This paper slightly amended first appeared in the Autumn 2008 issue of the 'Skeptical Adversaria' (the Newsletter of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), pp. 4-5.
According to some people, one of the risks that we face in this country is being attacked by large members of the cat family which are roaming wild in our countryside and occasionally making their way into our towns and cities.
The Rossendale Free Press has previously provided me with material for use in this newsletter and recently it has again featured items that are of sceptical interest. (Rossendale is a collection of industrial towns, villages and farms in the Pennine hills and valleys of East Lancashire.)
The most recent one concerns sightings of UFOs, which are something of a local tradition now (along with the annual world black pudding throwing championship and the famous clogdancers, the Britannia Coconutters - see their website www.coconutters.co.uk, which includes details of how to become a 'nutter' and a moving poem entitled 'Owr Dick', celebrating 40 (now over 50) years of coconutting by their leader Dick Shufflebottom).
Well interesting things happen in the place where I was born (but that wasn't one of them - Ed.). Another one is the reported presence of big cats (i.e. lions, pumas, lynxes, etc.). The latest one to put in an appearance is the Huttock Top Beast. Under the headline 'Valley "puma" on the prowl' on 08.02.08, Mr Philip Ainsworth of Bacup is reported to have seen a large animal 'four or five feet long with a tail that was about three feet long'. The sighting was at night time on Saturday 02.02.08 in his neighbour's garden. The next day he found 'the paw prints it had made in the grass'. These measured 'four to five inches long and you could see the shape of the pads and the claw marks'.
Also included in the article is the testimony of Mr Terry Bork of nearby Huttock Top Farm. 'I have lost two ducks, a Chinese goose, five hens and two cockerels. It left the mallard and took two females. This is not a fox, because a fox would have taken the bird it wanted and ripped the heads off the others'.
Big cat sightings are not new in Rossendale. According to the Free Press article, in January 1995 a 'lynx-like' cat was seen near Ramsbottom, one of several sightings that have been reported in that area, and in October 1996 two terrified schoolgirls came face to face with Rossendale's 'mysterious panther' in Bacup. 'The sleek dark-coated animal they described was similar to one observed by then Burnley FC coach Brian Taylor and his wife the previous month'.
The article omits reference to the Rossendale Lion, sighted by 14-year-old schoolboy Owen Jepson in August 1984. 'I just saw its back legs and tail as it jumped over some rushes', Owen reported. 'The tracks were cat prints. I got a book out of the library and decided that it only matched up with a mountain lion'. Later a farmer, Geoff Dootson, living several miles north of this sighting, found several of his sheep had been killed and stripped of their flesh and a cow was mauled. He caught sight of a 'sable-coloured' creature, similar to a lion. David Nutter, acting police chief of Rossendale at the time, issued a public warning but a search proved fruitless and tracks discovered on top of a local hill were pronounced by an expert to have been left by a dog. No more was heard or seen of the Rossendale Lion.
I wrote on this topic in the July 2001 issue of the Adversaria and the 2003 issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer and I won't simply repeat what I said then, except to remind readers that sightings of big cats are common in the UK but the capture of one, alive or dead, is exceedingly rare.
I was therefore interested in an article in the Spring 2008 edition of The Cat ('The missing lynx' by Tom Briggs, pp 23-24). Quoted in the article is Neil Arnold, founder of Kent Big Cat Research, who has been recording sightings for 18 years and receives 200 such accounts each year. Mr Arnold will be speaking on this topic at the London Skeptics in the Pub meeting on Monday 17th November 2008 (see page 9 of this Newsletter).
According to Mr Briggs, 'Almost every county in the UK must have at least three or four black leopards - maybe producing two or three young a year - possibly a couple of pumas as well and that's without counting the smaller cats such as lynx, so I believe there are a lot more than people think'.
Has the body, living or dead, of any of these animals ever been obtained? The article in The Cat refers to three cases, one in 1980, one in 1991 and one in 2006.
