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)