From left: James “Bobo” Fay, Matt Moneymaker, Ranae Holland, and Cliff Barackman confer on this week’s episode of Finding Bigfoot. All photos courtesy of Animal Planet.

Finding Bigfoot is one of Animal Planet’s most popular shows. It’s been on the air for five years and has clocked nearly 100 episodes, none of which—despite the sheer amount of cameras involved—feature any footage of the elusive giant ape. So when we talked to the show’s hosts, we had to ask them what’s the hold-up.

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The tantalizing possibility that this week, Bigfoot might actually show up, is essential to the show’s enduring appeal. Each episode follows a predictable formula, but the scenery is always killer (if Bigfoots do exist, they definitely hang out in some of the most gorgeous and untouched places), and the tone is charmingly earnest. That last factor is due to the personalities involved. Along with biologist Ranae Holland, the group’s resident skeptic, and field “caller” James “Bobo” Fay, who provides the show’s comic relief, Finding Bigfoot’s core cast consists of researcher Cliff Barackman and Matt Moneymaker, founder of the Bigfoot Field Researchers Organization.

Barackman and Moneymaker are true believers. Barackman told io9 that he estimates there are “maybe 10,000 individuals, give or take a few thousand” living in small family groups across North America. Individual Bigfoots, that is.

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“That number sounds like a lot,” he admitted. “But when you consider how much land they have to inhabit, that makes them probably one of the more rare species of large animals in North America.”

The obvious next question, of course: If there are 10,000 of these creatures roaming around out there, why have they been so elusive for so long?

“People find them all the time,” Moneymaker said. “Getting an extended visual view that would allow you to film them, that’s what’s really, really hard. When people go, ‘How come you can’t find one?’ like it’s gonna be a little garden statue and you’d go ‘Oh, here it is’? No. These are animals, and they come out at night. They’re very strategic.”

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Bigfoots are also nomadic, rarely sticking around one area for long periods of time, and they take great care to stay hidden, he explained. “But you could take the biggest skeptic in the world out there, and things will happen around them. They won’t get a picture, but they’ll come back saying, ‘There was a very large, wild, intelligent animal that was harassing us in the woods.’ There are thousands of people who will tell you that, who were skeptics before.”

(By “harassing,” he means throwing rocks, rustling in the trees, making whooping sounds, and other actions that have constituted Finding Bigfoot’s closest encounters to date.)

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Speaking of skeptics, dealing with nonbelievers is just part of the routine for the hosts of Finding Bigfoot. “I used to argue with people like that,” Moneymaker said. “Then I had a close encounter with a Bigfoot, like had one 50 feet away from me growling at me. After that, I don’t even argue with people anymore. What do you say, when you had something like that in front of you, and you have somebody try to tell you that there is no such thing? Guess what, dude. You’re wrong. I get a little condescending about it: ‘Go ahead and tell my why it’s impossible. Tell me why, in your logic, there’s no way Bigfoot exists.’ And I’m just going to laugh.”

Barackman concurred. “I find that the loudest skeptics are those with the least amount of knowledge about the subject. They haven’t ever read a book on it. They just assume that there’s no evidence. They assume there’s no photographs, and they assume the footprint casts are all faked without ever actually examining the evidence themselves. To me, it’s really just a matter of education. I was an elementary school teacher before I had this job, so I’m used to people not knowing things that seem logical to me. When I come across a skeptic, they’re usually very resistant to learning about this stuff, first of all. But those who aren’t, it’s just a simple matter of educating them [as] to what evidence [is] already out there.”

Added Barackman: “I personally think it’s a very compelling subject, that’s 100 percent real.”

Both men agree the show’s popularity has helped raise awareness about the Bigfoot phenomenon—and, inevitably, an uptick in reported sightings. And with the prevalence of cell phones equipped with ever-improving cameras, “technology is definitely catching up to the Sasquatches,” Barackman says. “Putting better technology into the hands of the general public has really advanced the field of Bigfooting. There are just four investigators on the show, but there are millions of people out there in the woods and likely habitats. The odds are squarely in their favor as far as getting footage.”

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So ... if you’re out hiking or camping in some unspoiled North American wilderness, and you stumble across a Sasquatch, what should you do?

“Tell people about it. Talk about it. Tell somebody,” Barackman said. “Go online, look up Matt’s website, look up my website, and report it. Being quiet about the subject doesn’t do anybody any good, and there’s nothing to be ashamed of. The truth can handle the skepticism.”

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Moneymaker agreed that’s what you should do afterwards, but he also offered some tips for how to react in the moment. “If you’re not prepared for it, it can be terrifying,” he says. “If you happen to have a camera in your hand already, then try to take a photo of it or a video. If it’s in your bag, I’m telling you—if you see one, you’re not going to try to reach into your bag. Here’s this precious view of this thing you’ve been trying to find for a long time, and that’s a powerful moment.

“If someone has an encounter, they should try to overcome their initial shock and horror, and be as overtly friendly as possible. Hold up your hand and wave as if it’s a person you’ve been wanting to meet. They’re not going to attack you—they might be a little puzzled, but they’re certainly not going to come up and bite your head off. They’re totally cautious with humans. All you’re trying to do is befuddle it long enough so that it sticks around long enough and doesn’t immediately run away. Maybe then, you will be able to very coolly reach for your camera.”

Finding Bigfoot airs Thursday nights on Animal Planet.