OF CATS AND CONSPIRACIES
The Orpheus Pavement (detail)
“The idea of leopards still living in Europe is very powerful. Every year a new and ferocious creature turns up in England, one that exists only in newspaper columns, vividly imprecise eyewitness reports, blurry photographs of black pussy cats and our eternal appetite for monsters: the Beast of Bodmin, the Surrey Puma, the Fen Tiger.”
Paul Paterson, former Curator of Carnivores, Glasgow Zoo
My brother is a practical man.
And a good man. Community-spirited. He likes solving problems, and is generous with his time. He’s given a lot of time to his community, despite a full family life and a demanding career. He lives in a village called Woodchester, near Stroud in the Cotswolds of England, a beautiful part of the country — the Five Valleys, hilly and wooded.
Iain was instrumental in creating new cycle paths in and around the village, and a mountain bike track in the woods. At the moment he’s bringing pressure to bear for 20 mph speed limits on narrow residential roads, and making some headway. And he helps keep the village shop going, because without a shop, you don’t really have a village.
All important stuff. He wouldn’t claim to have made any more than a small difference, but small differences turn into very big ones, if you, say, save a child from being hit on the road.
I’m very different. Not much of a problem solver, and so my problems tend to stack up. You could call me the black sheep of the family. I’ve been teaching abroad for so long that I don’t know where I belong any more. At the moment I’m hanging out in a small French town for no particular reason other than that I have friends here and I like red wine and monastic ales. There’s nothing much to do and not much happens — and so I have no choice but to get on and write. Sometimes I need that.
Beyond the town’s medieval ramparts, the walls still standing in some sections, stretches the flat Norman countryside, fields and woodlands, still alive with with rabbits and hares, herons and kingfishers, and even the occasional wild boar.
I’m more of a divergent thinker — too much, some would say. A little bit Dinner-With-André, if you know what I mean. My brother handles it better than most, though he surely thinks I go too far in my way of thinking. Iain prefers not to waste time thinking about problems he can’t solve, which is a rational position. I, on the other hand, do little else. You could say: he likes problems, and I like mysteries.
Only he likes mysteries too. Of course he does.
So when someone walking their dog near the village found a dead deer, still warm, with its throat crushed and its vital organs stripped out, and gave Iain a call, he got involved.
Iain had taken an interest in big cats in the past, spending time hanging out with cheetahs at a big cat sanctuary in South Africa. And then, strangely, there had been all these sightings in the Stroud area of a black leopard or puma or jaguar — a panther, let’s call it — over the previous couple of years.
So my brother set about solving the problem of how to find out what had killed the deer. The first thing was to take photographs. Next, get on the phone. A colleague on the Parish Council got in touch with the National Trust, who own the land, and with a local big cat enthusiast, Frank Tunbridge, who had been in the news commenting on sightings in Gloucestershire the year before. There’d been a cluster of sightings the Cotswolds in the early 2000s, and Tunbridge had set up a Big Cat Hotline in 2002. They emailed him the photographs, and by that afternoon Tunbridge was on the scene, examining the carcass, taking plaster-casts of footprints and tooth-pits, and setting up trail-cameras in case the animal should return to feed on its kill.
Within two days he was back with his frequent collaborator Rick Minter, whom the Guardian newspaper has described as ‘almost certainly Britain’s leading big cat consultant, a role for which there is surprising demand’. Minter’s background is in countryside planning and wildlife management, and his interest in anomalous big cats in Britain stems from his own sighting of a black panther-like animal strolling in broad daylight through the grounds of the rural hotel where he was attending a meeting. It made him wonder, and several years of research and hands-on involvement later, he published his book Big Cats: Facing Britain’s Wild Predators (2011) proposing that, however surprising it might seem, there is in fact big cat territory throughout the country from North to South: a naturalised, breeding, hunting population including puma, lynx and black leopard.
