Cryptozoological Caturday Felid: The Beast of Bodmin and its relatives

by Matthew Cobb

Still of "big cat" in Scotland. See the video below.

Every country seems to have its cryptozoological fantasies. Tibet has the Yeti, the US has Bigfoot, the Congo has Mokele-mbembe. And Britain has… the Beast of Bodmin. Or the Beast of Exmoor. Or the Beast of Bevendean.

In each of these cases, people sight something that looks like a big cat – as in a panther or a leopard. None of these sightings claim to be of tigers or African lions. Strictly speaking, this is not the realm of cryptozoology, as no one is claiming these are unknown species. The argument is that they are animals that have escaped from zoos, circuses or the homes of rich people with massive underground bunkers who tend to have plans for world domination and go “Mwah-haa-haaa”.

Natural England – a government organisation that does what it says on the tin – has been studying claims of alien animals in the UK, and has found 38 sightings of “big cats” that cannot be explained. They have concluded that some of the claims might be true, but there is no evidence for breeding populations.

Charlie Wilson of Natural England is reported as saying: “The evidence is there that there are the odd, escaped, released dumped animals occurring in the wild every now and then.” None of this applied to the alleged big cats, for which there was no confirmation beyond exaggerated claims (“it was as big as a car”) or the usual blurry photos. “It is very unlikely that there are any big cats at large” was the conclusion.

The Sun “newspaper” reported this as “Official: No Big Cats in UK”, and printed this picture with the caption “Big cats are a myth … but if they don’t exist then how does the government explain these?”

The Natural History Museum has a neat little web page explaining how they were called in to examine what appeared to be the skull of a big cat, found on Bodmin Moor in the south of England. Discovering the truth involved not only comparative anatomy but also forensic entomology, and is quite enlightening.

Apart from the not-terribly-interesting possibility that a handful of poor Alien Big Cats (ABCs) may be roaming the British countryside, it’s probably more interesting to ask the question why people are so keen to believe in them…

Links:

Daily Telegraph article

Natural England report on big cats on Bodmin Moor

Wikipedia page on UK ABCs (caveat emptor, as with all Wikipedia pages)

30 Comments

  1. Bill
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 4:08 am | Permalink

    We get similar sightings here in Australia – blurry photos of (allegedly) big black cats in the outer suburbs of Sydney. Theories regarding escapees etc are very unlikely here because of our strict import regulations make it highly unlikely an animal has ‘gone missing’.

    • Brian
      Posted April 10, 2010 at 5:08 am | Permalink

      The Grampians* Puma!

      http://wanderinn.wordpress.com/grampians-puma/

      *not the original Grampians in Scotland, but the bizzaro – read dry – version in Victoria.

      • MadScientist
        Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:24 pm | Permalink

        That paw print is clearly a FOX. I don’t know of any cats (though I don’t know that many cats) that have a print anything like that. So I’ll believe that the paw cast is genuine (though it is a very nice impression – almost as if someone cut off a fox’s paw and pressed it to make the cast).

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:26 pm | Permalink

      I used to hang out with some big black cats in the outer suburbs of Sydney – we’d wander from pub to pub on Friday nights.

  2. Sili
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 4:35 am | Permalink

    errr …

    What am I missing here?

    It doesn’t look particularly big to me.

    • NewEnglandBob
      Posted April 10, 2010 at 4:57 am | Permalink

      You are missing the wonder, the excitement, the delusion of people with too much idle time.

    • Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:08 am | Permalink

      Assuming that’s a standard gauge track (1.435 metres apart), the animal would appear about the same length, including the tail.

      An adult leopard would probably be more than 2 meters, including the tail, but I think a smallish female adult would still be in that range.

      (Or a labrador)

  3. Posted April 10, 2010 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    It does not seem that unlikely to me that there are a few escaped large cats around the UK.

    These animals can be very elusive even in their native ranges. A friend with a ranch in South Africa tells me that he knows they have leopards — they find sign regularly — but he has never seen one.

