As many naturalists are aware, estimating the size of an animal can be difficult where there is no familiar object close by to help determine scale.
One factor which can influence apparent size is the angle from which the animal is seen. Members of the groups have remarked that cats seen from above often look larger than they really are.
Another factor is whether the cat is bounding (eg across a road) or not. If the running puma is studied carefully it can be seen that the animal appears to be larger when runing than when walking. One witness reports chasing a bounding "puma" across a car park, only to realise it was a domestic cat when the animal slowed to a walk.
A real example is the 'Ohio Panther'. Between October 1989 and January 1990, there were a number of reports of a 'black panther' in Ottowa County, Ohio, while in nearby Fulton country there had been over 70 sightings of a large black cat over a two year period. Witnesses estimated the cat to be about two foot high and 4 feet long with a curled tail. On, January 19 th 1990, a local paper, the Toledo Blade, published the above photos. Zoo officials identified the 'panther' as an oversized house cat.
Another, somewhat different and amusing example comes from England. In 1999 there were a number of reports of a lion around Barnsley in Gloucestershire. The photo above shows a Retriever cross called Rocky whose rather unusal haircut was inflicted on him because of eczema. Rocky was in the habit of roaming on his around the countryside and is thought to be responsable for the reports of a lion.
The following, article from the Guardian is an excellent report concerning the difficulty of estilating an animal's size. Comparing Kylie Minogue with Pavarotti is actually a good comparaison, as lynx, like humans, can vary in size. As can be seen from the image we've included of Brian the lynx from the Highland Wildlife Centre, describing a lynx as "Alsation-sized" is not necessarily entirely unrealistic.:
In their annual ABC survey, Fortean Times magazine found 200 local newspaper reports of alien big cats (ABCs) across the country, from Surrey pumas to Beasts of Bodmin. These cats are notoriously elusive; after a spate of media coverage the beast usually vanishes. In a few cases an animal is caught or killed, and from these we can gain clues about what is really out there.
There are 37 different species of cat, but they share many physical similarities. By contrast, the single species of domestic dog varies in shape from great danes to dachshunds. A Rottweiler is not simply a large Jack Russell; but a puma is remarkably similar to a scaled-up Abyssinian.
This can make judging size difficult. In 1996, police marksmen in County Tyrone cornered an animal after repeated ABC sightings. They concluded it was a young lion and probably dangerous, and shot the animal. In fact, it was a caracal cat. These reach a weight of about 10kg, the size of a large fox. Real lions, on the other hand, average around 200kg.
In 1999 there was the Beast of Barnsley. A number of witnesses reported seeing a lion and locals were advised to keep children and pets indoors. The culprit turned out to be Rocky, a retriever-Rottweiler cross whose coat had been shaved because of eczema. At roughly 30kg, Rocky was about one-seventh the size of the real thing.
In May this year, a Mrs Johnson of Cricklewood called police when she found a strange animal sitting on the wall of her back garden. She described it as "the size of an Alsatian", and suggested it might be a leopard.
When staff from London Zoo sedated the creature with a blowpipe they found they had a young female European lynx. The lynx, now called Lara, is recuperating in London Zoo; where she came from remains a mystery. When captured she was somewhat underweight at a svelte 11.5kg. Although lynxes have relatively long legs, to equate her with an Alsatian (typically around 35kg) is like suggesting that Kylie Minogue (44kg) is the size of Luciano Paravotti (130kg). To describe Lara as a leopard (60kg) would be inflating La Minogue to the dimensions of a pygmy hippopotamus (200kg).
In 1983 the panther-like Beast of Exmoor caused so much concern that marines were called in to hunt it down. In her book on the beast, Di Francis recounts how a marine sniper had the animal in his sights, but did not fire because he thought it was too far away for a safe shot.
Afterwards, he was puzzled when he paced the distance and found that the beast had been easily in range. His mistake was probably in assuming it was a large animal; it is likely the animal was much smaller and much closer than he thought.
We take our ability to judge size for granted. However, it is not a matter of innate ability as much as experience. We rely on all sorts of cues from our environment when judging size and distance. A magnum of champagne five metres away could be mistaken for a normal bottle three metres away, but by picking up on various clues of perspective, we can usually judge distance and hence size.
This can sometime mislead us, as in the famous Muller-Lyer optical illusion (two parallel lines of equal length, one with arrowheads at each end pointing outwards, and the other with similar arrowheads pointing inwards). Although the two lines are the same length, the inward-pointing arrows make one line look bigger by fooling our sense of perspective. Or try this experiment. Hold one hand about two feet from your eyes and the other half as far and shift your gaze between them. The image of each seems to be the same size; even though one is twice as close, unconscious knowledge that the two are the same size causes us to seem them the same.
We can judge size and distance well enough with ordinary objects, but presented with something strange, our ability to estimate becomes unreliable. If you believe that what you are seeing is a big cat, you will tend to overestimate its size. This affects even those who should know better. After a spate of panther sightings near Balmoral, a gamekeeper shot at an animal that ran into his headlights, only to find it was a tortoiseshell cat.
The situation is compounded by the presence of felines that are smaller than a panther but bigger than a normal cat. The cait sith is a ferocious creature from Scottish folklore, a black cat with a white mark on its throat. It was long considered mythical, as there are no black wildcats in Britain. Then a black cat almost four feet long was shot near the village of Kellas in West Murray.
Genetic testing and subsequent specimens revealed that the Kellas cat was not a new species but a complex hybrid of wildcat and domestic cat. The gene for dark colouration, known as melanism, is known to be linked to increased size. The origin of other Kellas characteristics - it is a strong swimmer - remains mysterious.
Ray Charter, the head keeper of big cats at London Zoo, has taken numerous ABC calls. Lara was the first genuine big cat he has seen: the others have usually been large domestic cats. Some cat breeds are bigger than others: the Bengal is a hybrid of domestic cat and Asian leopard cat and males may be nine kilograms or more.
Lara was not adapted to life in the wild. Nor was Felicity, a rather tame puma captured in Scotland in 1980. There is little evidence that wild ABCs are a threat to farm animals or humans.
The idea that we need to shoot first and ask questions later is misguided when the animal in question is more likely to be a moggie than a man-eater.
Of course, some ABCs are neither. In November, Kim Simmonds of Linton Zoo went to investigate the body of a striped animal lying by the side of the road in Cambridgeshire. The animal in question was actually an imitation tiger print seat cover.
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