Report from Leo Martin
Here kitty, kitty
For the past three years, a British collective of around 1,000 people has been studying murky photographs, videos, clumps of hair and decomposing carcasses. Their purpose? To discover if big cats really are lurking in the darker corners of our countryside and mauling deer, only to disappear when anyone with a camcorder happens by. Whatever conclusions they come to, reports of big cat sightings, or even of beasts, continue to pour in. The British Big Cats Society (BBCS), which is organising the study, says this year alone it has received reports from 18 English counties and more from Scotland and Wales. Later this year, once the collective has finished its work, the BBCS says it will hand a dossier of "convincing evidence" to the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. This dossier will prove, it says, that big cats are out there and should be taken seriously.
But however certain the BBCS is, a growing body of work by scientists suggests some - if not all - sightings may be a trick of the mind, a legacy of a time when humans were the hunted, not the hunters.
British big cat stories date back to the 12th century, but the BBCS believes modern sightings date from 1976-81 when a change in legislation drove some private owners of "exotic pets" to let them loose. There are certainly some escaped pets out there. A number of small cats, such as lynxes and jungle cats, have been found wandering at large, some still wearing collars, and a puma was captured in 1980. Overweight, arthritic and tame, she became a star of a Highland wildlife park, her origin a mystery. But feral big cats remain elusive, and careful not to give up hard evidence of their existence.
DNA and other forensic evidence from supposed big cat kills points instead to the work of dogs. No big cat bodies have turned up, no conclusive paw prints have been found, and telltale droppings are curiously absent.
Anecdotal evidence suggests we may be predisposed to conclude an animal is a big cat if we cannot immediately identify it as something else.
Recounting a run-in one morning, Richard Hughes, a keen photographer from Buckinghamshire, says: "I witnessed a large black shape enter the field we were in. At first I thought it was a dog but realised it was a large black panther, complete with a long tail. I couldn't believe my eyes - it was the most astonishing thing I had seen."
Hughes staked out the field for several days in the hopes of catching the beast on film. When it finally appeared, alongside its owner, it turned out to be a mastiff cross - with a short tail.
Hughes' experience is by no means unique and some scientists believe they are close to explaining why we are prone to see things, especially big cats, that aren't there. Clark Barrett at the University of California, studies perceptual mechanisms in identifying dangerous animals. He believes evolution may have left us with a tendency to identify an animal we have only glimpsed as a big cat. Millions of years ago, this could have been a life-saving capability that was subsequently passed down the generations.
Richard Coss, professor of psychology at the University of California has been studying "relic behaviours" since the 1970s. He believes our ancestors' time as the hunted has left a mark on modern humans, equipping us with innate defensive responses. He cites evidence ranging from studies on the reaction of toddlers to leopard-spot patterns to the ability of rural communities to mob big cats.
Coss says children as young as four seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of predators, correctly guessing that, from a range of options, the top of a boulder would be an inadequate place to hide from a lion. It's not down to education, claims Coss, but an innate understanding of a predator's capability.
He predicted differences between the way boys and girls sought refuge from predators because early females were much smaller and better climbers than males. His studies have borne out this prediction.
Barrett has done similar experiments, comparing the instincts of city- dwelling children from Berlin with four-year old Shuar children living in the Amazon rainforest. Both were equally good at predicting the behaviour of lions and jaguars. Barrett believes education had little to do with it.
Meanwhile, studies on the remains of our ancient ancestors reveal signs that they were once hunted by big cats. The South African palaeontologist Bob Brain excavated caves dating back 2.5m years. An analysis of bones left by predators shows at least one carnivore preying on our early ancestors was, in Brain's words, "a specialist killer of primates". Brain identified the killer as Dinofelis, an extinct cat the size of a puma with long teeth capable of piercing a human skull. Its anatomy, similar to that of a jaguar, suggests Dinofelis attacked by a sudden pounce.
Other researchers have found more curious evidence - that images of cats seem to be imprinted in the depths of our minds. A team of neurologists led by Gilles Fˇnelon at Tenon Hospital in Paris found that patients with Parkinson's disease were more prone to illusions than those without the dementia. Strangely, Fˇnelon found cats were among the most common illusions his patients reported.
Visions of big cats may or may not be a legacy of a more fearful era, but rumour and media coverage increase the number of people convinced they have seen the predators. Paul Marsden, editor of the Journal of Memetics (which looks at infectious ideas such as rumours, crazes and urban legends), says the big cat stories are a form of social contagion: stories with an air of mystery and danger spread easily, he says. "The media plays an important role in this collective hysteria," he says. "They amplify and lend credibility to word of mouth."
The result is that everyone knows about the big cats that are supposedly out there, so when they glimpse something they can't identify, they are more likely to reckon it was a big cat.
Ellis Daw, owner of Dartmoor Wildlife Park and a spokesperson for the BBCS, believes there is more to it: "Although the illusion theory may explain many sightings, the physical evidence, which is slowly but steadily growing, points to a very physical presence of big cats in the UK."
But until the physical evidence is out there for all of us to examine, British big cats will remain shadowy figures in the back of our minds..
© The Independent, 4 th April, 1997
|Return to index
|Return to Scottish Big Cats
|Return to Scotland