  4. Torbjörn Larsson, OM
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    Reminds me of the popular kangaroo sightings a few years back here in Sweden.

    I guess the old “Storsjöodjuret” (en: The Beast of “Big Lake”) wasn’t interesting enough. Pity, since it was so obviously related to the Loch Ness monster.

    [Except that it originates from an old tale, first written down 1635, and the sightings began in the 19th century. Organized “capture attempts” started 1894.

    The scottish cryptid seems to be a later 20th century phenomena, unless there were local tales circulating before that. Organized “capture attempts” started first 1934.]

  5. Diego
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:56 am | Permalink

    I live in North Florida, which is well outside the range of the remnant Florida panther (Puma concolor coryi) population that survives in South Florida. But I frequently hear people, often woods-crafty and reliable people, describing seeing panthers here in the Florida Panhandle or in Georgia and Alabama. More often than not they add details which detract from the likelihood of their story though, such as melanism. But there does not seem to be have been a black color morph in any known puma population.

    The other big cat ideé fixe around here is the jaguarundi. I know of many reports of a jaguarundi population in the St Marks wildlife reserve. I don’t put much credence in these sightings either, although it’s a little easier to believe that this smaller species could persist under the radar.

    • Microraptor
      Posted April 11, 2010 at 8:54 am | Permalink

      Actually, there’s a population of pumas in South America that sometimes shows a black coloration.

  6. Posted April 10, 2010 at 9:07 am | Permalink

    What an interesting story! I recall a fairly recent incident in Southern California where a female jogger was attacked and killed by a cat, I think it was a cougar (mountain lion). So I don’t think rumors like the above our completely outside the realm of possibility.

    There is a huge problem being caused by selfish humans who take exotic animals as pets when they are young and cute and adorable. When the animal becomes too large, dangerous or uncontrollable, the humans simply let the animal go rather than taking responsibility for their actions. Due to that some species have established themselves whether they never otherwise would have existed.

    I love cats and will be following this story with interest.

    • Posted April 10, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink

      Except that cougars are native to California, and there are no extant large cats native to the U.K. 😉

      • articulett
        Posted April 10, 2010 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

        I think the implication is that this cat might be an alien (not from another planet– just from another geographical location) obtained by a human and then released to “the wild” when it was too big to care for. That certainly seems like the most likely explanation to me.

        Humans are responsible for many of these “alien invasions”. I just came across this article today: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/31/world/americas/31colombia.html

  7. llewelly
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    Zoologist Darren Naish has written a number of excellent articles on big cats in Britain. British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? , The lynxes in the garage, the leopard in Calendar Girls , Britain’s lost lynxes and wildcats , for a taste.

  8. anthrosciguy
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Tetrapod Zoology has a number of posts in its archives on the subject of big cats in the UK (and elsewhere).

    For instance: “Droppings collected in 1993 from Whorlton, County Durham, were identified by Hans Kruuk as from a Puma Puma concolor. This is a big deal because Kruuk is a world authority on the field biology and ecology of carnivorans, and he’s otherwise been openly sceptical of the existence of ABCs.”

  9. Posted April 10, 2010 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t look particularly big to me.

  10. Posted April 10, 2010 at 5:36 pm | Permalink

    There have been reports of a Black Panther in mid-Canterbury, New Zealand: http://www.mysteriousnewzealand.com/mysteries_strangeness/animals/bigcats/canterburybigcat.html

    Looks like a Misidentified Moggie to me.

    • MadScientist
      Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:20 pm | Permalink

      Hahaha – even that crappy photo shows very clearly this is a typical household cat (or one gone feral) and not a big cat at all. The features are simply all wrong. So much information and yet people believe the wrong things – and on the other end you have biologists correctly identifying animals from a mere fragment of a bone.

      I guess if you wake up drunk in a puddle of your own puke and have this cat sitting on your face you might imagine that it was a big cat.

