This paper, slightly amended here, first appeared in the Summer Issue of the 'Skeptical Intelligencer' (the magazine of ASKE, the Association for Skeptical Enquiry), Vol 6, 2003, pp 3-7. There is a follow-up paper on this website.
This issue of the Skeptical Intelligencer contains papers concerning 'reported sightings of unusual creatures'. 'Unusual sightings' covers a wide range of phenomena of interest to skeptics and includes reports of such things as fairies and elves, angels, ghosts and spirits, extraterrestrial beings, and even Elvis. These claims demand the attention of skeptics usually because a significant number of people accept their veracity despite the lack of any good evidence and despite the fact that their existence would contradict our present understanding and knowledge of the world and would have extraordinary consequences for it.
By 'creatures' here is meant non-human animals, living wild, and presumed to be of terrestrial origin. 'Reported sightings' refers to written or oral accounts by anyone (experts in various fields such as zoology or anthropology, or members of the public) and sometimes the production of material evidence such as films, photographs, drawings, sound recordings, casts of tracks, and animals that are believed to have been attacked and sometimes killed by the creature in question.
The creature whose existence is being claimed may be considered unusual for one or more reasons. For example, there may be strong or overwhelming evidence that it has been extinct for many years. An example of this is the claim that the many sightings of the 'Loch Ness monster' suggest that a colony of plesiosaurs inhabits this and other inland waters, even though these creatures are thought to have been extinct for over 60 million years. Alternatively, the claimed sighting may be of an extraordinary and unrecognised species such as Sasquatch or yeti. Other reported sightings are deemed 'unusual' because, although the animal itself is a known extant species, it is not regarded as being indigenous to the area which it is reportedly inhabiting or as being able to survive in the conditions that prevail there. Reported sightings of large cats such as panthers and lynxes in the UK (and in other countries) are examples of such.
The above collection of defining attributes of 'reported sightings of unusual creatures' does not in itself suggest that our chosen subject should be of any particular interest to skeptics other than those working in the relevant academic disciplines. No doubt mainstream zoologists, for example, conduct research and have debates and fierce disagreements concerning the existence of species, their habitat and distribution, and so on, without all of this becoming a matter of fascination for the media or the general public.
I have no claim to any special expertise in this field, which I understand is known as 'cryptozoology'. Nevertheless it does appear to be one to which knowledgeable individuals from a range of disciplines are able to make a significant contribution - e.g. zoologists, palaeontologists, anthropologists, historians, psychologists and archaeologists.
Reported sightings of big cats in the UK have been widespread and frequent for many years. According to the British Big Cat Society (BBCS; see note 1) there was a record number of 1,077 recorded sightings in 2002. These were from every quarter of Great Britain. According to the BBCS this may represent only between one-third and one-half of all sightings. Although such animals have been caught or killed, it appears very rare for such sightings to be thus verified.
A contemporary example is that of the frequent sightings of at least two large cats in the Bushmills-Ballycastle area of North Antrim. Several sheep carcasses are thought to be the result of killings by these animals. According to the Ulster Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals these two cats are believed to be one of four on the loose in Northern Ireland. At least one of these cats, thought to be a puma, is reported to have escaped from a North Antrim safari park. Again, however, extensive police searches have been fruitless. In the author's own locality (South Yorkshire, Humberside and the East Midlands) big cat sightings are frequently reported. It was recently announced on the local television news that someone may have shot the most recently reported big cat in response to an offer of prize money in a shooting magazine. However, to my knowledge there have been no recent captures or discoveries of the dead bodies of such animals.
