No one tell NewsCorp that “black pumas” don’t exist, pumas are native to the Americas, leopards are native to Africa and Asia, and a “black panther” is a color morph, not a species of cat.
A story from Fox News — prompted by a similar story in the UK’s Sun, part of the same Rupert Murdoch-owned media conglomerate — claims the British are “unnerved” by an “uptick” in sightings of cryptid big cats. The mysterious creatures are supposedly running rampant in the British countryside and in the suburbs, according to the article, which identifies them as black pumas, black panthers and black leopards.
Oddly, the story says the sightings are up significantly because there have been three “big cat” sightings in October, immediately before informing readers there are 2,000 such sightings in the UK every year.
Little Buddy and I are not exactly known for our math skills, but 2,000 sightings a year works out to 167 sightings per month, which is a lot more than three. Fifty five times more, in fact. So the story should really be about a dramatic dip in phantom big cat sightings, shouldn’t it?
What evidence does the Fox report cite for its breathless claim about big cats taking over the UK? A pair of grainy security camera videos, including one showing a “big cat sighting” at night, and the word of a “big cat sighting expert,” alternately called a “countryside expert” in other media reports, who by the way happens to be hawking a documentary on the sightings.
“It’s a crucial issue,” self-described wildcat expert Rick Minter told The Sun. “How do we come to terms with living alongside big cats in Britain?”
For readers unfamiliar with the highest echelons of reputable journalism, The Sun is the UK’s foremost bastion of trustworthy reporting, a tabloid par excellence whose editorial staff are known for breaking stories about “crazed werewolves” and immigrants barbecuing the late queen’s swans when they weren’t running topless photos of models on Page 3. The Sun is owned by NewsCorp, the parent company of Fox News.
As for the two pieces of footage, one is the aforementioned blurry mess recorded by a home security camera at night, and shows a few frames of a cat’s behind and a tail as the felid walks out of the frame. The other is a blurry clip the credulous claim depicts a large cat feeding on a sheep. There’s no indication the figure is a felid of any type.
As far as we’re concerned, there are a few possible explanations for the sightings:
They’re former pets
If there are indeed big cats roaming the British countryside and suburbs, they would have to be former pets of people who acquired them on the illegal wildlife market, broke the law by “importing” them into the UK, then broke several additional laws by keeping them as pets until the cats quickly grew and the owners realized keeping them is untenable.
Such situations aren’t unheard of, obviously, but they can’t account for a dozen big cats on the loose at any one time, much less more than a thousand as Minter claims.
More importantly, big cats who are taken from their mothers as days-old cubs, sold as pets and later dumped are universally confused, terrified and unable to fend for themselves. They end up roaming suburbia in broad daylight, like a nine-month-old tiger named India who was spotted wandering around the outskirts of Houston in 2021, sniffing out potential food in garbage cans because they don’t know how to hunt.
If these phantom big cats were former pets, they’d be spotted, captured and taken to sanctuaries within a matter of days.
They’re small wildcats formerly native to the area, like the Eurasian lynx
The problem is, the Eurasian lynx was extirpated from the UK about 1,400 years ago. There have been debates among conservationists about reintroducing wild populations to the British countryside — and to Ireland — but no concrete plans as of yet. Proponents say the lynx could be beneficial, keeping deer populations level without major human intervention.
Eurasian lynx adults can grow to about the size of medium dogs, so it’s possible they can be mistaken for “big cats” in blurry video, especially when perspective and/or lack of other objects makes it difficult to place their actual size in context. However, as with big cats, any Eurasian lynx spotted in the UK are likely to be former pets.
If witnesses in the UK are mistaking house cats for big cats, they wouldn’t be the first.
One wildlife ranger in Australia became so annoyed with fielding frequent big cat reports that he implored people to educate themselves.
“People need to get over the idea the cats are panthers,” wildlife ranger Tim Gilbertson told Australia’s ABC news. “It is just not on. They are big feral cats, at least 50% bigger than a house cat and they are powerful.”
The usual issues are in play here: Fuzzy security camera footage, night sightings, confused witnesses. You’d think there would be more phantom big cat sightings in the US, since pumas can grow to the size of jaguars and could be mistaken for lions, but people who live in areas where pumas range tend to know they’re around and what they look like. They’re also the definition of scaredy cats, reluctant to let humans spot them or get anywhere near them.
Ultimately, witness reports count don’t count for much, and not just because memory is malleable.
Thousands of people have reported seeing Bigfoot, chupacabras, the Jersey Devil and the Loch Ness monster, but those creatures are all firmly in cryptid territory.
There’s Occam’s Razor, and there’s common sense: For a primate species like Bigfoot to exist, for example, there would need to be a breeding population, enough prey for the creatures to feed themselves, and someone somewhere would have found remains at some point. (Bigfoot sightings go back to the days before Columbus set foot on New World shores, but it’s only been in the last century or so that the cryptid has entered the popular imagination via folklore and media.)
Likewise, if there are indeed 1,000 big cats prowling the British countryside, as Minter claims, there would be a breeding population, ubiquitous tracks and the remains of prey animals killed in ways consistent with big cat ambush techniques. Cats of all sizes are ambush hunters and have a distinct way of killing prey which is unlike other animals.
The UK’s big cat sightings should be treated more like the UFO sightings in the US and particularly around Area 51. They start with a kernel of potential truth — the existence of a secret base to test experimental military aircraft, or the possibility that big cats who were former pets have been let loose — which leads people to consider the possibility, then when they see something they can’t easily explain, they reach for the exceptional.
But as Carl Sagan famously said, exceptional claims require exceptional proof, and it’s no accident that things like UFOs, cryptid primates and phantom big cats only appear on the grainiest, blurriest and darkest footage.
My money is on domestic cats mistaken for their much larger cousins. Maybe Buddy’s been taking some transatlantic flights under my nose. I’ll have a little chat with him about it and ask him to kindly stop terrifying our friends across the pond.