The first was a puma captured near Inverness. 'Tame and refusing to eat anything other than cat food, the puma, later named Felicity, lived out her days at a wildlife park. She can now be seen stuffed in Inverness museum' (Sunday Herald, Jan 20, 2002).
The second case was a lynx, the body of which was found by police in a Norfolk gamekeeper's freezer when they searched his house after reports he had been killing birds of prey. The lynx, he said, had been shot while roaming near Great Witchingham-about 12 miles (19.3km) north west of Norwich.
The third case is that of a live lynx that was rescued in the back garden of a house in Golders Green, North London. London Zoo's Head Keeper of Big Cats, Ray Charter, and a colleague, Terry March, visited the scene. Said Mr Charter, 'We get numerous calls at London Zoo reporting big cat sightings and so far all of them have proved incorrect - it usually turns out to be a large domestic cat'.
According to an RSPCA spokesman, 'We believe someone was keeping this animal illegally and it has escaped. We are appealing for information from anyone who might know who the owner of this cat was'. I have not found any reports that the owner was traced.
It seems that the most plausible explanation for the presence of these three creatures is that they escaped from their owners or were released by them. One commonly cited impetus for releasing privately owned big cats is the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act which may have caused a number owners, who were unable or unwilling to comply with the conditions of the Act, to release their 'pets' into the wild.
In February 1994 big cat sightings were debated in the House of Commons. Responding to an adjournment debate initiated by Keith Simpson, MP for Mid-Norfolk, Elliot Morley said that the Ministry of Agriculture was aware of 16 big cats having escaped into the wild since 1977. Of those, 14 were recaptured within 24 hours and "the vast majority if not all" of subsequent reports had been due to misidentification.' So, having escaped they were easily re-captured. Interesting?
Some people (like Mr Briggs above) maintain that released or escaped big cats have been breeding and colonies have been established throughout the UK. A more ambitious claim is that big cats are actually indigenous: they have always been around but they are so elusive that they are rarely captured. The most fanciful notion is that they are supernatural.
Meanwhile, back in Rossendale things have been hotting up. Following an appeal by the Free Press for readers to report more sightings, more sightings have been reported. An anonymous reader contacted, saying that he had seen 'a black panther' on the moors around Rawtenstall (around 4 miles from the peviously mentioned sighting and on the same day). The man returned with his camera to photograph paw prints in the snow and noticed 'nine or ten carcasses of sheep' nearby. A 'sighting' the day after was reported by Jacqueline Coakley in Newchurch (further towards Bacup); the creature was completely black with a long tail. What the Free Press calls 'Sighting 4' was actually the report of some dead geese in the Bacup area; 'It can't have been a fox because a fox wouldn't have left anything' declared Glynn Taylor. Kevin Heap of Bacup reported being '50 yards from the beast'; 'It was definitely a puma-like cat. It was a little bit smaller than an Alsation'. Things went quiet, then under the headline 'Was dead fox found on the moors one of the beast's latest victims?' the paper reported the discovery of a freshly killed, half-eaten fox by Mick Lyons while walking on the moors above Edenfield (several miles from the first reported sighting). According to Mr Lyons, 'I had spotted some large footprints in the snow; they were larger than anything I had seen before but I didn't have my camera.
In the 30.05.08 issue of the paper another beast ('a large, jet black animal') was sighted in a field by Laura Elson and yet another ('jet black, like a panther') featured in the 18.07.08 issue. This was at the location of the first reported sighting in February.
Well, it would be very interesting indeed (and quite possible) if a big cat, such as a puma were roaming around Rossendale (or anywhere else in Britain). But it would also be very interesting (and quite possible) if one wasn't. Mr Ainsworth, who first reported a sighting, is hoping to capture footage of the creature using hi-fi infra-red cameras. I am prepared to bet that the authenticity of this animal will always remain unconfirmed and that the Huttock Top Beast will forever remain 'a mystery'.
The stories reported in the Rossendale Free Press may be accessed on the newspaper's website www.rossendalefreepress.co.uk.html.