Deer-kill at Dursley. Photograph: National Trust/PA
The National Trust had contacted Dr Robin Allaby, an associate professor in the department of Life Sciences at Warwick University, and the professor and his associates were also there taking samples for DNA analysis. All agreed that the carcass bore the characteristic tells of a big cat kill. The deep tooth pits behind the crushed larynx. The ‘tufting’ around the body. Big cats pluck the fur with their teeth before eating the meat, and the kill was surrounded with these distinctive tufts. It was just a question of waiting a few weeks for the DNA analysis, and they would know what species it was. Two other deer kills, it emerged, had been reported in the area over the previous week, and when the university team was done at Woodchester, they set off to visit the site at nearby Dursley.
Iain wrote all this up and put out a special edition of the Woodchester Word, updating the community on developments, giving some background on the phenomenon of big cats living wild in the British Isles, and promising a community meeting once the results came through. He was interviewed by local radio and TV, showing plaster casts of the paw prints and explaining some of what he had learned from Tunbridge and Minter. He waited with interest for the results. One of his fellow parish councillors received word informally from a member of the university team that they had indeed found cat DNA and were running further tests to see if they could determine what species it was that had killed the deer.
And then a week later, finally, the university announced its results in a press release. The deer had been killed by… foxes.
Iain was, as they say, gobsmacked.
It was ridiculous. The paw-prints, the tooth-pits, the crushed windpipe, the tufting, the stripping out of the internal organs…
Foxes! You might as well say the deer had been taken down by badgers or savaged by a team of stoats.
But that was the official line, and it made Iain look a bit ridiculous. A certain amount of good-natured teasing came his way. Colleagues at work set him up, calling him over to look at a particularly interesting ultra-sound scan showing a strange shadow, and when he zoomed in on the image, there was the silhouette of a black panther. He took it all in good part — he had no choice — and joined in the laughter at a good joke.
Of course, the moment you start talking about this kind of thing, taking a step outside of the consensus reality, you are laying yourself open, and I admire Iain for trying to get a discussion going in the village. Most censorship is self-censorship, and it’s driven in large part by fear of ridicule.
We’ve been trained to believe that every inch of this world is mapped, known and understood; that we have tamed nature, defanged and declawed it, and given it its shots; that there are no mysteries left.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
It’s a fair inference that Allaby’s team were instructed to lie about their findings, in keeping with the government’s position that there exists no wild population of large carnivores in the British Isles; that the National Trust did not want idiots with rifles on their land trying to bag a panther, and that DEFRA (the Department for the Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs) didn’t want locals panicking about walking their children to school — there’s a primary school just a few hundreds yards from where the deer was found. Since the University has contracts with DEFRA, pressure could easily be brought to bear. The spate of Gloucestershire sightings made national news, but coverage, while quoting the views of people like Tunbridge and Minter, generally maintained a quirky tongue-in-cheek tone; the ‘shadowy beast,’ the ‘feared Five Valleys big cat’, ‘mystery cats’ and so on.
The tone, predictably, crosses the line into personal abuse online. As I did searches relating to big cat sightings around the time of the Stroud find and scanned the comments sections, I kept seeing the name Paul Paterson — contributing intolerant and often vitriolic comments on a range of platforms: articles and blog-posts, Youtube, Facebook and Twitter. My attention was drawn not just by the nasty tone of the comments: I recognised the name from a 2003 Guardian article — ‘Wild Beast Watchers Pounce on New Sightings’.
Was this the same Paul Paterson who was formerly Curator of Carnivores at Glasgow Zoo? If so, a man who knows his big cats. The senior zookeeper was quoted in the 2003 article, after a spate of sightings. What he said then, given his position, was rather striking:
“People are dumping them. It’s easy to import them illegally, especially if you are rich. They cross breed with domestic cats, and the hybrids seem to breed with each other, producing mongrels. The government is hushing it up, because it does not want a mass panic. No one wants to know.”
That’s a bold statement.
So what happened? Some time between 2003 and 2010 he seems to have diametrically shifted his opinion and launched a trolling campaign against anyone who suggested any such thing.
“NO big cats wild, free and breeding in the UK” was his refrain. Self-taught experts like Frank Tunbridge or Jonathan McGowan were put down as deluded losers and eccentrics:
“Frank Tunbridge is not a ‘big cat expert or big cat tracker’ he is just someone who works out helping car boot sales, not even employed.”
As a professional himself, Paterson is exasperated by these amateurs.
