By LEON YOUNGBLOOD
Regarding the columns on wildlife encounters in the region, certain friends felt strongly enough about the subject to summon me to a meeting fueled by barbequed brisket and ribs with the appropriate sides. I could not refuse the food, but the “advisory meeting” was also part of the program. I was told I did not go far enough with “wildlife encounters” in the Ouachitas and other parts of Oklahoma.
Simply stated, these fellows knew well enough what to do with ticks, scorpions, bears, rattlesnakes, and the like, but these creatures were mere kindergarten items. These sorts of creeping, crawling, bipedal creatures, whether insect, reptile or mammal, were “for amateurs,” and not a real threat to anybody. You can take ‘em to Sunday School. So, they informed me of the alligator population in our southeastern corner of the state. And did I know, there are giant catfish—giant—in lakes that have attacked people?
I did know, in fact. One story is, in the 1980s, a boy was supposedly pulled underwater a couple of times “by a catfish,” and was rescued by his father. Park authorities could neither affirm nor deny that a catfish was involved, but the abrasions and puncture wounds on the boy’s legs could not be denied. The best they could commit to was, “I guess it’s possible.”
“They’re never going to admit it,” I was told emphatically. “Do you think the Wildlife and Conservation Department would let a story like that get out? What would that do to tourism?!”
“I imagine it would bring in fishermen looking for a record catch,” I said. “The state record is just under a hundred pounds, isn’t it?”
“That doesn’t mean they can’t grow bigger. But you should’ve mentioned the catfish in your paper. They’re as dangerous as sharks! And you should’ve mentioned the alligators, too! People need to know!”
Here, I will be honest and admit frankly: I am tired of the bragging about our wimpy southeast Oklahoma alligators. Every single one sighted is reported to be no more than four, five or six feet long. In the deep southern states, male alligators can grow to fifteen feet, females to ten. I stated this to my friends, and added, “That’s why when Oklahomans are in Florida, or Louisiana or Mississippi they say there aren’t any alligators in Oklahoma. They’re embarrassed to admit how runty they are.”
“Ha! What would you do if one of these ‘runt’ alligators had you by the neck?!”
“The same as I’d do with any crocodillan! Jab him in the eye! And that would probably work with your man-eater catfish, too, if you’d try it!”
Sensitivities were beginning to get chafed at this point. These fellows were proud of their alligators and felt the Oklahoma version was equal to any ‘gators anywhere in the United States, regardless of size. They said I should have written about what to do if you were attacked by a catfish or alligator, anyway, since it is probably going to happen, and I told them I would, so here it is: Jab them in the eye! This information comes from numerous authorities, and it works for sharks, canines, persistent salespeople, telephone solicitors—jab ‘em in the eye!
“An’ maybe you should tell ‘em to wear something that’s ‘twenty-percent deet,’” one said a little sarcastically. I let it slide. This conversational digression was resolved, though, and another said, “Well, we didn’t only want to talk about alligators and giant catfish. There’s more.” He lowered his voice and stated, seriously and solemnly: “There’s other things out there, you know.”
The assembled affirmed the statement with nods and shared glances, and I was suddenly inundated with testimonies about Oklahoma’s cryptozoological mysteries. Of course I knew about “Bigfoot”, but did I know about the “Okiepus”?—a giant freshwater cephalopod in regional lakes that amuses itself by drowning innocent swimmers and fishermen. “There’s at least one in Sardis,” I was sincerely advised, and admonished, “People need to know.” (All right. Consider yourself informed.) Did I know about “skinwalkers”? The worst is the “Ishkitini”. When you hear its banshee-like howl, you know you’re going to die soon. And what about black panthers? And chupacabras? And the “Deer Woman”?
No—I did not know about all this stuff. However, I promised to report it. So, if you encounter any of these cryptids, leave them alone and check again when you’re sober. And if they’re still there—jab ‘em in the eye!