Sunday, January 14, 2007
THE SCEPTICS vs BIG CATS
Okay, so scepticism is healthy, especially regarding 'big cat' sightings in the UK, maybe it's a good thing that such animals aren't believed because maybe then they can live their lives in peace...but the most irritating aspect of some sceptics is their sheer lack of knowledge of a situation and yet they persist in questioning it.
The most common sceptic in the field of exotic cat research is the one who calls to say, "Well, I haven't seen anything so these animals surely can't exist!"...., these people are almost as bad as the so-called researchers who are only looking into 'big cat' sightings in order to get in the newspaper. They are just as damaging to the situation as any hunter, yet they sit behind their PC all day, collecting reports for a mythical group who give out yearly statistics which the press gobble up, and who occasionally dress up like camouflaged lunatics and patrol the fields at night, praying for their precious sighting. The charge of the fright brigade.
The sceptics have many questions, some valid, some common and worryingly repetitive, some ridiculous. Yet I think they need to be answered.
1) How did these cats get here ? Well, despite the common theory that 'all' the animals out there in the U.K. today are escapees or felids released, this doesn't seem the case, as there are many reports of cats roaming the countryside which date back many, many centuries. So, why oh why does this theory constantly pop up as the answer for the populations of animals out there ? Yes, the influx of animals released into the wilds in the 1970s most certainly upped the numbers of exotics such as leopard and puma, but this is not the answer. This 'big cat' mystery as people like to call only seems reasonably modern because the press have only really shown a persistent interest since the Surrey puma sightings of the '60s, and then onto Exmoor and Bodmin, and those of today. Again though, I strongly believe that since the Romans settled here with their amphitheatres there has been a steady trickle of animals into the countryside, add to that travelling menageries, circus animals, private collections, cat mascots, cats imported on boats for purposes such as ratting, some animals escaping from zoo's..blah blah blah.
2) If these are cats are out there why aren't they seen more often, or by sceptics ? Well, they are. Just because some irritating sceptic hasn't seen one whilst on his pheasant shoot doesn't mean these animals aren't there. Sightings are very common but can only reach the press via witnesses or researchers. However, sighting statistics which feature in the press are not a true reflection of the amount of cats which are sighted yearly. For every large cat sighted there must be handfuls that aren't. Sightings are often pure chance, o quiet lanes witnessed by motorists, or in fields as a dog-walker strolls by. Not many cats are tracked and sighted. Just ask the impatient researchers out there who move from spot to spot in their camouflage, armed with binoculars and deer urine! It's not how it works...
3) If these cats exist (remember, sceptics are too obstinate to actually check the data) what are they eating, isn't Britain too cold for them, and why aren't these animals found dead ? Britain is perfect territory for a puma or leopard. The puma is native to varying climates, from the swamplands of Florida, the woodlands of Vermont, and the cold rocky terrain of Canada, so the U.K. isn't a problem. However, what many people seem to forget is that the cats in the U.K. are not being brought over from a country such as Africa and being released, they are very much British 'big cats', born here. The habitat is ideal, from forests in Scotland, to dense woodlands in Kent, but these animals can survive in a variety of surroundings, motorways, shopping centres, built-up neighbourhoods, rivers, streams, valleys, towns etc are not obstacles. These cats are mainly hunting at night so back gardens, parks, school playgrounds etc are common ground for them, and many sightings during the day also prove that these cats have vast territories that take in a variety of terrain.
Prey is also in abundance. Rabbits, deer, pheasants, swans, goats, pigeons, squirrels, lambs, sheep, domestic cats, small dogs, geese, chickens, mice, rats, foxes, the list is endless.
