Sunday 3 June 2007

Fortean Times June 2007 - 'big cats'

The June edition of Fortean Times magazine, featured a 'big cat' round-up. UK sightings database based on clippings received and stories covered by the media.
Merrily Harpur put forward various theories on the subject, mentioning that the 'big cat' situation is 'almost' a science.
The problem is, the British cat situation should not be a mystery, but it's the kind of features and theories as posted in Fortean Times magazine which relegate the situation into the realms of folklore, anorak Ufology and the likes.
Let us look at some of the points which were raised in the disappointing article.

Year after year magazines, newspapers, websites etc, feature their annual 'big cat' reports. The regurgitation and repetition is becoming an alarming trend within the situation. There still seems to be a lack of knowledge, and lack of direction with the frustrating 'investigations' which are simply based on the views mostly, of an armchair enthusiast.
Merrily Harpur may have a book out on the subject of 'big cats', but some of the theories expressed within the Fortean Times article are quite simply ludicrous and not the sort required in a field that should be relying on serious investigation and NOT paranormal relations.
Charles Fort, the original clipper collector, whose name influenced Fortean Times magazine to exist, had theories that large, out of place cats were in fact teleportations from other countries, and that many sightings of unusual animals were possibly the work of a cosmic jester. At the time this was a naive explanation for a relatively new enigma but for Merrily Harpur to consider anything of the like some seventy years after Fort's ramblings is at once comical yet worrying.

Let us look at the feature, 'AS EASY AS ABC : THE COMPETING THEORIES', page 38-39.

Merrily writes, "The most often quoted reason for the presence of big cats at large in the British landscape is that their owners released them when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced in 1976. This Act obliged owners to buy licences for their animals, and undergo welfare and safety inspections."
Her Pros argument were as follows:
1) It sounds a reasonable idea (comment - a rather blunt and strange 'pro' comment when looking into the possibility. Surely we need more elaboration here, especially if someone with only a passing interest wanted to know more.)
2) A puma has been caught. This was 'Felicity', in Scotland in 1980. An inmate of Dartmoor prison claimed she was one of two he had released prior to his incarceration.

Now, the Cons make for an interesting read.
1) Lack of evidence. Only three other people have claimed personally to have released big cats - three pumas and a panther. This scarcity of evidence for deliberate releases is in marked contrast to the thousands of UK ABC (comment - ABC is an abbreviation of 'alien big cats', a terrible term used for out of place exotic felids) reports in the past three decades. And what about all the sightings dating from before 1976 ?

(Comment - this statement is rubbish. Merrily states that because she's only heard of three people admitting to releasing big cats into the wilds, that such rare cases could not account for the hundreds of sightings per year since 1976. Firstly, there are not many people from thirty of so years ago who would've released cats into the wilds on purpose and then casually come forward to tell of their act. A majority of owners who did dump their cats would possibly have said, when asked what happened to their pets, that they had died or maybe escaped, but not many owners would have told the press, police or a so-called 'big cat' researcher of their careless actions. In over fifteen years of research I have come in contact with more than twenty people who claimed to have let a cat go, or knew someone who owned a cat, or more than one cat, and released it/them. Rumour has it that when the 1976 Act was introduced, more than one-hundred people flocked to London Zoo with their pets but were turned away. Even if this figure is exaggerated, just twenty people letting felids wild into the local woods is a startling statistic and certainly a concrete base for today's reports/populations to stem from.
Other owners, who possibly panicked when they realised they couldn't afford their animals, must have either been turned away by other zoo parks across the country, or simply drove their animals into remote woodlands and bid them farewell.
Merrily also seems to ignore the fact that the cats released would take no time at all in breeding. If the black leopard was the popular pet in the '60s, such animals when released would take on large territories and easily meet up with other leopards, and mate. The mini explosions would occur, and still are today with male and female black leopard producing up to four young.
Whilst the 1976 Act is not the sole reason as to why so many cats roam the UK today, it is one of the main ingredients of the phenomenon.

The next theory on her agenda was, THE ESCAPES THEORY -
"A large number of animals were kept in menageries and circuses from Roman times to the early 20th century, from which big cats could theoretically have escaped into the countryside in sufficient numbers from a breeding population. This existing population could then have been topped up by deliberately released animals. Fortean commentators on the British big cats have long noted the ubiquity of accounts of over-turned circus vans accompanying cat-flaps. None of these tales is ever substantiated, and they are generally reckoned to be urban legends."