“Research? I think we’ve established that he’s not qualified to do that in any meaningful sense. […] Such people as Tunbridge are what is termed fantasists, they bolster their ego by their myths and hype.”
And I see it everywhere, this psychoanalytical slur — if you believe anything that lies outside the official consensus, it is because you have some kind of pathological need to do so. This idea has been heavily promoted for half a century and more in the political-historical context, and is embedded in the collective psyche. We find it at every level in the media, but particularly the middle-class press whose readers can be flattered with sophisticated-sounding psychological theories. In his 2013 book Feral, the Guardian columnist and campaigning environmentalist George Monbiot predictably dismisses the notion that big cats inhabit Britain in any significant number.
“Certain paranormal phenomena afflict every society, and these phenomena appear to reflect our desires; desires of which we may not be fully conscious,” he wrote. 
So we’re talking paranormal panthers now?
And I’m wondering, what do paranormal panthers eat?
Normalcy bias — such an easy door to push on.
Monbiot is part of the conditioning that makes us think that none of our peers can possibly arrive at sound conclusions about anything; that only experts and professionals have the answers. Dissent is portrayed, however subtly, as a form of insanity. It’s a totalitarian mentality, and Monbiot is a classic case of unconscious authoritarianism. Why do you believe what you believe? The psychoanalytic argument cuts both ways, or it’s worth nothing.
“No big cats roaming wild, free and breeding in the UK, so get over it. Those who say there are… and to all those big cat crypto groups: fantasy, ego and narcissistic behaviour and personality disorders fit people such as yourselves. Get over it, NO big cats in the UK, end of.”
So Paterson too is now an expert on human psychology. Perhaps he took a degree in psychiatry between leaving his job at the Zoo and resurfacing as an internet troll.
By the time of the Gloucester sightings, Paterson was living retired in Tighnabruaich in the West of Scotland, where he brought his campaign home in the form of copyright claims against the local Big Cat Society over photographs used on a Facebook page, forcing it to close down in 2015.
You have to wonder what happened to make him reverse his strongly-stated position so completely. Within weeks of the Guardian article featuring his dramatic claim, he found himself having to deal with Animal Rights demonstrations at Glasgow Zoo and damaging accusations in the media of cruelty to animals. The zoo was already struggling financially, several million pounds in debt, with its facilities in dire need of renovation, but the campaign forced it to close earlier than planned, in August 2003, creating difficulties in the process of rehousing the animals. Some had to be put down, I believe.
The other professional quoted in the 2003 Guardian article was Quentin Rose, described (inaccurately) as a zoologist at London Zoo, who had ‘investigated sightings for six years and identified 27 reliable reports of leopards, 32 of puma, and 18 of jungle cats and ocelots.’ Rose was already on record in an Independent article of 1998 that big cat territories existed all over Britain and warning that ‘people are going to get killed sooner or later’. By 2003 Rose, sadly, was already dead (he was diabetic) so he obviously wasn’t interviewed for the article, and the reference must have been taken from an earlier, unacknowledged source. The same may have happened to Paterson, his comments cropped from another source and given national exposure, which he may not have welcomed, I don’t know. Anyway, I can’t help enjoying the irony of the zoo-keeper who knows his cats but only in captivity, and cannot stand the thought of them living wild and thriving.
Quentin Rose, as far as I can gather, seems to have been a real outdoors man, a traveler, naturalist and animal tracker, who supported himself by stints working in zoos. In the Independent article from which the Guardian seems to have lifted its quotes, Rose expressed his concern about increasing numbers, convinced that it could only be a matter of time before somebody was killed — most likely by a sick, old or injured animal no longer able to hunt deer and rabbits. (This is the danger of farmers or members of the public trying shoot the animals: a wounded or sick big cat will often turn to humans as easy prey, though not their preference.)
An article by Rose contributed to The Field magazine is referenced in Peter Taylor’s book Beyond Conservation: A Wildlife Strategy (2005), quoting an anecdote that really helps us to understand the elusiveness of the ‘mystery cats’.