When people ask as to why large cats haven't been found dead on the roads or in woodlands I always ask back, "Have you ever found a dead fox in the woods ?", and often the reply is "No". So, if there are thousands of foxes out there, and far less cats, what are the chances of finding a dead cat ? Remote. A large cat may die in some remote area and be scavenged, but on the roads there have, in the past been a few incidents regarding animals such as lynx and jungle cat, hit by vehicles and killed. The only pathetic thing regarding such an unfortunate event is that usually someone from the RSPCA or whoever comes and clears the body away all hush, hush which seems a little ridiculous when you consider it's just a cat and not a monster, but because the officials and authorities refuse to accept these cats exist, they remain mere legend and myth, but I'm not sure why such animals are ignored. Maybe authorities fear mass hysteria but a majority of the general public either know these animals exist or couldn't care less.
Also, there have been cases where cats such as lynx have been shot and killed, but once again, these kind of incidents are few and far between.
4) If so many big cats are roaming the countryside, why aren't there more signs of them ? This was a question actually asked by a so-called 'expert' big cat keeper at a zoo. The answer is easy. There are signs, it's just a shame Mr Sceptic doesn't get out more often. Basically, there are several to signify whether a large cat is in the area. Paw-prints area prime example but not something I look for that often. Pathways in woods etc, are often disturbed or prints are often not clear enough to determine which animal made them, or they may not be easy to cast. However, a cat-print, if clear, is very different from a dog-print, as a dog doesn't retract its claws, but again, unless a print is clear, identification can be difficult and a waste of time.
Finding something like an eaten sheep, or goat is perfect evidence for big cat activity. There is no animal native to the U.K. that kills like a leopard or puma, and I still can't understand why sheep kills and the like are still dismissed or put down to dogs. Dogs are not stealthy animals that puncture the throat of prey and then cleanly strip the flesh, rasping with the tongue to leave a perfectly devoured victim. Also, a dog will not take a ewe into a tree, in fact all a dog often does is spitefully nip and tear at its victim, often maiming and leaving the scene. Foxes will kill to eat but generally make a mess of pigeons or chickens, whereas a large cat may leave a pile of feathers but no blood, or no remains at all of prey such as rabbit.
Excrement is also worth looking out for around a kill, and also hair that may have been caught on a fence, but one of the most impressive signs are scratch marks up trees. It is often the last place people look for a big cat and the leopard is an agile hunter that will lay up in a tree to store food or to rest. A leopard will also mark a tree, scoring it with its claws, scent glands in its feet enable it to mark its territory, and such markings will range from four-feet and upwards, whereas badgers, which also scratch trees will generally reach about three-feet and have five toes, the cat of course has four.
Other signs are strong smell of urine, although a fox will also leave this scent. Cat calls are also very distinctive, especially that of the puma which is a terrifyingly eerie scream. The leopard omits more of a deep sawing cough, the lynx bird-like chirps.
5) Are pumas black ? What is a black panther ? Why aren't normal 'spotted' leopards sighted in the U.K. ?
Despite the constant inaccurate press reports there is no such thing as a black puma. The puma is fawn-dark tan-coloured with a lighter underside and a dark tip to the tail. A black 'panther' is NOT species of cat but a mere term to describe a black leopard. However, because people often don't realise leopards can be black, they assume the animal they've seen is either a black puma or 'panther'. In the U.S. this is more confusing as the 'panther' is another term for the puma (also mountain lion, catamount and cougar) and there are sightings of black cats out there which locals tend to accept as black pumas, but a black puma is not something known to exist. Although dark specimens have been seen, there are not pumas on record as having a coat dark enough to be deemed black. The black cats sighted in the U.K., and possibly across the world are black leopards. This is a caused by melanin, a dark pigment to the coat. Melanistic leopards only give birth to black offspring hence the fact that only black (which in fat are very, very dark brown) leopards are sighted in the U.K. Across the world there may be exceptions where other melanistic cats may be sighted, or other dark coated cats such as the jaguarundi, but in most cases people are seeing black leopards. Sightings of the normal spotted leopards in the U.K. are extremely scarce, which points to the origins of the current populations as being that of exotic pets, mascots, etc.
