offbeat, edgy kind of place. I mean, you’ve seen “The Lost Boys.”
So, I just thought that what we’re doing here is in keeping with that tradition and I just so happened to have this property because I inherited it from my parents, and it’s right across from the entrance to Henry Cowell State Park. Couldn’t ask for a better location.
We get plenty of locals that come in to see the place, and usually they bring someone from outside the area because it’s something different, something you’re not going to see just anywhere. That’s cool and I like that — I’m glad we can provide that for the people of Santa Cruz and to help keep Santa Cruz weird.
Lookout: What’s something about cryptozoology or Bigfoot in general that you think most people don’t consider?
Rugg: There are many, many things that we just don’t have a clue about. I’m trying to say that taking an attitude against studying something just because most people don’t believe in it is not the way to go. Academics, especially people in learning communities and teaching communities, should be open to new ideas. Not to go around squelching people just because you don’t agree with what they’re trying to prove.