If the number of sightings is commensurate with the actual number of large cats on the loose then we obviously have an interesting and important, not to say extraordinary, phenomenon. Even so, the claim that sightings of alien wild animals roaming the countryside (and sometimes urban areas) are occasionally authentic does not run contrary to rational thinking or scientific knowledge and therefore does not immediately warrant the attention of skeptics. There are plausible explanations that do not dispute the authenticity of the sightings. These include escapes from safari parks or private collections or the deliberate release of the animals by owners who can no longer keep them or, so it has been reported, who wish to hunt them down for amusement. However, it appears that the frequency and ubiquity of such sightings are out of all proportion to direct evidence of their existence (i.e. dead or alive captures). 'Big cat' enthusiasts assert that this anomaly is explained by the innate secretiveness and evasiveness of these animals, which enable them to avoid capture. Whether such an assertion has any credence should be left to the true experts on big cats. However, many skeptics will find this all too reminiscent of sightings of non-existent phenomena such as ghosts, extraterrestrial aircraft and aliens, mythical monsters and so on. Hence an explanation is required that goes beyond the flat assertion that 'they are all out there'. Also of interest to skeptics are some of the more unusual interpretations that are occasionally offered to account for the proliferation of reports of big cat sightings.
When the phenomenon of reported sightings of unusual creatures is studied from the perspective of my own discipline, namely psychology, several characteristics stand out in addition to the disproportionate imbalance between sightings and hard evidence.
Firstly, so far as public interest is concerned, the 'unusual creatures' reported tend to be large and even monstrous and frequently menacing or dangerous. In the UK, for example, we have big cats, huge black dogs, aquatic monsters and man-like beasts. By contrast, as I thumb through popular books on 'unexplained phenomena' or newspapers cuttings on sightings of unusual creatures, I find little mention of reports of antelopes, zebras, monkeys, racoons, etc. Similarly, the creatures in question are imbued with mystery and in some cases mythology, even when, as in the case of big cat sightings, prosaic explanations are offered for their presence such as those mentioned above. This characteristic is evident in the titles of books and other literature - cf. Mystery Cats of the World (by Karl P.N. Shuker), Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall (by Chris Moiser), They Stalk by Night (by Nigel Brierley), and The British Big Cat Mystery. Once a phenomenon is labelled a 'mystery' it tends to remain so even when plausible and mundane explanations are available - viz. the Loch Ness monster, 'Teggie' (in Bala Lake), 'Morgawr' (the Cornish sea monster) the Surrey Puma, the Beast of Bodmin, the Fen Tiger, the Big Grey Man of the Cairngorms, and the Grey King of Snowdonia.
Also of interest to psychologists and skeptics generally are the explanations offered for the alleged sightings. These explanations are based on certain assumptions, some of which are more likely than others. For example, in the absence of evidence in the form of the dead or alive capture of the creature in question, many feel it appropriate to adhere to the null hypothesis, namely that there is no 'unusual creature', and therefore the alleged sightings are misperceptions or hoaxes. With so many sightings, this account requires the assumption that people are easily deceived, easily deceive themselves, and are rather predisposed to deceive others.
I believe it is generally the case that most people underestimate the extent to which all three of these assumptions are valid. As a psychologist, I have no such problem accepting these assumptions; neither do I think have most skeptics, given the widespread deception that characterises reports of many unusual and paranormal phenomena. Hence, for example, we should not be too impressed by announcements of record numbers of sightings when, at the same time, people are being encouraged on websites and by other means to send in forms that document their own sightings.
Neither am I too impressed when the authenticity of sightings is supported by references to the personal qualities of the observer (e.g. 'Daffyd Evans is a down-to-earth, no-nonsense Welshman, not given to flights of fancy, but what he saw that cold December night……'). Daffyd Evans may be a Welshman, but so long as he is an ordinary human being, one characteristic he will undoubtedly possess is the capacity to misperceive and be deceived (see note 2). The same goes for sightings reported by experts: a couple of years ago an unusual sighting in Nottinghamshire was supported by the statement made by the observer, 'I am a vet and I know the difference between a panther and a dog!'
I have, in fact, long suspected that a paradox exists concerning claims of unusual sightings namely that the greater the possible mistake, the more we refuse to admit that we may have made one (see note 3). For example, we may easily admit that what we have reported as a deer swimming in a loch could in fact have been a floating log than if we claim to have seen an aquatic monster: 'I know a log when I see one!' we may be inclined to protest. This is an idea that could be investigated experimentally.