6) Are there lions and tigers at large in the U.K. ? The only chance a lion or tiger could be on the loose in the U.K. is if one escapes from a zoo, even then, attempts to capture it should not be a great problem. The lion is not an elusive animal in its country of origin, they live in a pride, and like the tiger, will seek larger prey, possibly man. In the past there have been one or two reports of striped cats or animals resembling a lioness, but the fact that the reports died out suggested that people were possibly seeing smaller species of cat and wrongly identifying them, or nothing at all. Reports of cheetah and jaguar are also very few and far between, and one report in the '70s of a Clouded Leopard in Kent was true, it had escaped from a zoo, and was shot after being at large for eighteen months.
7) Why aren't there more attacks on humans if there are so many cats out there ? Again, prey in the countryside is abundant, the only chance there is if someone being attacked is if a cat is cornered, provoked or injured to the extent that it cannot hunt its usually prey such as rabbit. Puma have been known to attack in the U.S., joggers and cyclists are easy targets because as they flit through the trees they look like natural prey, but bees, deer and dogs cause more deaths each year. Leopards are known as man-eaters in their countries of origin but many of these tales are myth, and in the U.K. the so-called attacks that have allegedly taken place seem very dubious. Also, anyone that sets out to hunt a cat deserves to get a retaliation. Should anyone else come in close contact with a large cat such a puma, I advise they stand their ground then back off slowly always remaining in eye-contact with the animal. Do not run.
8) Are these cats breeding ? Whilst the Jungle Cat is able to breed with the domestic cat, a leopard would not breed with a puma, or lynx etc. Whilst attempts in zoo parks have produced strange hybrids, in the wilds this will not occur. There are no monster mutant cats out there, and in most cases where smaller black cats are being sighted, we are simply dealing with young black leopards, and the fact that these individuals have been born into a smaller environment, with smaller prey.
9) How many differing species of cat are out there exactly ? The most commonly sighted cats in the U.K. are the black leopard and the puma with lynx close behind. Reports of smaller cats such as jungle cat, ocelot, leopard cat, caracal and serval are far less, but I'm pretty sure that there is a variety of smaller felid roaming the U.K., but these are harder to track as these cats hunt smaller prey, and not every witness will be able to identify an individual in order for a researcher to track it.
10) If these cats are out there, why aren't the government interested ? I think they are, and there are officials monitoring some situations and several sightings across the U.K. are taken very seriously. Marksmen have been called out, unnecessarily to places such as Wales and in the west country to either suggest that they are on the ball or that they just want to be seen as doing something although they haven't got a clue. If a marksmen only injures a cat such as a leopard then they will no doubt create a very unhappy beast. Attacks on sheep are also monitored by bodies such as DEFRA, but again, if anything serious ever occurs such events seem to be dealt with in a covert manner which is rather pathetic.
11) How many exotic cats roam Britain ? It is too difficult to determine, as smaller cats are far harder to track, but each county in England most certainly has more than two black leopards and puma, and hundreds of years worth of sightings must surely suggest we are dealing with a very high number of animals, far higher than 'experts' estimate. It's a steady increase that may explode in twenty or so years. Two parents can produce up to four young, a rather worrying fact maybe ?
12) Do these cats have any legend in the supernatural or connections to 'black dog' reports in the past ? Anyone who believes that these cats are paranormal or 'demons from another world' need their head testing. The theory is laughable. Over the centuries reports of 'hellhounds' and the like seem common the world over and some may have been very old reports of black leopards when you consider that people at the time were not used to seeing melanistic leopards in the wilds and so when they saw, on a stormy night, a black animal bound up a tree, they may have believed they had seen a dog with supernatural agility but the reality is, the 'black dog' phenomenon is a very separate issue to the very flesh and blood 'big cat' situation. Large cats roaming the U.K. are not ghosts of prehistoric cats.