Colm A Kelleher PhD is a research scientist currently working in the biotechnology sector. Dr. Kelleher is a biochemist with a twenty-year research career in cell and molecular biology. He worked as project manager and team leader for the National Institute of Discovery Science (NIDS), using forensic science methodology to unravel scientific anomalies. He is the author of the recently released book on the controversial NIDS investigation of the ‘Skinwalker Ranch’, titled Hunt for the Skinwalker (Amazon US and UK). He has also previously authored a book about prion diseases and cattle mutilations titled Brain Trust (Amazon US and UK).
TDG: Thanks for talking to us Colm. First off, I’m interested in learning how a highly-credentialed scientist such as yourself ends up working for a science institute (the National Institute for Discovery Science, known as NIDS) investigating paranormal phenomena and ‘frontier science’?
CK: I was working as a research molecular immunologist at the National Jewish Center for Immunology in Denver Colorado when I happened to see an extremely unusual job ad in Science Magazine, one of the most prestigious Science journals in the world. The wording of the ad was so remarkable and out of place that it caught my eye. An organization was looking for science managers who were interested in “exploring the origin and evolution of consciousness in the Universe”. You simply never see that type of ad in Science Magazine, so I immediately answered it. This led to a job offer at the newly formed NIDS. I was among a few mainstream scientists, all with PhDs in their own disciplines, who were hired in summer of 1996. By that time, the Science Advisory Board (SAB) had already been hired. The SAB were and are among the best and the brightest in science that I have had the privilege of meeting.
I have had a long standing interest in what you call “fringe science” and in particular I believe that the study of anomalies, including extreme anomalies, is fundamental to the discovery process in science.
TDG: Many of us were disappointed when NIDS was put ‘on hold’ in 2004. What was the reason for this decision, and is it likely that NIDS will become active again at some stage?
CK: The main reasons that NIDS was put on hold was that there were so few cases that were deemed to merit closer scrutiny (read a lack of physical trace cases that warranted scientific analysis) that occurred after about the year 2000, in conjunction with the ebbing in intensity of the events at the ranch over time, as well as several of the staff at NIDS had moved onto other careers.
Whether NIDS will be re-activated again is really the decision of CEO Robert Bigelow.
TDG: If a capable and well-equipped scientific group such as NIDS had problems finding physical evidence for these paranormal phenomena, do you therefore feel that there is little hope in future of being able to scientifically prove them?
CK: On the contrary, I think NIDS and others (for example Project Hessdalen in Norway) have shown that the scientific method can be utilized to study these phenomena, albeit with some difficulty. If funding and talent can be encouraged to enter the fray, then I think real strides can be made. Regarding “proof”: I dont think we can go beyond gathering evidence and testing hypotheses.
TDG: Can you describe, from a personal view, your time on the Skinwalker Ranch?
CK: I spent hundreds of days and nights on the ranch. It became my second home especially during the period late 1996 until 1999. The ranch is in a beautiful location in NE Utah, and the “hunt” that was orchestrated there remains one of the most enjoyable and exciting periods of my life. We never knew what to expect. I am at heart an experimentalist and working day after day in a “laboratory of the paranormal” was an exciting and fulfilling time for me.
TDG: Did you personally encounter any paranormal phenomena which convinced you of their ‘reality’?
CK: I encountered several events that I found difficult to explain. The complete absence of blood in the calf that was dismembered on the ranch in March 1997 was difficult to explain without invoking some extraordinary circumstances. I personally witnessed several flying “orbs” of light that I found difficult to explain. I was a few yards from a seasoned scientist as he described an object visible through nightvision binoculars that I could not see. All these events added up to unusual happenings that I had no ready explanation for. But do they prove anything paranormal happened? I think not.
TDG: In Hunt for the Skinwalker (Amazon US and UK), you briefly mention interesting physical ‘symptoms’ of the events including nose bleeds and anomalous magnetic readings. Could you expand on those two topics a little?
CK: Some of the occupants on the ranch occasionally reported nosebleeds and headaches, but we were never able to unambiguously link these symptoms to phenomena. Portable Trifield meters on several occasions registered sharp transient spikes in activity (the needle jumped offscale and remained there for minutes) in spite of being repeatedly tested and calibrated. In some cases these spikes were temporally associated with unexplained events. For example there was a noticeable spike in magnetic field detected in the iron bars of a corral shortly after four bulls had apparently ended up in another enclosure near this corral. How the animals got there was never explained. The simultaneous spikes in magnetic fields detected also were not explained.