Merrily's Pros are valid, if brief, stating, "Dorset, for one, has a history of big cats being kept at a variety of sites in the past 150 years and was regularly visited by menagerists from as early as 1806. The possibility of escapees over such a long period seems feasible."
However, her Cons once again rambles on about, " evidence has been found that animals were released or escaped in more than minute numbers. There have been large police hunts and many army stake-outs on many occasions but neither they, nor private hunters and trappers, nor farmers' vigils, have caught or killed a panther-like or puma-like big cat. Conversely, known escapees are usually quickly caught. The record for a known escapee living at large in the wild is, allegedly, about seven months, this was a clouded leopard that escaped from Howlett's Zoo in Kent and was shot by a farmer after attacking his sheep."
(Comment - once again, if anyone, even a zoo in the past, had lost a cat, would they always be honest and own up ? Of course not. The Romans, as discussed elsewhere within this blog, imported thousands of animals into their amphitheatres. Did none of these animals escape into the wilds ? Of course, some escapees may have been easy to catch, but in such cases cats would not have been tame, but felids captured in places such as Africa and brought over here. If a leopard or puma had escaped, would their have been a mass hunt to look for such an animal ? Possibly not. And, during the times of the Roman settlements, there were no records as such of 'big cat' sightings, and the same could be said for the 1800s when travelling menageries roamed the country. Back then, cats would not have just escaped from over-turned vans, whilst several large travelling zoo's became well known, imagine the amount of obscure exhibitions travelling the countryside, as owners sought a quick buck to earn a living. Not in every case would the vans/cages etc, which housed such cats have been adequate enough, and then , when such animals escaped, that was it, the vans would have rolled on. There must have been cases also where almost entire menageries were released into the wilds. Such incidents still occur today even through such strict laws, so just imagine how many wild animals were released into the local woods over the last two to three-hundred years.
In 'big cat' research there are countless 'legends' pertaining to sightings dating back to the 1700s, 1800s and early 1900s. However, there were no registers as such to record sightings and no armchair enthusiasts to collate them, so such reports remain murky with only handfuls making any kind of news and being included in newspapers at the time, as well as personal journals, church records and the like.
Merrily then questions the validity of such escapees because police and other pursuers have not bagged such animals. Whilst no black leopards have turned up having been shot, smaller cats such as jungle cats have. Lynx have been killed on the roads also, but the scarcity of such evidence is actually as expected. These cats are very elusive animals. In their countries of origin they shy away from man, and in the UK despite the countless sightings, they still hunt mainly during dusk and throughout the night. Over a century ago police hunts and other vigils would have been very far and far between, but what frustrates and seems to confuse so many cat researchers and sceptics nowadays is the fact that these cats seem to elude pursuers so easily. This is rubbish also. No credit is being given here to naturally elusive cats which in most cases can sense as to whether they are in the presence of humans. Police, the army and researchers tend to arrive on scene of so many sightings a fraction too late, and that fraction could mean ten minutes for the cat to be gone.
However, Kent Big Cat research knows of at least three cases where black leopard (twice) and puma HAVE been shot and killed, but would a majority of people, having shot such a cat, come forward with their admission ?
Tracking a cat such as leopard, puma or lynx is extremely difficult, and the police and other authorities cannot afford to spare the time to frequent certain areas to pursue their quarry. The cats don't have to be that secretive when they are being hunted/pursued incorrectly. Even the press fail to understand as to why these cats aren't turning up in photographs all the time, and when a cat is filmed they complain it's too fuzzy, but are they really stupid enough to believe that a black leopard will hang around long enough, and be happy enough for a photographer to get within ten-feet for a quick snap.
In the past cats have escaped from menageries, from zoo parks, from imported shipments, and the figures alone, which we'll never find out, would certainly have been the reason as to why we have cats today.

Merrily comments, "This is the intriguing idea that UK ABC's are a relict species of Pre-ice Age big cat, hiding out in the wild. It is native to Britain but is yet to be discovered and named by science. Whilst the theory has some adherents in the UK, it is more popular in the USA, where the huge wilderness of that country make it an almost viable proposition."
Pros - It is supported by evidence in that it accounts for the variability in the cats' colours and appearance. Lynxes were native to our islands in prehistoric times (and still are in mainland Europe) and animals bearing some of the characteristics of standard lynxes are regularly seen here today. Persecution is generally thought to have extinguished the native wildcat in England..."
Whilst the lynx, as elusive as it is, may have hung on in their to exist today, there is no evidence to suggest we are dealing with a new species of cat, because the facts state that a majority of sightings involve simply black leopards, puma, lynx. The answer is right there in the definition of the species, so why do people need to create bizarre theories that prehistoric cats are roaming the country ? The problem is, many researchers cannot pigeon-hole some eye-witness reports, and so wonder just what is out there in those woods. Yet, whilst eye-witness reports are vital, they can also be vague or exaggerated. We mustn't forget also that we are dealing with a variety of species of cat in the UK, the jungle cat is able to breed with the domestic cat, so I'm unsure as to why there is excitement over reports of overly large domestic cats, or even feral cats, this situation is happening in Australia where monstrous cats, yet resembling feral cats are being seen on a regular basis.
Also, we mustn't forget that the cats that inhabit Britain are now British big cats. They are the offspring of cats from decades, possibly centuries ago. Leopards will naturally be smaller than their relatives from Africa and Asia, the prey is smaller, the range is smaller, yet many researchers cannot understand why many sightings of black leopards concern smaller cats. Maybe they are slinky females or young, what's the confusion all about ?
There is no evidence at all in Kent to suggest we are dealing with new species of cats, so why should this theory apply elsewhere in England at least ?

