Are repeated sightings of non-existent big cats evidence of a yearning for a wilder life?
An extract from Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding, by George Monbiot, published in the Guardian, 22nd May 2013.
The setting was unimprovable. Across the fields, Maiden Castle, a turretted fortress of living rock, clawed at the sky. Beyond it was the village of Wolf’s Castle – Casblaidd – distinguished as one of only twenty places in which Owain Glyndŵr was born (he died in quite a few as well), and said to be the spot where the last wolf in Wales was killed. Below us a tangled willow carr smothered the valley.
“This gap in the hedge here: that could be where it came through. Then it came down the bank, sauntered across the road and disappeared into the scrub.”
I peered into the woods on the other side of the lane. The trees were hooded with ivy. Their mossy trunks sprawled over the ground, or leant on each other, dark-cowled, like drunken friars. Beneath them was an impenetrable thicket of brambles and ferns.
“You wouldn’t see him in there, would you?”
“You have no doubt about what it was?”
Michael Disney looked around and shrugged.
“It’s not an issue for me. I saw what I saw and that’s that. People can either believe it or not. I’m not trying to convince anyone.”
He had heard the stories, seen pictures in the local paper of the prints found at Princes Gate, a few miles to the other side of Haverfordwest, and had not believed a word of it.
“If I’d been dreaming or thinking about them at the time, it might have been another matter. But it was the last thing on my mind. I was just driving along – and one crosses the road. He was probably about 3 feet high and six feet long. I would say bigger than a medium-sized dog, but definitely not a dog. He was powerful-looking, with a black, glossy, shiny coat, incredibly muscular, like a horse’s shoulders.”
Michael Disney, former policeman, county council officer, had, to his own astonishment, become one of roughly two thousand people who see a big cat in the wild in Britain every year.
By the time Michael saw the beast now known as the Pembrokeshire Panther, there had, according to Wales on Sunday, been ten “confirmed sightings”(1). Some of those who claimed to have seen it were farmers or farm workers, familiar with the county’s less exotic wildlife. Among them were the farmer and – independently – his wife, whose land bordered the lane in which we stood. All described it, as Michael had done, as huge, jet-black, glossy, with a long tail, definitely a cat. One person claimed to have seen it with a lamb in its mouth. It was blamed for the grisly carcasses of sheep and calves found in remote corners of the farms.
But it was only when the former policeman reported it that the beast began to be taken seriously. Three weeks later, when five people saw it at Rudbaxton, the police sent out an armed response unit.
I became certain that Michael is an honest, reliable, unexcitable man who has no interest in publicity – in fact he seemed embarrassed by it. I am certain that, in common with other people who claim to have spotted the Beast, he faithfully described what he saw. I am equally certain that the Pembrokeshire Panther does not exist.
There is scarcely a self-respecting borough in Britain which does not now possess a Beast. Even the London suburbs claim to be infested with big cats: there is a Beast of Barnet, a Beast of Cricklewood, a Crystal Palace Puma and a Sydenham Panther. There have been occasional reports of mysterious British cats throughout history, but over the past few years the sightings have boomed. In her book Mystery Big Cats, Merrily Harpur finds that “cat-flaps”, as she calls them, are occurring at the rate of 2000-4000 a year(2).
Harpur notes that around three-quarters of all the cats reported are black, and they are commonly described as glossy and muscular. She also makes the fascinating observation that while the most likely candidate is a melanistic leopard (the leopard is the species in which the black form, though rare, occurs most often) she has not been able to find a single account of an ordinary, spotted leopard seen in the wild in Britain.
Some species of large cat are among the shyest and most cunning of all wild animals, but they are creatures of regular habits. They have territories, dens in which cubs are raised, spraying points and scratching posts. They scatter prints, spraints and hairs wherever they go: the first are immediately recognisable, the provenance of the second and third can be confirmed by DNA testing.