TDG: Personally, I was a little shocked by the revelation in your book that shots were fired at one particular ‘entity’ which the NIDS team chased across the Skinwalker ranch, considering that you might be dealing some sort of intelligent being (though brutal to cattle all the same!). Was this a policy that had been discovered beforehand, or was it just a spur of the moment decision that Tom Gorman took (and do you agree with that approach)?
CK: It was a spur of the moment decision by Tom Gorman that was never repeated.
TDG: Is the Skinwalker Ranch still held by Robert Bigelow, and do you think it will figure in any further investigations?
CK: The ranch is still owned and operated by Mr. Bigelow. Only he can answer that question.
TDG: Did NIDS ever come to a conclusion as to the likely cause of events on the Skinwalker Ranch, or at least one of the many phenomena experienced there (unidentified orbs and lights, mutilations, entity sightings).
CK: We spent a great deal of time attempting to measure environmental variables (wind or water borne hallucinogens), earthquake lights, tectonic strain hypothesis, hoaxes, delusions etc. We hypothesized that some of the evidence might be consistent with testing of exotic military toys, although we could never come up with a convincing motive of why these toys should be tested on a remote ranch in Utah. We think we were able to rule out some of these explanations, but we never accumulated sufficient evidence to come down firmly in favor of a single hypothesis that would explain all of the events we and others experienced. Skinwalker ranch was definitely a work in progress.
CK: Brain Trust is a medical detective (non fiction) story in which I unravel the details behind a substantial introduction of infectious prions (known now to be associated with human mad cow disease) via an obscure US government research project back in the 1950s. The book also highlighted (a) the woefully inadequate testing of cows for mad cow disease in the USA as well as (b) the equally woeful program of testing humans for Creutzfeldt Jakob Disease (CJD). Why is the latter important? Because one form of CJD is associated with eating mad cow contaminated beef, while the link between a second form of CJD and eating meat is getting increasingly less tenuous.
TDG: So are you intimating that there is a conspiracy of sorts to cover-up government involvement in introducing some of these prion diseases?
CK: I believe its possible that mistakes were made in injecting large numbers of animals with ground up brains from dead CJD victims in the middle of a wild life refuge in Maryland back in the 1960s. In those days nothing was really known about the possibility that these infectious proteins, called prions, could jump species. I dont think it was necessarily an active conspiracy, but I believe there was, and continues to be, gross negligence in the lack of testing of United States cattle for Mad Cow disease. There is also a very laissez faire attitude on the part of the health authorities in reporting deaths from CJD, Alzheimer’s and other dementias into a nationwide database.
TDG: In the past, yourself and NIDS have discussed cattle mutilations as representing “a TSE-disease sampling operation on domestic animals” (PDF file – “Unexplained Cattle Deaths and the Emergence of a Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathy (TSE) Epidemic in North America“). However, in Hunt for the Skinwalker, the cattle mutilation discussion leans toward a more paranormal explanation. What are your current thoughts on these seemingly mutually exclusive explanations?
CK: At NIDS we researched dozens of cases by going into the field with veterinarians who conducted necropsies. We then sent tissue samples to accredited laboratories for analysis. After several years of conducting this kind of research it became obvious that there two very different patterns of tissue removal in the mutilated animals. Pattern A was the pattern commonly reported in both literature and anecdote. This comprised the removal of an eye, tongue, reproductive organs or anus of an animal. Pattern A from multiple lines of evidence produced our hypothesis that it was a sampling operation. By the way, the sampling operation could just as easily be focused on other infectious entities apart from prions, for example foot and mouth disease virus or any other agent that might create panic in the cattle industry if it became widely known.
A handful of cases comprised an entirely different pattern, which we can call pattern B. The famous March 10, 1997 case in Utah in which a calf was apparently dismembered in broad daylight with a couple of potential eyewitnesses only a few hundred yards away is a case in point. Most of the body weight of the calf was gone including muscle mass, all internal organs and all blood. A couple of years later a very similar case occurred in N California. In addition to most of the internal organs and musculature missing, one of the eyeballs had been carefully excised from the animal and, still full with eye fluid, placed on the grass directly looking at the corpse. Both of these cases are examples of pattern B and they are NOT in any way that I can fathom correlated with a sampling operation.
TDG: You’ve moved on from NIDS now, and have published Hunt for the Skinwalker which gives your account of that particular investigation. Does this signal an end to your participation in scientific investigations of ‘frontier science’, or are you planning on continuing to work in the field – whether professionally or just as a personal interest?
CK: I plan to continue to work in the field, but not in a high profile organization like NIDS. Any work I will do in the future will be as a part of a network of scientists and like minded individuals.