Monday, April 30, 2007

P.T. Barnum and the Beastiaries of the Imagination

Over at the Querencia blog a while back, Matt M. reported that he had been reading a book called Big Foot Exposed, which was written by his wife's first cousin, who happens to be a specialist in primate anatomy and biomechanics. Big Foot data is looked at straight-faced and is -- not too surprisingly -- found wanting.

Meanwhile, over at the Tetrapod Zoology blog, the always-interesting Darren Naish went to a Big Cat conference in the U.K. and seems to have gotten sucked in to believing that there are large mystery cats running around Britain. Well maybe they're not large cats ... maybe they're little ones about the size of a house cat or a Scottish Wild Cat. Hmmmm . . . . could they possible be just house cats and Scottish Wild Cats?

On my end, I have to say I rather enjoy the cryto-zoology crowd because it's an odd alamgam of P. T. Barnum myth makers, city slickers that that have never touched a cow, country rubes easily fooled at the carnival, and regular folks with a deep-seated desire to find (please!) some level of mystery, fantasy and novelty in a world that is pretty well explored and explained.

At some level we all desperately want there to be a Santa Clause, a flying Yogi, a living T-Rex, and an anaconda large enough to swallow a house trailer.

If we canot find it, we will invent it, and who is to say that it does not exist? You cannot prove that the non-existent does not exist -- an interesting fall back position for every kind of fun thing from Sasquatch and Cold Fusion theorists to the Church of the Invisible Pink Unicorn.

It's a bit fun to stoke the fires of misbelief, as anyone who has even taken a troop of cub scouts "Snipe Hunting" at night can tell you. After you have them beat the brush for half an hour looking for a "snipe" (described as an animal that looks like a thin rabbit with a white stripe downs its back) you aim your flashlight up a tree and bounce it around a bit while telling the kids you just saw .... a Ho-Dag!

I plead guilty of pulling a few tricks like this. Regular readers might remember the "Chupacabra" that I reported the dogs killing a while back. The post came complete with pictures, and they were not faked. All I did was take a natural oddity, add a tall tale which I told straight, and presto -- a real Chupacabra.

In fact, my "Chubacabra" was nothing more than a groundhog victimized by four or five very large tumors that had distorted its body to the point that it looked like an alien beast. The purple color was due to the fact that the poor creature was dragging itself over nearby pokeberry plants as it tried to find food in the final days of its misery.

Similar "mystery creatures" are reported all the time, and in almost every case they are nothing more than a mangey fox or coyote, or a bear that has lost its hair or -- in some rare cases -- an escaped exotic pet like a mouflon goat or a wallabee.

The "Beast of Stronsay" turned out to be nothing more than a half-rotted basking shark.

Pulling people's leg is big business. I could point to Big Tobacco here (or the Bush Administration and Haliburton), but let me stick to the natural world and not digress too much.

Phineas T. Barnum made his fortune by parading people into a museum to see a "Feejee Mermaid," which was nothing more than a faked bit of taxidermy combining a monkey and a fish. That gag worked so well, he began parading a pair of retarded dwarf brothers from Connecticut around as the "Wild Men of Borneo," and he found a 5-year old midget he paraded around as an adult named "General Tom Thumb."

Today, thanks to PhotoShop, the gags have never been easier. In the great tradition of western postcards that show Rainbow Trout so large that just one of them fills a wagon pulled by a team of 20 mules, we now have pictures of massive sharks looming over surfers or jumping out of the water to snatch National Guardsmen off of ladders dangling from helicopters. Even video tape can be faked.

And yet, we want to believe. I regularly get interesting bits of stuff sent my way from folks who are sure it is true. After Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, an office mate sent me a picture of a giant alligator that was caught in New Orleans' streets. There was just one problem -- the picture was not an alligator, but a crocodile. I tracked down the origin of the picture in a few minutes ... ditto with the enormous snake "in Australia" that I quickly recognized as an African Rock Python.

Some of my favorite tall tales are the myriad "Beast of" stories that come out of the U.K. People who believe in such things are entirely immune to rational thought. Here's a hint: there are about 200 mounted fox hound packs working every inch of a very crowded U.K., and yet they have never turned up a big cat.