The 2008 Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition was won by a photograph of one of the world’s most elusive animals – the snow leopard – taken in one of the world’s least accessible places: the Ladakhi Himalayas, 13,000 feet above sea level. The photograph did not just document the existence of the leopard: after 13 months of experiments, and hundreds of less satisfactory pictures of his quarry, Steve Winter, through a cunning arrangement of camera traps and lights, eventually produced a perfectly-composed portrait. “I knew the animal would come;” he reported. His equipment “was just waiting for the actor to walk on stage and break the beam.”(3)
Yet, despite camera traps deployed in likely places throughout Britain, despite the best efforts of hundreds of enthusiasts armed with long lenses and thermal imaging equipment, we have yet to see a single unequivocal image captured in this country. Of the photographs and fragments of footage I have seen, around half are evidently domestic cats. Roughly a quarter are cardboard cut-outs, cuddly toys, crude photoshopping or – as the surrounding vegetation reveals – pictures taken in the tropics. The remainder are so distant and indistinct that they could be almost anything: dogs, deer, foxes, bin liners, yetis on all fours.
Nor have the tireless efforts to catch or kill these animals yielded anything more convincing. The hundreds of traps set for big cats in Britain have caught only two large predators. One, in 1980, was a tame puma, which had been released by a man about to be sent to prison. The other was a cryptozoologist called Pete Bailey. Mr Bailey, who had spent 15 years hunting the Beast of Exmoor, entered one of his traps to change the bait and accidentally tripped the mechanism. He was stuck there for two nights, eating the raw meat he had set for the cat, before he was rescued(4). We hunt the Beast, but the Beast is us.
That is about the extent of it: no photos, no captures, no dung, no corpses (except a couple of skulls, which later turned out to have gone feral after they had escaped from a leopardskin rug and a wall trophy), not even a certain footprint. The Beasts of Britain have evaded police helicopters and armed response teams (it beats logging car crime), a five-week hunt by the Royal Marines, a succession of big cat experts and bounty hunters and the mass deployment of tracking, attracting and sensing technologies.
In 1995 the government sent investigators to Bodmin Moor in Cornwall, where the evidence for big cats was said to be strongest. They spent six months in the field. There is something of the 19th Century royal commission about this investigation. The report contains photos of a strapping fellow with a large moustache and a measuring pole, demonstrating the heights of the natural features on which the creatures were photographed(5). The text reads in places like the final chapters of The Hound of the Baskervilles. It is thorough, exhaustive, and devastating to those who argued that, while other reputed big cats might not exist, the Beast of Bodmin was real.
They examined the famous video sequence, broadcast widely on television, which shows a cat leaping cleanly over a drystone wall. It looks impressive, until you see the man from the ministry standing beside the wall with his pole, and realise that the barrier is knee-high. A monstrous cat sitting on a gatepost shrinks, when the pole arrives, from a yard at the shoulder to a foot. In one case, where the Beast was filmed crossing a field, the investigators brought a black domestic cat to the scene, set it down in the same spot and photographed it from where the video had been taken. The moggie looks slightly bigger than the monster.
The investigators compared a chilling nocturnal close-up of the Beast with a picture of a real black leopard, and spotted an obvious but hitherto-unnoticed problem. The panther in the cage, like all big cats, has round pupils, while the creature in the photograph has vertical slits, a feature confined to smaller species, such as the domestic cat.
They examined the plaster casts of footprints taken from the moor. Two were made by a domestic cat; one by a dog. They attended the gruesome corpses of sheep that local people insisted had been ripped apart by the Beast. That they had been ripped apart was indisputable; but the villains were crows, badgers, foxes or dogs, and in most cases they had struck after the sheep had died of other causes. While the scientists conceded that it was impossible to prove that a big cat did not exist, they found that there was no hard evidence to support the story.
I would go a step further: if a breeding population of these animals existed, hard evidence would be abundant and commonplace. Its absence shows that there is no such population. With the possible exception of the very occasional fugitive, the beasts reported by so many sober, upright, reputable people are imaginary.
None of this has made the slightest difference, either to the volume of sightings or to the breathless credulity with which they are reported in the papers. My favourite story, from the Mail, was headlined “Is this the Beast of Exmoor? Body of mystery animal washes up on beach”(6). It reported that “great fangs jutted from its huge jaw, gleaming in the afternoon sun. Then there was the carcass. Up to 5ft long, powerful chest, and what could be the remains of a tail.” The paper interviewed a local police sergeant, who made the cryptic observation that “it almost definitely looks like it could be a Beast of Exmoor.” Only at the bottom of the page did the report reveal that it was a putrefying seal.