“The ability of leopard to remain secret and unobserved is legion,’ writes Taylor. “I spent three months in close association with them in Kenyan montane forest, and despite the abundance of fresh tracks I never saw a single animal. Quentin Rose in the Field article  tells the story of an incident in the suburbs of Johannesburg in South Africa. A vehicle carrying a wild leopard for translocation crashed and the animal escaped; that night the alarmed authorities set traps and much to their consternation caught seven separate individuals on the one night!”
But no, says the zoo-keeper, there are ‘NO big cats living wild, free and breeding in the UK’, repeating his cut-and-paste mantra. And let no one use the word ‘panther’ to describe what they have seen, or the zoo-keeper will snap —
‘No such animal!’
Paterson is technically correct, since the panther is not a species, and the word is used to describe black melanistic variants of leopard, jaguar and puma. But it is a genus, Panthera, and a sub-family, Pantherinae, of the family Felidae, so it is perfectly reasonable to use the term generically.
Paterson is also right that the panther has a strong hold on the European imagination. The word comes to us from Sanskrit puṇḍárīka, “tiger” via Greek πάνθηρ (pánthēr), but in Greek art and heraldry the animal takes on a range of bizarre forms. The panther was the favoured mount of the god Dionysus, and although spotted like a leopard it was often depicted as a composite creature with a horned head, long neck, equine body and a fiery red tongue. In heraldry the creature was normally represented with flames coming from its mouth and ears, representing a sweet odour it could exude to entice its prey.
In native American folklore, it gets even stranger, with the Mishipeshu — the underwater panther, one of several mythological water beings in the folklore of the peoples of the North-West and Great Lakes region.
‘To the Algonquins, the underwater panther was the most powerful underworld being. The Ojibwe traditionally held them to be masters of all water creatures, including snakes. Some versions of the Nanabozo creation legend refers to whole communities of water lynx.” (Wikipedia)
So the panther is historically a creature of legend and fable.
The question is whether it’s a fable now.
The leopard is an extraordinarily adaptable species which spans a wide range of habitats, from Mongolia to India to sub-Saharan Africa. And then there’s the beautiful snow leopard, living at high elevations from eastern Afghanistan to Mongolia and Western China, and at lower elevations in its more northerly range. There is no reason at all why such animals, given adequate levels of prey, could not thrive in the British Isles.
Ice-Age leopards and jaguars became extinct in Britain some twenty thousand years ago, but the Romans brought big cats to England for their barbarous circuses, and a leopard or jaguar of some kind is depicted in the Orpheus Pavement, the largest Roman mosaic in Britain, uncovered, coincidentally, at Woodchester.
These animals are hard to confine, and extremely elusive, hunting mainly at night, and so there may have been a breeding population in the Dark and Middle Ages, who knows? If so, we might expect to find traces of it in folklore. There are lions in the medieval Arthurian legends, but no panthers, only the mythological ‘Beast Glatisant’ which recurs across several stories, a ferocious and elusive creature with the body of a leopard, the haunches of a lion and the head and neck of a snake. So it is longed-necked, as in Greek heraldry, which may be the origin of the beast or an influence on its representation. There may also be some cross-over with the giraffe, which was seen as some kind of hybrid of a camel and a leopard — thus the original English name for it, camelopard.
The Romans knew their big cats, as shown by the grimly realistic portrayals in the mosaic. But in Medieval European culture, after the decline of Rome, the panther became, once again, a legendary and heraldic beast, like a gryphon or unicorn.
What we do know is that imported big cats were fashionable accessories for the glitterati in the nineteen sixties and seventies, and it’s no secret that when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 was passed, introducing a difficult and expensive licensing procedure, many people released their animals into the wild. We also know that the British countryside has ecosystems adequate to sustain them as predators. In fact deer culling has to be practiced all over the British Isles by DEFRA. Jonathan McGowan, another well-informed amateur, believes that big cats are now performing a useful function in controlling the numbers of wild deer.
Whether their numbers are going to become a problem, I don’t know — but I tend to doubt it, since apex predators are genetically K-selected, breeding less and investing more in their offspring. Big cats establish territories and fight to defend them, which puts further natural inhibitions on their numbers. If the cats are culling the deer and the balance is swinging back under the sway of nature rather than government, that’s something I can only celebrate. So maybe the government’s policy of turning a blind eye to the question is a blessing in disguise. Bureaucratic inertia can be a good thing sometimes. Let sleeping panthers lie.
