Why are Britons seeing large, muscular black cats?

Thousands of Britons have reported seeing "beasts" in various places, usually described as a large, muscular black cat -- possibly a melanistic leopard. Some have taken photos and found footprints, as well as animals torn apart on moors. However, the boring science people annoyingly keep pointing out that the photos could be housecats, the footprints come from housecats and domestic dogs, and the animals were torn apart by badgers and crows.

Still, there's something weird and interesting going on here -- the thousands of similar eyewitness reports point to a kind of "beast fever" fuelled by (what else?) the Daily Mail's printing of stories that, for example, described a beast with "great fangs jutted from its huge jaw, gleaming in the afternoon sun" (it was revealed to be a "putrefying seal").

George Monbiot writes about this in his new book Feral, which comes out next week and was excerpted in today's Guardian:

The age of terrestrial exploration and encounters with peoples unknown to us was ending; planet Earth was perhaps a less exciting place than it had been. Aliens and their craft filled a gap, while promising that we too would achieve the mastery of technology we ascribed to extraterrestrials. Today, perhaps because our belief in technological deliverance has declined, we hear less about UFOs.

Could it be that illusory big cats also answer an unmet need? As our lives have become tamer and more predictable, as the abundance and diversity of nature has declined, could these imaginary creatures have brought us something we miss?

Perhaps the beasts many people now believe are lurking in the dark corners of the land inject into our lives a thrill that can otherwise be delivered only by artificial means. Perhaps they reawaken vestigial evolutionary memories of conflict and survival, memories that must incorporate encounters – possibly the most challenging encounters our ancestors faced – with large predatory cats. They hint at an unexpressed wish for lives wilder and fiercer than those we now lead. Our desires stare back at us, yellow-eyed and snarling, from the thickets of the mind.

Big-cat sightings: is Britain suffering from mass hysteria? [George Monbiot/The Guardian]

(Image: 20120413, a Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike (2.0) image from tomascosauce's photostream)


  1. The author’s confidence the cats are not real is amusing. My mice thought the same thing. I no longer have mice.

  2. This isn’t a new phenomenon  One of the more obscure Arthurian legends involves Arthur & his knights hunting a terrible cattle-mutilating beast, the “Cath Pulag,” that was ravaging the countryside. It was described as distinctly feline, and quite large.


  3. I live right near the Forest of Dean, which is one of the major areas these cats are sighted in (though thinking about it, that’s probably true of any large woodland area). My mother likes to go for 10-20 mile runs round the forest on the weekend and swears that she’s seen a large cat at least once. No idea whether she did or not, but she’s an otherwise fairly sensible person, so I can definitely see this sort of thing being easily propogated.

  4. I don’t know how big and mean they’re talking about, but feral cats can get pretty muscular.  There was one cat that always hung around my neighborhood growing up that was like that.  We just called it the Wild One.  It had no tail, presumably from some fight early in its life and one ear was pretty messed up, but the thing was the Schwarzenegger of cats.  You could see the muscles on its legs even through the fur. 

    Our cats gave it a wide berth.  On the plus side, nobody in the neighborhood had problems with moles after it showed up. 

  5. “Today, perhaps because our belief in technological deliverance has declined, we hear less about UFOs.”  What planet is he on?  There are more UFO stories with phone videos to go with them every day…

  6. It’s totally understandable. Nothing sparks my imagination like the words “animals torn apart on moors”. 
    Perhaps someone should take the initiative and secure the services of Sherlock Holmes.

  7. I literally saw one of these cats in Ireland – or at least a similar beast. It was in May of 2011, near the town of Cong, near Ashford Castle. Driving down a windy country road early in the morning, my wife and I (on our honeymoon) saw a large black cat padding down the road towards us. Before I could get out my camera, it bounded into the brush, tail swishing. It had large paws, short ears, and moved in a distinctly feline manner – we both agreed we had seen a big cat, about the size of a large dog, like a labrador. We didn’t realize cats were not in the area, until we asked some biologists at the National School of Falconry what kind of cats there were in the area – they insisted there were none.

    Since then, we’ve seen these reports of big black cats, found legends of the “Lucky Irish Bog Cat.” I know what I saw with my own two eyes, and it was definitely a cat. I really wish I’d managed to take a picture or preserve some evidence!

  8. Similar sightings happened in northern France a few years ago.
    The official version is that the beast is just a normal housecat, usually black, seen in an open grass field. The police sells it as “it is difficult to get visual perspective clues in open landscapes, even more so in the flatlands near Belgium, wich leads to mistaking the real size of the cats. Also, all northerners are drunks, and we despise them.”

  9. If there’s one thing I’ve learned from watching Doctor Who, it’s that if ordinary people in Britain are reporting sightings of strange, mysterious creatures, it means that an alien invasion is imminent.

  10.  Why are they seeing them? Well, for one thing because they exist. Sure, there’s tons of mistaken sightings and the like, but it’s rather hard to argue against the existance of a leopard’s body lying on the table in front of you or DNA analysis. Most seem to be lynxes or leopards. They figure that a lot of big cats got released into the wild when the UK introduced laws regulating the keeping of exotic animals as pets. That said most purported encounters turn out to be something else entirely. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/British_big_cats

  11. “camera traps”?  come-on someone mention that such have been set and: (a) they came up with nothing or (2) “look at this blurred image!!”  (let alone fewmets or fur)   (“Because a large canine on the moors would be hackneyed, that’s why”)

  12. There’s an analog to this here in the US. Over the last forty years there have been dozens sightings of black panthers in just Michigan, and hundreds there in the last century. In the Eastern US there have been thousands of sightings.

  13. “…our lives have become tamer and more predictable”

    This guy has obviously never walked through a UK city at 11:30 on a Saturday night.

  14. Maybe they’re just seeing Jaguars in their “car” form, and getting confused?  I dunno, you can’t trust British people.

  15. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1469-7998.1992.tb04832.x/abstract

    Maybe this isn’t the most convincing citation in the world, but it seems pretty short-sighted to say that science is on one side and all-the-dumb-people’s-empirical-evidence is on another. After all, while their interpretation may be flawed, it does seem that a lot of people have been seeing something that–unlike UFOs–has multiple plausible explanations for its actual existence as something at least slightly distinct from housecats.

  16. Clearly there’s either a batch of bad acid going around there or someone is busy churning out large, muscular black cats using advanced 3D printing equipment.

    Nothing much to see here. Please move along.

  17. There are countless similar stories here in the States. (Of course, it might be more readily believed that large cats are prowling the US than Britain.) The reality is that there is a long folk tradition associated with cats, both large and domestic, and that “sightings” of this sort can be traced back as far as the Middle Ages. Rashes of sightings appear cyclical and seem tied to larger economic or social unrest.

    1.  Yeah, but we do get melanistic mountain lions/cougars/catamount/etc…, and down in the southern states like New Mexico, there have been black jaguars photographed (one assumes displacement from Mexico proper).  So the “Large Black Cats” here in the USofA isn’t that far fetched.  Probably not common, but not unrealistic.  My understanding is that that part of Europe has no native large felines, so one would have to assume released exotic feline, or “mass hysteria”.

      Then again, here in the US, tons of people “see” chupacabras…

  18. The plural of anecdote is data.
      — Raymond Wolfinger, 1969-70 lecture series.

  19. I can also vouch that these stories also pop up about a panther or some sort roaming around the northern outskirts of Melbourne, AU.

    Now that most people have cameras on their phones, you’d think we’d get some pictorial evidence of this.

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