Yet people want to believe there is real danger in the English countryside -- never mind that the last wolf in the U.K. was shot dead more than 250 years ago, and the last bear more than 1500. If there is a dead sheep with a torn throat it must be a giant cat, never mind all the sheep-worrying lurchers that regularly get loose and go feral for a few days, weeks or months. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle understood the mind set well when he wrote "The Hound of the Baskervilles."

People want to believe and will suspend all logic to do so, and if it also helps sell a few newspapers and T-shirts, so much the better.

The folks around Loch Ness have a small business selling postcards, tours and trinkets. The same is true around Lake Champlain where the locals have invented their own version of "the monster" which they call "Champ." Add to the mix the Yetti of the Himalayas and the Sasquatch of the Pacific Northwest.

And while we're at it, let's not forget the thousands of "Jackaplope" heads gracing the walls of western bars and tourist stores in Wyoming, Colorado and Montana.

And, of course, if there is ever a Museum of Humbuggery, the alien autopsy gag has to get its own case, as does the running gag known as "crop circles," which turned out to be nothing more than a collection of pranksters with a bit of rope and a couple of two-by-fours.

The real story, however, is that most of the earth has been well-swarmed by biologists, hunters, anglers, explorers, bug collectors, small children, foreign aid workers, and old men. Sadly, on land and in the air, there is no longer too much new under the sun.

Not all mystery is gone, of course. About once every decade we find something as "amazing" as a new small deer or striped rabbit in the forests of Southeast Asia.

Several times a year a scientist or two declares he has found a new species of mouse, frog, large insect, or small bird.

The deep oceans contain a lot of things yet unseen and unnamed. Perhaps the Creature from the Black Lagoon really does exist .... somewhere ... out there.

And even if not, we can still sell a book, a movie, and a few T-shirts about it, eh? What's the harm in believing?



Darren Naish said...

Well, thanks for referring to my thoughts, but I must object to the idea that I have been 'sucked into believing in big cats' since attending the conference. Firstly, it's not a matter of 'believing': it's a matter of looking at evidence and then coming to the most likely conclusion. Secondly, I have been of the opinion for a long time that British big cats are a reality: the conference did not sway my opinion.

One of the points I've often made about British cats (on the blog and elsewhere) is that very few people outside the field of cat research seem to have any idea how good the evidence is. You should know that there is video and still photo evidence from Britain which shows, without doubt, members of large cat species living in our countryside. There are also definitive tracks, hairs that have been DNA tested, scat, cat-killed corpses (deer found lodged in trees etc) and dead bodies.

I appreciate your sceptical stance on cryptozoology, but remember that scepticism is not the same thing as rejectionism.

PBurns said...

Darren, do you believe there is a breeding population of lions, cougars, cheetahs, or black panthers in the U.K.?

Or do you simply believe that over 30 or 40 years there have been a few escaped exotic pets in the U.K.?

If the former, then I am amused. If the latter, then I have to shrug.

In fact, you yourself note "it is implausible that mammals this large could remain undetected in such small, crowded islands. They are escapees from collections..."


So you mean that's all it is -- a few escapees (all quickly killed or caught) from private zoos over the course of the last 30 years or so?

By that standard, New Jersey has Bengal Tigers.

Also, what do we mean when we talk about "Big Cats"? Calling a hybrid between a Scottish Wild Cat and a house cat a "Kellas Cat" does not make it a real species. In fact, it's nothing more than a completely indistinguishable from a regular feral cat to which has been attached the name of a mythological beast. If we are going to consider such things to be new species, then by God let's crank up the naming machine because there are hybrid everything at this point -- coyote-dog crosses, tiger-lion crosses, wolf-dog crosses, polar and grizzly bear crosses, falcon crosses, etc. Where I come from hybridization of a few (indigenous) animals does not a new species make.

As for evidence of Big Cats in the U.K., what evidence? The pictures are grainy (including the ones you yourself have posted), the video is not distinct, the tracks are muddied, and the physical bodies always seem to be of a pet or escaped zoo animal.

Don’t you think it’s a little bizarre that all the “Alien Big Cat” hunts with helicopters, infrared scopes, and the use of military troops have always failed, while the majority of large cats that are known to have escaped from zoos are caught or killed, generally within 24 hours?

You mention that there is a picture of "either a puma or black leopard" on the cover of Nigel Brierley's book "They Stalk By Night." Well there you go! Which is it? I mean, after all, these animals are not even the same color!

