Thursday, October 1, 2015

Page 40: Alien Big Cats

Reports of panthers, pumas, and other large predatory cats roaming Great Britain have circulated for decades, despite the fact that its largest known native predator is the badger. This lack of large native predators makes Britain the poster-child for sightings of ABCs, which is short for “anomalous big cats” or “alien big cats” (so-called because they are not native). Such sightings are, however, not unique to Britain: Campion-Vincent (1992) describes the phenomenon in France; Italy has its felini misteriosi; and the United States—while home to jaguars, cougars, ocelots, lynxes and bobcats—often has reports of these animals well outside of their known natural habitats.

Internet star "Alien Cat Matilda" isn't the kind of Alien Big Cat we're talking about,
but she's just too cute to exclude. Image source: Alien Matilda website and webstore.
As Goss (1992) points out, most news reports of ABCs are brief, cursory, vague, and rarely followed-up. He identifies twelve general characteristics for these stories:
  1. An eyewitness (usually named) is said to have encountered a species of big cat not native to the British Isles.
  2. The setting for this encounter is likely to be some area of open land. […]
  3. The encounter is usually of brief duration (a matter of minutes) and may occur at day or night. […]
  4. The animal's description varies per report. […T]he only common characteristics shared by these animals are: that they are (in the witnesses' judgement) cat-like and (ditto) larger than normal domestic cats.
  5. One sighting of the cat may be connected (by the media) with reports of others within the same general area. These grouped reports may be separated by days, months or years. […]
  6. In many cases involving recurrent sightings, the animal may acquire a popular label: “the Margam Beast,” “the Thorganby Lioness,” “the Fobbing Puma” […]
  7. Stated or tacit is the assumption that the animals are, or could be, dangerous to humans—especially to children.
  8. Physical evidence of the alleged animals may be cited in the reports: slaughtered or injured livestock and pawprints […] Photographs are seldom produced, however.
  9. The typical report will cite or quote authority figures: the police, zoo officials, environmental managers, menagerie owners, naturalists and occasionally big game hunters. […]
  10. The favourite explanation for the presence of the cats is that they are escapees from zoos or wildlife collections, or perhaps released, unwanted pets. In the 'classic' reports, the owners are never traced.
  11. Organized hunts, official or unofficial, may be conducted. […]
  12. The mystery cat drops simultaneously out of sight and out of the newspapers. (p. 188–9).
There are so many ABC reports that in August 2007 the Fortean Times began a bi-monthly column called “ABCD” (Alien Big Cat Diary) to round them all up, beginning with a cover story summarizing the phenomenon plus three pages in small type filling four columns per page devoted to listing just the British sightings for the years 2003–2006! Yet for all these news reports, no dangerous cats have ever been captured. As Brunvand writes, “the legendary accounts have a consistency of motif and structure that betrays a migratory story rather than an actual displaced feline predator.” (p. 34). Monger (1992) has proposed a prototype urban legend in the seventeenth-century sightings of dragons in Essex and Sussex.

As urban legends, these stories are considered to be relatives of other urban legends about escaped zoo or circus animals, or former pets released to the wild. The “alligators in the sewer” myth is perhaps the best-known example of the latter. Other explanations are more fantastic, involving cryptozoology (e.g., an undocumented pre-ice-age survival; or, some kind of alien-domestic hybrid), teleportation, or even manifestations of negative energy such as poltergeists, daimons, or thought-forms.

Here's a documentary on ABCs that you can watch on YouTube:


For Further Reading

Jan Brunvand, “Big Cats Running Wild” in Encyclopedia of Urban Legends (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2001), 34–5.

Véronique Campion-Vincent, “Appearances of Beasts and Mystery-Cats in France,” Folklore 1992, 103(2): 160–83.

Michael Goss, “Alien Big Cat Sightings in Britain: A Possible Rumour Legend?Folklore 1992, 103(2): 184–202.

Merrily Harpur, “Big Cats on the Prowl,” Fortean Times, August 2007, 224: 33–9.

Samantha Hurn, “Here Be Dragons? No, Big Cats! Predator Symbolism in Rural West Wales,” Anthropology Today, Feb 2009, 25(1): 6–11.

George Monger, “Dragons and Big Cats,” Folklore 1992, 103(2): 203–6.

Jen Ogilvie, “ABC Survey 2003–2006,” Fortean Times, August 2007, 224: 40–2.

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