Big Cats in Britain

Marcus Matthews. Big Cats Loose in Britain. CFZ Press, 2007

Mark Fraser (editor). Big Cats in Britain Yearbook 2007. CFZ Press, 2007.
 
Next to ghosts, mystery big cats are probably the most in-fashion Fortean phenomena in Britain today, and their hunting continues much of the open air adventure holiday atmosphere of the old style sky-watches. Like most Fortean phenomena they are heavy on ‘eyewitness testimony’ and short on unambiguous physical evidence. Fraser devotes 190 pages of his book to Big Cat accounts from Britain in 2006 alone, month by month. Much of Williams’ book, originally compiled by him as a 14 year old schoolboy in 1987, is filled with similar reports.

These stories have been going on for over 40 years now, since the Surrey Puma epidemic of 1964, and the sheer numbers of reports make any ‘paws and pelts’ explanation very difficult to entertain. There are various such explanations, ranging from Di Francis’s claim that they are a lost native species, Marcus Williams’s that they are descendants of exotic cats imported by the Romans, to the belief that they are modern releases in the countryside.

The first two of these hypotheses really stumble on the lack of historical evidence. If there really were big cats in medieval times, like boars, bears and wolves they would have been hunted for sport, probably to extinction. No doubt the hunting of the largest cats would have been the exclusive prerogative of the King and his close favourites and special dogs would have been bread for the task.

Modern releases made sense in the 1970s, after the passing of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, but 30 years on? We would have to assume some kind of ongoing conspiracy to import exotic cats from around the world and release them into the English countryside for the sheer hell of it. This would be a much more dangerous hoax than the manufacture of crop circles. While not impossible - we should never set any limits to the depths of human stupidity and recklessness - it doesn’t seem very probable. There are no confessions and again practically no physical evidence.

Indeed reading these books, one sees just how similar to other Fortean phenomena they are, the physical evidence is always ambiguous: the marks on the ground which might be paw prints, the photographs which always show a blob in the background and never close detail, the animal kills and mutilations, the appeal to eyewitness authority (X is a real country person who couldn’t possibly mistake a large domestic cat or a dog for a puma etc.). There are stories of road kills, but always the corpse mysteriously disappears or is inadvertently disposed of. There are even tales of mysterious white vans coming to collect the bodies, no doubt to transport them in black helicopters to the underground facility where they keep the stuffed aliens.

Given this background it is not surprising that some people evoke the supernatural or wild ufological phantoms, but that is definitely a route to be resisted. The most probable explanation of such reports, is that while a very small proportion probably do refer to genuine escapes, releases, the vast majority are misidentifications and misperceptions of large pussy cats either homed or feral and a variety of dogs, As I have noted before, the real phenomenon or phenomena are the processes by which people loose the sense of what they are looking at.

The mystery cat, the alien big cat is a myth for our age, a vision of wildness intruding on what we conceive as the tamed world. They have a kind of green feeling about them, there is something romantic about the idea of wild nature having some last surprise, such that even England’s green and pleasant land contains some beast of the ultimate wild. There are other darker echoes, the big cats and coming towards the suburbs of the great cities.

The city was once seen as the citivas whose walls protected its inhabitants from the wild terrors outside, now cities are themselves seen as savage and wild places, urban jungles, fit places for jungle beasts to roam. Then have you noticed how many melanistic leopards - ‘black panthers’ - are reported, compared with the much more common spotted leopard. Along with tawny pumas, not many snow-white cats or striped tigers. Like the Greys in the flying saucers these are exotic, alien, foreigners, at once alluring and menacing, images of the ‘other’. Is it significant that these stories began at a time of mass immigration, and are now resurging at another time of mass fears over ‘the others’?

Are we then going to see these connections more explicit, with tabloid claims of exotic big cats being smuggled into Britain through the Channel Tunnel by gangs of Romanian gypsies? Reviewed by Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 98, September 2008.


No comments: