Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Hmmm

phantom-cat

(Photo: olibac/Flickr)

The Mystery of Britain’s Alien Big Cats

• August 20, 2014 • 12:00 PM

(Photo: olibac/Flickr)

In a nation where the biggest carnivorous predator is a badger, why are there so many reported sightings of large cats?

In 1983, a farmer in South Molton, a small town in the southern English county of Devon, reported a startling loss in livestock: 100 sheep had been killed, apparently violently, over a period of three months. Their throats had been slashed across. For many, the slaughter confirmed the area’s vague but persistent legend, sighted since the early 1970s, of a large, possibly phantom cat. Named for the hilly moorland it was said to roam, they called it the “Beast of Exmoor.”

The public reacted swiftly. The Daily Express offered the equivalent of a $1,600 reward for video footage of the Beast. More surprisingly, the British government sent a group of Royal Marines snipers into the hills to find (and possibly kill) the creature. The seriousness with which they treated the mission can probably be assessed through the name they gave it: “Operation Beastie.” Still, the snipers looked for three nights, until the Ministry of Defense called off the search due to concerns they might mistakenly shoot one of several reward-seeking amateur photographers thought to be on the same hunt.

It’s unclear exactly how many people actually saw the Beast—by some accounts, a few of the Marines did see something, though after the search’s end the Express stated that the only witness was a 16-year-old girl being driven to work. “At first I thought it was a cat but it was too big for that,” she said. “It was black and had a long tail. There was white on each foot.”

The trouble with a monster that’s said to look mostly just like a normal house pet, but a little bigger, is that it can be hard to know the difference. Superintendent Douglas McClary, also quoted in the Express, conceded (rather troublingly, I think), “Until we shoot the damned thing, we don’t know what it is.”

ACCORDING TO THE BBCGreat Britain’s largest and deadliest carnivore is a badger. And yet, there is a legendary feline monster for every moor and field, each one named like a duke: The Beast of Bodmin. The Beast of Burford. The Wildcat of Woodchester. Phantom cats have been spotted worldwide, but they’re a particularly British phenomena. They’re variably called British Big Cats, or mystery cats, or Alien Big Cats. (ABCs, for short.)

It’s important to note that, despite everything the name “phantom cat” conjures up, British Big Cats are not widely considered to be paranormal in nature.

There is a citizen group of researchers devoted to their study: the British Big Cat Society. (On the left-side navigation bar: “Big Cat News.” “Big Cat Links.”) By their most recent report, 2,123 big cat sightings were reported between April 2004 and July 2005.

As it goes with any mystery, the vast majority of these sightings aren’t supported by anything more than a story. But there are pictures, and a handful of videos. The British Big Cat Society collects them, but reserves most viewing privileges for its dues-paying members. Its public page does provide, along with a few other photographs, a still from a famous two-minute video taken in 1994 by a man named William Rooker. It’s blurry and small, but it does seem to show a fairly big black cat roaming a field. This one’s name is the Fen Tiger, of Cambridgeshire.

Another video, taken in 2009, coincided with an alleged sheep-killing spree in the area. It, too, is blurry, but there’s definitely something black and cat-like at the far edges of the screen.

It’s important to note that, despite everything the name “phantom cat” conjures up, British Big Cats are not widely considered to be paranormal in nature. In contrast to their canine cousins—the ominous black ghost dogs with glowing red eyes, described in local legend for years before inspiring Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles—the big cats spotted around Great Britain are (for the most part) thought to be real, three-dimensional creatures. They’re from Earth, not hell. It’s just that they don’t belong in Great Britain.

THE DANGEROUS WILD ANIMALS Act was enacted by the British government in 1976 in response to the purchase of exotic animals as pets, a then-growing trend in the United Kingdom. The law states: “No person shall keep any dangerous wild animal except under the authority of a licence granted in accordance with the provisions of this Act by a local authority.”

In response, in order to avoid prosecution, many private collectors are thought to have let their pets—Bengal cats, pumas, wolfhounds, etc.—loose. And in the years since, there have been a handful of big cats (otherwise anomalous to the region) captured or killed on the British Isles. Because many big cats (including cougars and pumas) don’t live more than 12 to 15 years, this hypothesis lost strength after, say, 1991. But some suspect that those pets that survived in the wild may have bred with domestic animals or other native species, and that these may account for the repeated sightings of ABCs.

According to the news at the time, authorities who’d studied paw prints supposedly left by the Beast of Exmoor believed it to be a panther. The Dangerous Wild Animals Act had passed just seven years earlier, so maybe it was. But then, of course, there are the 1995 reports, and the 2001 reports. In 2009, a number of residents of North Devon (along with the Daily Mail) wondered if a body that washed up on shore could be the famous Beast. About five feet long, with black fur and sharp teeth, it seemed to fit the profile. Only, tissue samples revealed it to be a grey seal.

As for continued sightings (which seem unlikely to cease), Discovery offers a plausible, slightly insulting explanation for humans’ repeated insistence that the animals they’re seeing are not, could not possibly be, just cats: “People are simply not very good at estimating the size of objects, especially when they are excited or alarmed.” If ever there were a reason to put a life-sized, cardboard cutout of an average-sized house cat in one’s backyard (or backmoor, as the case may be), this is it.

Katie Heaney
Katie Heaney is a writer and an editor at BuzzFeed and author of Never Have I Ever. Follow her on Twitter @KTHeaney.

More From Katie Heaney

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 23 • 4:00 PM

Of Course Marijuana Addiction Exists

The polarized legalization debate leads to exaggerated claims and denials about pot’s potential harms. The truth lies somewhere in between.


October 23 • 2:00 PM

American Companies Are Getting Way Too Cozy With the National Security Agency

Newly released documents describe “contractual relationships” between the NSA and U.S. companies, as well as undercover operatives.


October 23 • 12:00 PM

The Man Who’s Quantifying New York City

Noah Davis talks to the proprietor of I Quant NY. His methodology: a little something called “addition.”


October 23 • 11:02 AM

Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.


October 23 • 10:00 AM

The Psychology of Bribery and Corruption

An FBI agent offered up confidential information about a political operative’s enemy in exchange for cash—and they both got caught. What were they thinking?


October 23 • 8:00 AM

Ebola News Gives Me a Guilty Thrill. Am I Crazy?

What it means to feel a little excited about the prospect of a horrific event.


October 23 • 7:04 AM

Why Don’t Men Read Romance Novels?

A lot of men just don’t read fiction, and if they do, structural misogyny drives them away from the genre.


October 23 • 6:00 AM

Why Do Americans Pray?

It depends on how you ask.


October 23 • 4:00 AM

Musicians Are Better Multitaskers

New research from Canada finds trained musicians more efficiently switch from one mental task to another.


October 22 • 4:00 PM

The Last Thing the Women’s Movement Needs Is a Heroic Male Takeover

Is the United Nations’ #HeForShe campaign helping feminism?


October 22 • 2:00 PM

Turning Public Education Into Private Profits

Baker Mitchell is a politically connected North Carolina businessman who celebrates the power of the free market. Every year, millions of public education dollars flow through Mitchell’s chain of four non-profit charter schools to for-profit companies he controls.


October 22 • 12:00 PM

Will the End of a Tax Loophole Kill Off Irish Business and Force Google and Apple to Pay Up?

U.S. technology giants have constructed international offices in Dublin in order to take advantage of favorable tax policies that are now changing. But Ireland might have enough other draws to keep them there even when costs climb.


October 22 • 10:00 AM

Veterans in the Ivory Tower

Why there aren’t enough veterans at America’s top schools—and what some people are trying to do to change that.


October 22 • 8:00 AM

Our Language Prejudices Don’t Make No Sense

We should embrace the fact that there’s no single recipe for English. Making fun of people for replacing “ask” with “aks,” or for frequently using double negatives just makes you look like the unsophisticated one.


October 22 • 7:04 AM

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.


October 22 • 6:00 AM

How We Form Our Routines

Whether it’s a morning cup of coffee or a glass of warm milk before bed, we all have our habitual processions. The way they become engrained, though, varies from person to person.


October 22 • 4:00 AM

For Preschoolers, Spite and Smarts Go Together

New research from Germany finds greater cognitive skills are associated with more spiteful behavior in children.


October 21 • 4:00 PM

Why the Number of Reported Sexual Offenses Is Skyrocketing at Occidental College

When you make it easier to report assault, people will come forward.


October 21 • 2:00 PM

Private Donors Are Supplying Spy Gear to Cops Across the Country Without Any Oversight

There’s little public scrutiny when private donors pay to give police controversial technology and weapons. Sometimes, companies are donors to the same foundations that purchase their products for police.


October 21 • 12:00 PM

How Clever Do You Think Your Dog Is?

Maybe as smart as a four-year-old child?


October 21 • 10:00 AM

Converting the Climate Change Non-Believers

When hard science isn’t enough, what can be done?



October 21 • 8:00 AM

Education Policy Is Stuck in the Manufacturing Age

Refining our policies and teaching social and emotional skills will help us to generate sustained prosperity.


October 21 • 7:13 AM

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you’ve (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.


October 21 • 6:00 AM

Fruits and Vegetables Are About to Enter a Flavor Renaissance

Chefs are teaming up with plant breeders to revitalize bland produce with robust flavors and exotic beauty—qualities long neglected by industrial agriculture.


Follow us


Earliest High-Altitude Settlements Found in Peru

Discovery suggests humans adapted to high altitude faster than previously thought.

My Politicians Are Better Looking Than Yours

A new study finds we judge the cover by the book—or at least the party.

That Cigarette Would Make a Great Water Filter

Clean out the ashtray, add some aluminum oxide, and you've (almost) got yourself a low-cost way to remove arsenic from drinking water.

Love and Hate in Israel and Palestine

Psychologists find that parties to a conflict think they're motivated by love while their enemies are motivated by hate.

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.