While the reasons for misperceptions and misconceptions have been widely studied, it seems that less attention has been paid to the reasons why people deliberately deceive. What motivates people to perpetrate hoaxes? Again those who are familiar with the skeptical literature on unusual and paranormal claims will be all too aware of the readiness whereby people will deliberately resort to deception and fraud. The most notorious of hoaxes occur in the form of faked evidence (e.g. the 'surgeon's photograph' in the case of the Loch Ness monster, the film of Big Foot, the photographs of the Cottingley fairies, and the many crop circles; also we must not forget the case of 'Piltdown Man').
Human nature is such that there is no reason to suppose that such hoaxing does not also extend to the simple announcement of entirely fabricated claims of sightings and encounters. I am sure that the reasons why people perpetrate hoaxes are many and varied.
None of this is to say that there is no evidence to support the claim that there is a plesiosaur in Loch Ness or other Scottish lochs or that big cats are loose in many parts of the UK. Skeptics are often in error when they proclaim, 'There is not a shred of evidence for (some extraordinary assertion)'. Usually there is indeed evidence and, in the case of claims about big cats, plausible reasons are available to support their authenticity. This may be so, even if the evidence in the form of reported sightings may be insufficient to persuade, while the rational explanations - the accidental or deliberate letting loose of such creatures, etc. - may not turn out to be correct. (And judging the plausibility of the latter is the province of experts, amongst which I am not numbered.)
For my own part I see no reason why large cats should not occasionally escape or be released into the wild. Knowing what we do about human nature, it is entirely conceivable that these rare creatures and the public interest and excitement that they arouse are sufficient to account for the extraordinary ubiquity of this phenomenon. But that is not to say that this is the sole explanation.
It may, for example, have been the case that a puma- or panther-like creature was once let loose in the Surrey countryside or on the wilds of Bodmin Moor and initial reported sightings were authentic. Thus, sufficient impetus was created for the transformation of fact into fiction and even myth, all subsequent beliefs and claims being without foundation. In other words, at one time there was really something in 'it' but now, the frequently reported sightings and other evidence do not require that there is anything in 'it' at all. But for that reason alone, 'it' is still an intriguing phenomenon.
As I earlier stated, some explanations require more far-reaching assumptions than others. In the case of big cat sightings, for example, some assert that far from being solitary creatures, these animals belong to small breeding populations. Once more I defer to experts in zoology to provide an opinion on such theories.
There is nothing, so it appears to me, mysterious about the interpretations so far offered for big cat sightings. Even more ambitious, however, is the claim by enthusiastic writers such as Di Francis (see note 4) that reported sightings are evidence that at least some big cats are not only from breeding populations but that these are indigenous and have lived in this country for hundreds and thousands of years. Again I defer to animal experts to give a definitive opinion on this matter. In my own untutored opinion it appears that when we move towards such accounts we are moving too far away from the available evidence.
Yet it is, and always has been, a characteristic of human nature to create mysteries around natural phenomena, either those that we have not fully explained by existing knowledge or when existing knowledge is deemed insufficient by enough people. Hence we may explain, for example, crop circles mundanely as the work of humans or mysteriously as the work of strange forces, extraterrestrials, some hidden intelligence and so on. (At one time the true nature of rainbows was not understood and they were endowed with mystery or religious meaning - e.g. a reminder from God of the Great Flood).
Likewise some consider that the mysterious big cats that we keep seeing will never be caught - they are not like the average big cat. More mysterious yet is the belief that they are in fact ghosts of creatures that once roamed the land thousands of years ago.
The phenomenon of reported sightings of unusual creatures interests me for several reasons. Firstly it illustrates many aspects of the more general set of phenomena that interest skeptics. Secondly, as I stated at the beginning of this article, experts from a range of disciplines can make a contribution to the debate as well as lay persons with their own experiences of life. If it turns out that a lake somewhere eventually yields a monster, or a breeding colony of big cats is finally prove to be on the loose on Exmoor or Bodmin Moor then the world is thereby a more interesting and exciting place. But if nothing at all is there, we do not simply pack up and go home; it is still fascinating that so many sane and sensible people truly believe that they did see an unusual creature and it is a challenge for us to understand why.