At the same time Rose is bound to be proven right one day, just by the law of averages. No one in Britain has been killed by a leopard or puma, though there have been one or two reported instances of being stalked, and a handful of people have been gouged by animals lashing out when surprised or cornered — only minor injuries, thankfully. But at some point one of the animals, injured or old and no longer fabulous, will take a human — perhaps a child. And that means that people have the right to know, and to educate themselves about the animals.
Is it possible that government officials regard with tacit approval the gradual spread of awareness, even while officially blanking the phenomenon?
After all, if government were to acknowledge the reality, it would be forced to take responsibility. It would have to make difficult decisions. It would face compensation claims and legal challenges. Do we want to see government hunters deployed in response to sightings? Do we really want to see army snipers culling big cats in sheep-farming areas and wilderness-urban interfaces? Who knows, maybe Paul Paterson, too, is trying to protect them by flatly denying their existence.
So they had their community meeting in Woodchester. Rick Minter spoke, to a full village hall, and gave exactly the talk he would have given anyway, completely ignoring the University’s verdict. Some of those present were relieved that the beast had just evaporated like that. Others, like Iain, were incredulous that Allaby’s team had changed their minds in a week.
The fact is that truth is never the highest value in government; the official story will always be the one that suits the officials, whether for pragmatic or more corrupt reasons. So government is not the answer, and in this as in so many questions, people need to be prepared to learn from each other, tune out the droning voice of authority, and resist the culture of expertise that teaches us that ordinary people armed with half-decent epistemological skills cannot come to their own conclusions on pretty much anything that affects them, including the chances of getting their throat ripped out by a panther while taking a pleasant Sunday walk. We have to begin to unlearn this impoverished, defanged, desacralised version of reality which is sold to us to keep us tame. This world is deeper and darker than we can imagine, raised in our cosy screen-lit Western cocoons.
Or as my brother puts it, in his less rhetorical style: “I wish people would let us make our own minds up about this sort of thing rather than deliberately putting out misinformation and misinforming our opinions.”
Amen, brother. Might as well not tell them at all, next time.
Meanwhile, the local Stroud Brewery wasted no time in launching their award-winning ‘Big Cat’ ale. It was very popular at the Royal Oak, and on sale in the village shop.
Oh, and these signs started appearing in the area.
This isn’t just about panthers, of course. For me it’s about a lot of things: our relationship with nature, and the nature of our reality; our relationship with authority, and with each other. It’s about knowledge and belief, consensus and dissent. And it’s about imagination.
A 2019 Guardian piece featuring an interview with Rick Minter asks the question, Is it pumas and panthers running wild, or is it our imagination?
And in a way, it’s both. Not that I’m implying that the anomalous big cats of Britain are imaginary, not at all.
And yet they are.
I’ll explain. My brother believes in them, but I disagree: he doesn’t believe they’re there, he knows they are. Wild, free, and breeding. And I’m with him, and Minter, Rose, Tunbridge, McGowan, et al — and Paterson, too, before he changed his tune.
My brother knows they exist, and so do I, but neither of us has ever seen one, and so for now they live only in our imaginations.
Knowledge, of course, is not possible without imagination. How can you know something if you cannot imagine it? Everything you know must live in your imagination first, or you cannot claim to know it, or even to believe it, really.
Imagination is divergent thinking, the ability to see possibilities, the power to visualise. It must be married with convergent thinking: reason, empiricism, doubt — the long process. But only the imaginative can advance human knowledge, even about their immediate surroundings and things that are taken for granted.
So let it be. Let the cats be both real and imagined. For now, the fabulous panther will only be known to some people. The rest will just have to take their chances when the darkness opens yellow eyes and starts to move.
(Tip: Don’t behave like prey — don’t run!)
Image: Andy Rule, July 2016
 Frances Stonor Saunders, a real investigative journalist such as Monbiot will never be, was asked to review Monbiot’s book Feral. in Monbiot’s own paper, The Guardian. She destroys it. Her wonderfully pitched tone of amusement throughout is a thing of beauty — well worth a read!