In fact all of the pictures of all of the "big cats" in the U.K. are of such poor quality you cannot tell what it is or where it is. Similarly the picture you show of a black blur tells us nothing, as there is nothing in the frame to suggest scale -- it could be (and no doubt is) a house cat or lurcher. Is it an accident that the infamous pictures of the Loch Ness monster were similarly defective?

Now I realize that paleontologists are used to taking two vertebrates, a tooth and a fractured femur and making a whole animal out of it, complete with life story. The Piltdown Man hoax depended on this tendency.

That said, big cat field biologists in the U.S. tend to use something a little more definitive to ascertain the presence of large felines: Hounds and rub pads.

When we want to track down a marauding cougar that has snatched a dog off of a porch (it happens several times a year) or killed a human (it happens once every couple of years), we release a few hounds and do not have too much trouble tracking the animal down. Yet, despite the fact that every inch of the U.K. is crawling with foxhound packs, your side seems to be able to find nothing. Are British hounds defective? Or could it be (perhaps) that the Alien Big Cats are simply not there?

As for rub pads, this is an established wildlife practice and very simple. Rub pads are nothing more than small bits of carpets with the tacks driven out the back and keened over into little hooks. The carpet is them soaked in a mixture of beaver castorem and catnip, and several rub pads are then *secretly* placed in the area where the animal is suspected to roam, and then the guard hairs of animals that rub up against the boards are analyzed. Secrecy is important, as it’s just too easy to plant tuffs of hair snatched from a bit of ancient taxidermy or even a zoo animal. For the record, when rub pads have been employed in the U.K., the only hairs that have turned up have been badger, dog, deer, feral house cat, and Scottish Wild Cat -- no cougars, leopards or anything else too exotic.

Not that getting things exotic is all that difficult. If you want a mountain lion or bobcat skin and skull (frozen and still green), they are readily available from the U.S. and can be shipped over for a price. Similarly, if you want a LIVE Scottish Wild Cat, see my friend Sue Rothwell in North Uist >> . Give her 6 months, and I bet she will even supply you with Kellas cats if you want ;)


Darren Naish said...

Hi Patrick, thanks for your response.

I respect scepticism more than credulity, so I appreciate your approach to this subject. However, I'm afraid that in this case, I think that you are simply expressing an opinion when you aren't personally familiar with the data. Sorry if that sounds rude. I will try and keep the following response brief.

Like it or not, the evidence we have indicates that, yes, at least some of the non-native felids present in this country are breeding. On terminology, it is correct that 'big cat' is a vague term. While some of the species present here (lynx, jungle cat and leopard cat) are not big cats, we are also talking about pumas and leopards (whether pumas are phylogenetically allied to true big cats remains a subject of debate). Both latter species are definitely present. Your assertions about lack of evidence and the failure of various efforts to find these animals are, I'm afraid, assertions and do not confirm with the data. A persistent problem with British cat research is that, for various reasons, little of the compelling data has been properly published (i.e., in the peer-reviewed literature). I and colleagues are hoping to change this. For the record, we're talking here about DNA evidence, tracks, scat and kills, in addition to definitive photographic data.

You're right that the quality of many/most of the photographic evidence leaves much to be desired but, at this stage, you have to acknowledge that most photos/videos of British cats have been taken opportunistically. It is not a case of a professional wildlife photographer sitting in a hide for a week, or month, or two months. The photos I mentioned or alluded to are, sorry, definitely of big cats, despite your comments. I would like to remind you that being sceptical about something (i.e., questioning whether a photo really does show a big cat as claimed) is not the same as rejecting it when you don't personally know its background (i.e., inappropriately dismissing it as showing a house cat or dog). I unfortunately cannot point you to the best bits of photographic evidence that exist (because they're not available on the internet) but, as I keep saying, there are now quite a few that indisputably, unquestionably show non-native big cats living wild in the British countryside.

Finally, you seem to be under the impression that Britain is crawling with foxhound packs. Prior to the 2004 Hunting Act, I understand that there were about 200 active packs in England and Wales. I'm not sure if that's a lot, or very few, for the area concerned, but I would say that there are huge swathes of the countryside that are not ever crossed by fox hunts, and this applies especially to the areas where the terrain is of the sort reportedly favoured by cats. I have no idea whether members of any fox hunt have ever managed to scare up a cat and am making enquiries. As for rub pads and other methods of collecting hair, tracks etc., efforts to employ such techniques are currently underway (it is only in the past few years that interested people have made serious efforts to obtain good physical evidence for British big cats) and have so far produced promising results. I am in touch with colleagues who are DNA-testing hair samples that have been recovered from multiple sites in the country. Two batches of hair from the British countryside have been identified as originating from lynx and leopard.