PROS - " There are eye-witness reports of differently coloured animals, presumably of different species, seen together. Sandy-coloured puma-like cats have been seen in close proximity to black panther-like animals, and therefore, theoretically could be inclined to mate."

Comment - leopards and puma would NOT mate. There is a remote possibly in the few and far between cases of 'sandy' and black animals that we are dealing with Golden Cats. These can be melanistic. As pumas cannot be black, I'm unsure as to why such theories continue. If by some miracle a black puma turns up, then we'll look at the evidence but it's unlikely to occur.

CONS - "It does not happen elsewhere in the wild. Hybrids have been artificially created in zoo conditions, although that practice is considered morally dubious."

FRINGE THEORIES - (and now we come to the most ridiculous set of theories to date which any self-respecting researcher should not be pondering in serious research.)

A) - MUTANT GENES - Merrily writes, "A quasi-science-fictional idea that, given a 'limited gene pool' - such as escaped pumas and panthers in Britain are supposed to represent - mutants will spontaneously occur which differ dramatically from their parents; for example, normal pumas will become black."
Well, again, there's no evidence to suggest we are dealing with hordes of mutant big cats out there. Researchers tend to become excited by reports of black leopards which seem to have smaller, puma-like heads, but this is annoying. In Kent, we are simply dealing with, as mentioned before, with smaller leopards, smaller puma that are evolving in the UK. They are not animals brought over from the USA, Africa or wherever and released here. Only the press still believe that!

B) - CAT BAITING - "Another theory", Merrily says, " that cat-baiting has replaced badger-baiting in some criminal fraternities, and big cats are imported and secretly bred for that reason, and then released when they become injured or difficult to maintain; another similar idea is that these animals are bred like lurchers to hunt deer for their owners."
There could be some truth in such clandestine activities, but I do not believe this goes on to the extent where an abundance of cats are being bred and released. It is possible that a cat, such as a lynx could be released as part of some rich hunter's game, but until such a covert operation uncovers such a scenario, there's no telling. There may indeed be an influx of cats trickling into the UK by ways as not yet covered by researchers, and cat-baiting is one of them.

C) - BIG FERAL MOGGIES - "Another idea is that feral domestic cats can grow to a huge size. In actual fact, owing to a limited diet and having to expend more energy in catching it, feral domestic cats are usually smaller than their stay-st home counterparts."
So, should this even be a theory at all, when witnesses are clearly describing 'panthers' and puma. These animals in no way resemble a domestic cat. (Image on left, domestic cat that was mistaken for a leopard!)

D) - BLACK DOGS - Now this is why 'big cats' in the UK, are still treated as myth. Merrily writes, "Folkorists and others have speculated that the black big cats may be the ubiquitous 'black dogs' of British folklore in a new, modern form. Hide-out theorists contend, conversely, that the black dogs of old might have been misperceived black cats all along."
Researchers should NOT be confusing roaming big cats with phantom animals. Black dogs, hellhounds etc, or whatever you may call them exist on some other level not related to black leopards. Such phantom hounds which have become known by many names such as Black Shuck, Padfoot and Striker, are part of a complex and sinister aspect of folklore, and whilst old, murkier reports of padding, agile 'black dogs' with glowing eyes may well have been old sightings of black leopards, the actual legend of the black dog certainly does exist, and should never be melted into the British cat situation.

