Tom Burnette is a man with a mission. He found his life's calling unlocked for almost 20 years ago in the woods near Old Fort. That's when he encountered Bigfoot.
Many people over the years have seen what they believed to be sightings or physical evidence of Bigfoot. But Burnette is different in one respect. The creature he saw came back. And, as it turned out, there was more than one. Indeed, he now believes, there's a whole colony of them.
Where, exactly? He's a bit guarded about exact locations, but said he sees the creatures "way up Curtis Creek, near the Parkway."
What brings them back, again and again, to the woods Burnette haunts?
He has several guesses. For one, he believes a large community of them have lived in the area for a long time. And because their home territory coincides with the woods he haunts, they have become familiar with him.
In other words, he has made peace with them. Although he says he has not come face to face with the reclusive creatures, he has found what he believed to be gifts left for him; mushrooms, meat, and other items harvested from the woods.
"They know I'm not out to hurt them, that I'll protect them," he said. "They're used to me now." That familiarity has led to several opportunities to observe them, at a distance, for more than just a few seconds, he said.
So how is it that more people haven't seen them? Simply, he answered, because people tend to think of Bigfoot as a dumb beast, no smarter than a bear. In fact, the Bigfoot culture is well developed and they are highly intelligent creatures.
"They're more aware of you than you are of them," he said. "These are very alert creatures."
After years of observation, Burnette believes the Bigfoot domesticates the wild animals of the forest the same way humans domesticated dogs, and for the same reasons.
"They use bear to hunt," he explained. "They hunt in groups."
Earlier this spring, Burnette got what he believes is confirmation of this theory, when he came very close to a hunting party accidentally.
"I felt sure something was watching me," he said of one day's excursion into the woods. "I turned around and felt eyes on me." He didn't see anything out of the ordinary, he explained, but long years of romping the woods has taught him the limitations of the human eye in the dense foliage.
He raised his cell phone and took pictures of the woods in front of him. It was only after he had detail shots printed at maximum enlargement that he saw the evidence he had in hand.
One eerie picture shows what appears distinctly to be a humanoid face, with flat, wide mouth and heavy brows. The face's left are the shapes of what could be faces of bears or other beasts.
Burnette was chilled to think he had come so close to a hunting party, but said that, by this time, if the Bigfoot had wanted to hurt him they could have done so. The fact he has remained unharmed is evidence, he said, that the Bigfoot mainly hunts small game.
This latest close encounter is not the first. Several years ago, he continued, he found what he believed to be an infant Bigfoot left on his property. Why would a mother Bigfoot abandon her baby?
Burnette suspects that the baby may have been in danger from a male. He said in the primate kingdom, a male will sometimes kill an infant in order to get the female to go into heat. Holding the infant, he made what he now regards as a great mistake.
"I took it back into the woods," he said, "and left it, hoping she would come back for it." Sadly this did not happen. Days later, he found the skull of the young creature; whether it had been eaten by dogs or killed by an adult Bigfoot, he didn't dare speculate.
He explained that he realized this was the evidence the world had been waiting for. He photographed the skull, then sent it to Texas laboratory for DNA analysis. Today, he is upset about the lab's progress, and speculated he might have to go to court to get the thing back into his possession.
Meanwhile though, two pictures he shot of the skull are featured in the book he published a while back about his observations. Entitled "Natures Secret Agents," the book is a dialy account of his experiences and observations over the years. Many sightings are detailed, along with the occasional exchange of gifts and, sometimes, terrifying harassment by less friendly members of the Bigfoot community.
Burnette has learned to keep his distance. He tries to get the best photographs he can, but does not ever wish to put them on the defensive. The size, strength and cunning of the creatures means no human would stand a chance. He feels safe so long as he maintains a healthy respect for the Bigfoots' privacy and space.
He said that several years ago an Indian chief told him the Bigfoot is the guardian of the forest and all the animals in it. After several years observation, he is inclined to agree.
"They don't want anything to do with us," he said, because they know the violent ways of Man. "I want to share what I have learned so that we can understand them, not fear them, and respect them and their home."