Beast fever has doubtless been heightened by these stories, but many of those who claim to have seen big cats in Britain also maintain that they had never heard of them before their own encounter. While a few are hoaxers, most report their sightings in good faith. In many cases an animal has been seen by a group of people, all of whom give similar accounts. So what is going on? Why, over the past three decades, have reports of big cats in Britain risen from a few dozen a year to thousands?
There is no discussion of this phenomenom in the scientific literature: I cannot find a single journal article on big cat sightings. None of the psychologists I’ve contacted have been able to direct me to anyone studying it. But in his book Paranormality, the psychologist Professor Richard Wiseman tells us this. “Many people think that human observation and memory work like a video recorder or film camera. Nothing could be further from the truth … At any one moment, your eyes and brain only have the processing power to look at a very small part of your surroundings.”(7)
The brain, he says, scans the scene like a torch searching a darkened room. It fills in the gaps, to construct what appears to be a complete image from partial information. We then treat this image as if it were as concrete and definitive as a photograph in an album. If we focus on a cat and not on its surroundings, perhaps the process of singling out the beast magnifies it and shrinks the setting.
I wonder, too, whether there might be a kind of template in our minds in the form of a big cat. As these were once our ancestors’ foremost predators, we have a powerful evolutionary interest in recognising them before the conscious mind can process and interpret the image. Perhaps anything which vaguely fits the template triggers the big cat alarm. But none of this explains why big cat sightings appear to have become more common in recent years.
Certain paranormal phenomena afflict every society, and they appear to reflect our desires; desires of which we may not always be fully conscious. In Victorian Britain, large numbers of people believed that they were communicating with the dead. Walk around any graveyard of that era and you will read a tragic story of premature loss: ours was a nation in perpetual mourning. The notion that the dead could return in this life must have been almost as comforting as the belief that we would be reunited with them in the afterlife.
As the space race between the United States and the Soviet Union gripped the world’s imagination, sightings of UFOs and aliens, little known in previous eras, multiplied. This was a period in which we entertained great hopes for the transformative potential of technology. It was also an epoch in which the world was shrinking. The age of terrestrial exploration and encounters with peoples unknown to us was ending; planet earth was perhaps a less exciting and more certain place than it had been hitherto. Aliens and their craft filled a gap, while promising that we too would achieve the mastery of technology and physics we ascribed to extraterrestrials. Today, perhaps because our belief in technological deliverance has declined, we hear less about UFOs.
Could it be that illusory big cats also answer an unmet need? As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature has declined, could these imaginary creatures have brought us something we miss?
Perhaps the beasts many people now believe are lurking in the dark corners of the land inject into our lives a thrill that can otherwise be delivered only by artificial means. Perhaps they reawaken vestigial evolutionary memories of conflict and survival, memories which must incorporate encounters – possibly the most challenging encounters our ancestors faced – with large predatory cats. They hint at an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead. Our desires stare back at us, yellow-eyed and snarling, from the thickets of the mind.
Feral: searching for enchantment on the frontiers of rewilding is published on May 30th by Allen Lane.
1. Sion Morgan, 12th December 2010. Pembrokeshire ‘panther’ strikes again. Wales On Sunday. http://www.walesonline.co.uk/news/wales-news/2010/12/12/pembrokeshire-panther-strikes-again-91466-27810028/
2. Merrily Harpur, 2006. Mystery Big Cats. Heart of Albion, Market Harborough.
3. Mark Kinver, 30th October 2008. Snow leopard wins top photo prize. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7696188.stm
4. Merrily Harpur, 2006, as above.
5. S J Baker and C J Wilson, 1995. The Evidence for the Presence of Large Exotic Cats in the Bodmin Area and their Possible Impact on Livestock. A report by ADAS on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food. http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/Images/exoticcats_tcm6-4645.pdf
6. Paul Harris, 9th January 2009. Is this the Beast of Exmoor? Body of mystery animal washes up on beach. Daily Mail. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1109174/Is-Beast-Exmoor-Body-mystery-animal-washes-beach.html
7. Richard Wiseman, 2011. Paranormality: why we see what isn’t there. Macmillan, London.