Urban Legends


(This column was first published in the April 1, 2002 Buffalo News.)


On April 1 each year I celebrate this day of mischief by devoting my column to pseudoscience. Over the years I have considered tall tales like Piltdown Man, the Cardiff Giant and the Mars effect, and also what Bob Parks has so well-named voodoo science. This year I adopt a more light-hearted approach to share a few urban legends.


An urban legend is defined by the Urban Legend Research Centre in Australia to be "usually a good, captivating, titillating, engrossing, incredible or worrying story that has had a wide audience, is circulated spontaneously, has been told in several forms, and which many have chosen to believe (whether actively or passively) despite the lack of actual evidence to substantiate the story."


Notice in that definition that urban legends are not necessarily false. They range, however, from silly to at least possible.


Here are some of my current favorites:


A seeing eye dog, in one version named "Lucky", was responsible for the deaths of several of his owners. He led one off a pier, another in front of a bus, a third off a train platform just as the engine was pulling into the station.


Hearing that the dog was to be assigned to still another blind person, reporters descended on the training school. One asked if the next owner was to be informed of the dog's previous history. The trainer responded that he would not expose the dog's checkered past as he didn't want to make the new owner nervous.


Some of these stories are even supposed to have taken place locally, in one version of the next: "in a small rural town, somewhat northeast of the city of Niagara Falls."


The town's volunteer fire department was called out to rescue a cat from a tree. Unfortunately the tall willow in which the cat was perched would not support the extension ladder carried on the rescue truck.


Faced with this quandary, one of the firefighters suggested bending the pliable tree limb down so that they could reach the cat. To implement this suggestion one of them climbed about half-way up to the kitty and secured a rope to the tree. The other end was fastened to the bumper of their truck.


The truck was slowly backed away, bringing the branch closer and closer to the outstretched arms of one of the firefighters, but just before the cat came within reach, the knot slipped free under the strain. The story concludes: The cat was last seen airborne heading south toward the city of Niagara Falls.


Then there is the story of the hunter who shot a huge buck. He decided that he would take a photograph on the spot. He propped up the deer, lay his rifle in its big rack and then backed off to take the picture. The one photograph he managed to click showed the deer rising to dash off into the forest carrying his rifle.


And finally, there is the family whose dog proudly carried home dead their neighbor's pet rabbit. Concerned about being blamed, they carefully took the filthy animal from the dog and cleaned it up. They then sneaked into the neighbor's yard to replace the bunny in its cage. Shortly after this the neighbor appeared at their door to tell them: "Our rabbit died yesterday and we buried it, but someone dug it up, gave it a shampoo and stuck it back in its cage."


Yes, some of those urban legends might have happened. For more I recommend Barbara and David Mikkelson's website and Jan Harold Brunvand's book: Too Good to be True.-- Gerry Rising