    • MGG
      Posted April 10, 2010 at 9:05 pm | Permalink

      I tend to agree. It looks like it’s pretty well fed, but if it’s “very large”, that’s only relatively speaking.

  11. Janet Holmes
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 5:56 pm | Permalink

    Why are they always black? Most big cats aren’t, they’re striped or spotted. Seems a little odd to me.

  12. MadScientist
    Posted April 10, 2010 at 6:14 pm | Permalink

    The Beast of Bodmin Moor looks like Clip Art from the Mac Plus days being pasted onto an image.

    And don’t forget the UK’s favorite cryptobeast: Nessie. Although, admittedly Nessie isn’t generally thought of as a ‘big cat’, but maybe she’s a monstrous aquatic cat?

  13. Adrian
    Posted April 11, 2010 at 3:32 am | Permalink

    The Sun newspaper is nothing more than a comic publication that should not be taken seriously. They also promoted the idea that bathers in British waters were in imminent danger of being attacked by Great White Sharks.

    • Microraptor
      Posted April 12, 2010 at 10:33 am | Permalink

      People read the Sun for something other than page 3?

  14. Ian
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

    I live in Wakefield, West Yorkshire in the UK, and about 3 miles from Ossett!

    Although the siting is shown as Ossett the cat was seen several times in the locality (not by me) but a gentleman of my acquaintance, who has spent the majority of the past 40 years poaching game, came across something very similar on a reclaiming sand and gravel quarry adjacent to Wakefield Castle. This area, called Pugney’s Water Park, now consists of a large fishing lake, large boating lake, nature reserve and associated walks etc. In fact he saw the animal twice in two days and he said that if it wasn’t a panther it was a nearest thing. He said that he got withing 30 yards of it when it broke cover and described it as 6′-7′ long and as tall at the shoulder as his Lurcher.

    I don’t suppose that we will ever confirm one way or the other what it was but it adds a bit of ‘mystery’ and ‘danger’ to our dreary lives.

  15. Ian
    Posted April 12, 2010 at 1:20 pm | Permalink

    Incidentally, alongside Pugneys is the River Calder following the river upstream through fairly rough countryside there is a parallel canal and further on a railway and then Ossett.

    Who knows? It could just be right.

  16. Posted April 12, 2010 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Let me join the number who have identified the moggie as a moggie. As with the faked bigfoot traces, it makes the task of identifying and placing British ABCs harder than it otherwise has to be. That said, the English countryside is prime large cat territory.

    Now, who here knows about the jaguars of the American southwest?

  17. Heather Oates
    Posted April 23, 2010 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    I live in Leeds West Yorkshire and i never believed big cats were living wild.One night my father,my son and i were driving home late near Ossett when a black cat as big as a labrador dog crossed in front of the car.We could not believe it.His eyes shone yellow but he seemed relaxed.We stopped and he went into some wood land.We are not liars and we had not been drinking it was a black panther.

  18. Steven
    Posted May 18, 2010 at 8:36 pm | Permalink

    Hi all.

    It would be cool if pumas or leopards were living in outback victoria. but the problem i believe is that all of the pictures, footprints etc dont really have a good sense of scale, a blurry photo of a black figure in the grass could just be a dog or a domestic cat.

    Does anyone know how big a puma gets? i thought they grow bigger than a labrador but i may be wrong.

    if they do exist which the many many sightings would probably suggest that something is out there they could be domestic cats that have grown larger. a feral cat is about 2-3 times bigger than a domestic cat maybe after say 100-150 years in the wild they have grown 3 times bigger again…still cool though!

    • Mark
      Posted July 19, 2012 at 6:27 am | Permalink

      The arrogance of man never ceases to amaze me. pumas, leopards, could very easily hide from man, their senses much more acute than ours, their speed, cunning, power. there is more than enough food, water to support them in the uk, evidence is avaiable if people only look. and stop ridiculing a subject they know next to nothing about.


%d bloggers like this: