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Eight years ago, while he was driving down a winding country road in east Dorset, Mike Coggan experienced something he cannot explain. On his way home, just after midnight, he saw a black labrador run out into the road in front of him. Then he looked again. “I got a really good view of it in my headlights, for several seconds; though it felt much longer. I was petrified. I couldn’t scream. There wasn’t – isn’t – a doubt in my mind.
“It was running just in front of my car. I could see this long, muscular black body, and this huge tail that curled up. There was no mistaking it for anything else. When I got back, I googled ‘black leopard’ and the hair on my arms stood up.” For eight years, he’s been expecting the story to break. “I thought, ‘someone’s got to get something soon.’”
Coggan runs Grizzly, a video and animation studio based in Dorset. “We had some downtime, and all this kit lying around. We sat round, thinking ‘what can we invest some time into?”’ The result is a documentary. “I really wanted there to be a conclusion – we’ve either got to find one of these animals, or look hard enough as to suggest they’re not there.” Coggan and his team decided to take on a decades-old legend with tech – lots of tech – and in doing so stumbled right into the heart of why the British big cat mystery is still so compelling.
In 60 years of scientific and technological innovation, there has never been so much as a shred of evidence – no smartphone footage, no bodies, no physical or biological trace – that convincingly suggests that the UK is home to a wild population of big cats. Yet despite this, the numbers of sightings have never slowed. According to the British Big Cats Society – a group that catalogues big cat sightings in the UK – there has been a big spike in new sightings during lockdown. And now a new generation of big cat hunters has taken up the mantle.
The Grizzly team started with ten camera traps. They captured footage of some deer, and then some of the traps stopped working, so Grizzly invested in a thermal drone. But they still weren’t coming up with any sightings. “It’s still just a lottery draw as to whether you’re going to be within a 50-mile radius of one,” Coggan says. Scoring images of a big cat started to seem like an impossible goal. “If one’s going to be found, then it’s going to run in front of a taxi driver with a dash cam,” he says. “We do come to a conclusion in the documentary, but it’s not a particularly satisfying one.”
Satisfying conclusions are hard to come by in this gig, as Rick Minter – the de facto authority on British big cats – can attest. Like Coggan, Minter came to the subject after an encounter of his own. Taking a break from a meeting at a countryside hotel, he looked out over the surrounding fields and saw what he now thinks was a small female black leopard. “It was a good sighting,” he says “for about 50 seconds or so, long enough to exclude everything else. I really challenged myself to confirm what it was.” Minter had seen the press reports, but until that moment hadn’t given the subject any thought. “I had what you’d call an agnostic disinterest.” At the time, he was an analyst at what is now Natural England, a government body advising on the responsible management of the countryside. “Straight away, I saw the bigger picture. With my blue-skies management hat on, I thought ‘if there are more of these things around, we’ve got an apex predator on our hands, and most people don’t even realise it.’”
Since leaving the agency, Minter has dedicated much of the last decade to British big cats, investigating the phenomenon, logging evidence, producing a fortnightly podcast and writing a book on the subject. He says he has twice briefed official countryside organisations on the animals and how to manage them, though these meetings were never logged. “Full briefings, but they were off the record of course. These things do go on under the radar,” he says.
Unlike Coggan, Minter isn’t interested in proving the cats exist. “I’m not thumping the table wanting these cats to become widely accepted; I’d be worried about the culture shock. To me the topic is about naturalising animals, requiring a citizen science process to help reveal more evidence and learn how these alpha predators are adapting to their niche.”
The sightings are nothing new. The first rumours of a wild big cat on the loose are more than half a century old, as police in the Surrey village of Godalming logged 342 sightings of ‘The Surrey Puma’ between 1964 and 1966. The latest reported big cat sighting came just last month. In the intervening years, there have been thousands of sightings – these are just the ones we know about – and dozens of monikers: the Beast of Exmoor, the Highland Panther, the Fen Tiger. In 1995, the government mounted an official investigation into The Beast of Bodmin, our most famous felid. It came up empty-handed.
But these expert denials don’t seem to have deterred big cat spotters. “It’s not like people are reporting hyenas and flamingos consistently,” says Minter, “but they are reporting leopard, lynx and puma.” The cats are seen by ordinary people, going about their daily business: groups of dogwalkers, cars full of policemen, beaters on a country estate. Some are higher profile – in 2014, Clare Balding was just three minutes into her BBC Radio 4 programme Ramblings, when she saw an “enormous… dog-size” black cat sauntering up the road. Most of the sightings are of ‘panthers’, or melanistic leopards, with muscular hindquarters, black coats and long, looping tails. The rest of them are made up by puma and lynx. Many witnesses claim never to have had heard of the phenomenon before their encounter, having no choice but to believe their own eyes.
The cats mean different things to different people. To some, they are paranormal. To others, they’re part of a government conspiracy. Cryptozoologists and folklorists both claim them as their own. The most credible theory suggests that the cats are descended from wild-scale releases in 1976, in the months leading up to the Dangerous Wild Animals Act: a piece of legislation intended to halt the growing trend of large exotic pets by implementing a costly license fee.
There is one piece of titillating scientific evidence that points to the cats’ existence. In 2013, Andrew Hemmings, a senior lecturer at the Royal Agricultural University, examined the skeletal remains of animals that had been eaten by an unidentified large predator and found that in some cases, the tooth marks suggested that a big cat, rather than a badger, fox or a dog was responsible.
But not everyone’s so sure. Robin Allaby, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Warwick, works mainly with ancient DNA, but just over ten years ago he started a side-line in ecological forensics. In 2012, the National Trust requested that he test the wounds on deer carcasses, after a spate of suspiciously cat-like kills. “Foxes,” Allaby says. “We found foxes all over them.” Since then, his genotyping service has tested carcasses sent by farmers, landowners and Rick Minter every few months. “Occasionally we’ve found domestic cat hits, though nothing like a panther.” In animals, Allaby says, size is easily changed and quick to evolve. “As an evolutionary geneticist I am interested in whether domestic cats are going feral and stepping into a bigger niche. I am perfectly prepared to believe that there are very, very big moggies out there.”
The most compelling piece of evidence for the existence of the animals, by some way, is the eyewitness accounts, thousands of them, that pile up year after year. But eyewitness testimony is not all that it seems, as anomalistic psychologist Christopher French explains. “For most people, the strongest evidence they can conceive of is their own personal experience, but perception and memory can be faulty, in lots of different ways.”
Our intuitive understanding of perception, French says, “is inaccurate. It is in fact a constructive process; the brain fills in gaps, such as colour and dimension, that the eyes cannot see.” Memory suffers the same pitfalls. Unlike a video camera, our recollection of events is incomplete: “when you remember something, you’re basing the event on memory traces that were formed at the time, but you’re also filling in gaps.” Perception is constructive; memory is reconstructive. “Add to that the influence of top-down processing, where we’re influenced by our beliefs, plus memory conformity, where one person’s account influences another person’s memory and there’s a lot of room for error.”
In this field, just two things are certain. That the cats are seen; and that so long as they are seen, people will try to find them. “Aside from the sense of community and the media coverage, it’s the lure of something so utterly mysterious,” French tells me. “And then there’s the hope that maybe, just maybe you’ll be the one to demonstrate that they’re out there and prove the scientists wrong once and for all. Every so often a large species thought to be extinct does turn up. It’s what behavioural psychologists would call partial reinforcement. That’s the strongest kind of reinforcement there is.”
The desire to stray past the boundaries of our knowledge is in our nature. “We’ve always sought out mythical beasts, French says. Think of bestiaries and medieval maps, ‘here be dragons’. We’ve always stood at the edge of the known, looking out, yearning for what’s beyond.”
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