All in all, while – as I keep saying – it's good practise to be sceptical, it is not good practise to reject something out of hand just because you find the idea unlikely or strange. At the risk of being in the unsatisfactory position of continually referring to evidence that is either not widely available or is unpublished, I will say that this is a subject that does not deserve to be rejected out of hand.

PBurns said...

I have to say Darren, that you sound a little naive about practical wildlife matters.

Unlike you folks in the U.K., we in the U.S. actually DO have cougar, bobcat, ocelots, jaguar, wolves, lynx, coyote, bears, and wolverine, to say nothing of fox (several kinds) and badger. Because some of these animals are endangered, and because all are prone to conflicts with humans and development, we have quite a bit of experience not only tracking their numbers but also tracking their distribution. Not only can we tell you if we have Lynx in Minnesota (we do), but we can tell you how many individual animals there are in each county of that state. We can do this because locating cats (large or small) is not that hard with modern rub pads and automatic infra-red cameras -- much easier than tracking rare lizards, rare birds, or rare butterflies, for example.

A second point: A breeding population of large cats in the U.K. would not only require that TWO large cats of the same species be released at almost the same time (since no known escaped cat in the UK has ever gone a year without being killed or caught), but that they be released in the same small area, be of the opposite sex from each other, and be fertile (many captive large cats are spayed to prevent overpopulation and reduce aggression). Most importantly of all, those two large cats (which would each have cost thousands of dollars and required a large enclosure to keep, etc.) would have had to have gotten out without anyone ever putting up a notice or making an effort to recover them. Sound likely? Not to me.

As for big cat DNA, you might want to go slow here unless you actually know the people doing the collecting, they are top-flight biologists with established reputations (i.e. they actually know what the hell they are doing), and you fully understand the collection protocols. The bottom line here is that big cat hair DNA is very easy to fake and has been faked before. You can read a little more about that here >> but suffice it to say that anyone cat pluck hair from a taxidermied mount, and it's already been done.

Finally, let's discard the "secret evidence" nonsense. Claims of "secret data," is the stock in trade of humbuggery and always has been from Roswell Space aliens to claims that the CIA faked Marilyn Monroe's death so Bobby Kennedy could spend more time with her.
Anyone in the U.K. who could prove the claim that there are large wild cats "breeding in the wilds" of the U.K. would be going for the Big Publicity prize and could not be shut up about it. In fact, they cannot be shut up about it now. Unfortunately, a quick look at all the "Alien Big Cat" web sites, film specials and magazine articles and you come away laughing at the supposed "evidence". Even the television producers and science-fiction magazine editors cannot help but openly laugh at the tomfoolery of it (See Fortean Times at

If your fall back position is that there might be a few small tabby-cat sized, non-breeding escapees from the world-wide trade in exotic pets somewhere in the U.K., well *sure* that very could be. That's pretty far from big cats stalking Exmoor, however, and not much more than a big yawn. Feral domestic cats have existed all over the world since the beginning, and they present in an astounding variety of colors, sizes and even shapes. I have personally hooked some very large feral cats out of the ground when digging with the terriers, and some have been quite fierce. Could these animals have been cross-bred Savanah cats rather than the "old-moggies gone wild" that exist here there and everywhere? Sure, I suppose. But as a general rule, when I hear hooves I assume horses, not zebras. In any case, Elsa the Lion they certainly are not. If this is the "Beast of Bondwyn" then you folks have pretty tame lives over there.

As for the coverage of mounted fox hunts in the U.K., it really is all of the nation as far as I can see. Take a look at the "Hunt Country Maps" at "Old Norris' Fox Hunting Page" >> or at the Masters of Foxhound site in the UK. I think you will see the entire countryside is pretty well hunted, and since a Big Cat's ranger is going to be registered in terms of dozens of square miles, not scores of acres, I think we can say a mounted pack should have found *something* in the last 20 years.

These maps, of course, only include the *registered* foxhound packs and do not include the unregistered foxhound packs (quite a few), the beagle packs, the walk-about terriermen, the folks running lurchers, the shepherds with their dogs, etc. No Big Cats found so far I am afraid.