E) - COVER UP - again, we are getting into the Fortean realm here, a quirky world that attempts to wield together all aspects of the mysterious, but it is something that must not be allowed to interfere with cat research. Merrily comments, "One theory maintains that the government knows all about these animals and where they come from, but fears insurance claims if it acknowledges their existence. Proponents claim that people resembling DEFRA officials sometimes remove evidence such as sheep kills ostensibly for examination but actually to smother speculation."
The problem is, all the while the cat situation in the UK is not recognised as official, or a protected or at least admitted species, then there will no doubt be theories such as this. I'm pretty sure that bodies of cats, and sheep kills, have been taken away for examination, but that's natural. The government DOES know that 'big cats' exist in the countryside, but what can the government do ? What would the government have to hide ? they could waste precious time of the police and the Marines and send marksmen out into the valleys to maybe pick one or two cats off, but what will that achieve ? Nothing.
The public would not resort to mass hysteria if the government admitted 'big cats' are roaming our woods, but because these cats don't officially exist, shouldn't such carcasses and evidence at times be cleared up ? Of course. But for every sheep kill secretly cleared away, there's always another four or five around the corner that many get to see.

F) - TULPAS - "Common in other circles is the belief that these big cat-like animals could be 'thoughtforms' or tulpas materialised by practitioners of Tibetan Buddhist religious techniques. Other occult practices too, are credited with the ability to invoke materialised apparitions."
Now this is completely absurd. I've written a book on 'tulpas', 'thoughtforms' and manifestations, but in no way are these cats some kind of strange materialisation or image conjured up, and I cringe at the theory. For any self-resepcting researcher to come up with such drivel is emabarrassing to the situation. People are seeing large exotic cats in the wild, what's the big deal ? Where's the mystery ? And why do certain people always link simple things they cannot understand to such ludicrous, un-related anomalies ?

G) - DAIMONS - it gets worse, and very worryingly Merrily states, "My own personal favourite is the idea that most big cats are native daimons, as the ancient Greeks called them. Past British daimons have included the Lambton Worm, Robin Goodfellow, The Barguest, Cat Anna, piskies, elves, Black Dogs, brownies, lake monsters and so on. They are real but intermediate creatures, half in this world and half in the otherworld. They are concrete, but only temporarily so. All the animalies surrounding Britain's big cats are made intellugble in this context. But why they should appear in this form, and why now, is a deeper mystery."
This is the most hilarious and ridiculous theory I have ever heard in my life and makes me feel ashamed and emabarrassed to be part of the whole situation when a so-called researcher comes up with such vomit. Whilst we do indeed live in a peculiar world, to suggest that these cats roaming our woods date back to the dawn of time is a joke, and some serious head checking needs to take place here. It's not a mystery at all that such animals are here so why does Merrily Harpur believe that it's an even deeper mystery to solve as to why her 'daimons' appear as cat forms ?
That a whole article should be devoted to such bizarre theories is beyond me, but what it does prove is exactly why the 'big cat' situation in the UK is lumped in with so many other anorak phenomenons such as Ufo's and the recent 'ghost' craze made even more sickening by the 'Most Haunted' dramatics.
The article concludes that, "...websites dedicated to collecting and commenting on ABC encounters have proliferated in the past five years, and ABC witnesses are increasingly likely to report their experiences to a website rather than a newspaper or the police. In one way this is unfortunate as few of the individuals or groups running the sites make their reports public, and so sightings reported only to them can be lost to general research."
So, what exactly is this general research ? Sightings plastered all over the internet, areas of sightings advertised to hunters and more plundering researchers who then write articles stating that these animals are from other worlds. Why should serious researchers share information with the police, when all the police do is file the report or turn up, look around then vanish without a clue. Why should serious researchers become part of groups who spew out mythical statistics, based upon armchair enthusiasts who've collated dramatised newspaper clippings. It's a vicious circle that resembles the weird ol' days of ufologists with their petty politics and freakish theories.
Whilst some cat reports do not seem to fit into the known species bracket, the lack of consistency in such reports means that they cannot be taken seriously, or must at least be taken with a pinch of salt until further evidence presents itself. However, to place such animals into a realm of fantasy is complete madness, and it is such a theory that will prevent the so-called much needed research from happening.


Anonymous said...

A question for you, sir:

When myxymitosis was introduced into the UK, there was a massive die-off of rabbits. Since predators often specialise in one prey species, the die-off should have forced big cats to switch prey species.

The switch-over should have made them spend more time hunting, and so be more visible to people.

Was there such a blip in sightings of big cats around the time of the great myxy epizootic in the rabbit population?

Neil A said...

There is no evidence to suggest that in the UK the 'big cat' species are specialising in one prey species. Pigeons, pheasants, rabbits, foxes, deer, domestic cats, sheep, lambs, squirrels, ducks, geese, and chickens are all viable prey.
A dip would certainly not have been recognised, and sightings have always been common.