Phantom Cats or Alien Big Cats (also ABCs, Anomalous Big Cats, mystery cats), are feline cryptids reported in a number of countries and states including Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Finland, Denmark, and Hawaii where they are not native .
Usually, the reported sightings, tracks and predation indicate large felines, such as jaguars or cougars, which are not indigenous to the area. Annual statistics and reports are published by The Big Cats in Britain research network. Approximately 85% of these animals are described as black, while most others are unpatterned brown. The only species of big cat which can be black are leopards and jaguars, whose melanistic forms are popularly known as black panthers. While many big cat reports describe the known species as listed above, just as many do not. The attempt to shoehorn detailed witness descriptions into these standard forms often fails. Some of the theories of provenance, such as hide-out, hybridisation, shape-shifting etc. attempt to account for these disparities.
Since the 1960s, there have been many sightings of big cats across Great Britain. Puma, clouded leopard, jungle cat, leopard cat and lynx have also been killed or captured, as documented by Dr Karl Shuker in Mystery Cats of the World (1989). An unusual concentration of sightings occur in the West country region of England.
In the 1760s the great radical writer, William Cobbett recalled in his Rural Rides how, as a boy, he had seen a cat 'as big as a middle-sized Spaniel dog' climb into a hollow elm tree in the grounds of the ruined Waverley Abbey near Farnham in Surrey. Later, in New Brunswick, he saw a 'lucifee' (North American lynx – Felis lynx canadensis) 'and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley.'. Another old report was found by David Walker from The Times in 1827 of a "lynx" being seen. Farther back there is a medieval Welsh poem "Pa Gwr" in the Black Book of Carmarthen which mentions a Cath Palug "Palug's cat" or "clawing cat" which roamed Anglesey until slain by Cei. In the Welsh Triads, it was the offspring of the monstrous sow Henwen. However the first regular sightings of big cats in Britain were in the 1960s, and since then they have been gradually increasing over the past 40 years to the present.
Sightings of exotic big cats in Australia began more than 100 years ago.
Gippsland phantom cat
In the Gippsland region of south-eastern Victoria, the origin of the cats is claimed to be American World War II airmen who brought panthers with them as mascots and released them in the Australian Bush. No conclusion has been reached, and photographic evidence is often difficult to interpret. The mass slaughter of sheep is often given as evidence to support the big cat theory. They are often killed by a clean puncture or slit in the throat. The animals' insides are then eaten precisely and with no mess, in the same way a big cat kills and eats its prey.
Several sets of video footage - claiming to show black panthers in the Australian bush - have shown animals that share the morphology of felis cattus, but the size range of leopards, according to big cat research Mike Williams, who believes the bulk of sightings can be traced back to a mutation within the feral cat population.
The region around Tantanoola, a town in the south-east of South Australia was supposed to been the stalking ground of The Tantanoola Tiger during the late nineteenth century.
In 1995, a big cat usually described as a lion (but sometimes as a lynx) was dubbed the Beast of Funen by numerous eye-witnesses. There was an earlier big cat sighting from 1982 in southern Jutland.
In 2005 a black cougar was allegedly spotted on several occasions in a wildlife preserve, but the animal, nicknamed Winnie, was later identified as an unusually large crossbreed between a domestic and a wild cat.
Since the late 1990s, big cat sightings have been reported in widely separated parts of New Zealand, in both the North and South Islands. There have been several panther sightings in Mid-Canterbury near Ashburton and in the nearby foothills of the Southern Alps, but searches conducted there in 2003 by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry found no corroborating physical evidence. A search in 2006 showed a big black cat roaming a local farm; it was recorded on video camera.
Stories of "mystery big cats" on the island of Maui have been circulating since the late 1980s. In December 2002, sightings of a big cat increased in number in the Kula (upcountry) area, and the Division of Forestry and Wildlife requested the help of big cat wildlife biologists William Van Pelt and Stan Cunningham of the Arizona Game and Fish Department. It is theorized that a large feline, such as a Jaguar, Leopard or Mountain Lion was illegally brought into Hawaii as a pet and released or allowed to wander in the wild. No big cat was detected by traps, infrared cameras, and professional trackers. A fur sample was obtained in 2003 but DNA analysis was inconclusive.
Theories about origin and existence
Many theories exist of how these animals have come to possibly inhabit the places where there are reported. Surviving Ice Age fauna, or even that the cats have a supernatural origin. Some of these ideas are considered to be more credible than others, and some receive much more publicity than others. These are some of the major theories so far put forward:
Survivors from the prehistoric past
- The leopard became extinct in Great Britain at the end of the last Ice Age, around 12,000 years ago.
- The Eurasian lynx was originally thought to have become extinct in the UK before the Romans arrived, but some bones in Scotland have been dated as from around AD 180. This means that small numbers hung on in remnants of the Caledonian Forest for longer than previously thought. More recent research by David Hetherington dates a skull found in Yorkshire to around 500 AD.
- The wildcat became extinct in England and Wales in the 19th Century, but still exists in Scotland in relics of the Caledonian Forest. However, wild cats are unlikely to be confused with big cats in any case.
A species unknown to science
It has been suggested that reported sightings of big cats could be due to feral hybrids of domestic cats and either wild cats or a small exotic cats such as jungle cats or caracals. The Kellas Cat of Scotland is an example of this. Also suggested are hybrids of escaped exotics such as cougars and leopards, which have been produced in captivity and are known as a pumapards, but they are prone to dwarfism and none survived to breed. Although female hybrid big cats are fertile, males are sterile and a breeding population would be next to impossible.
Escaped or released animals that have gone feral
In UK, it was suggested that phantom cats were:
- Cats which escaped from traveling circuses in the Victorian era.
- Cats which have been released by people who attempted to create a population for hunting or some other purpose in Victorian times, when many animals were released into the countryside. This was legal until the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981.
- Cats could have been released after the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 came into force. Many owners did not want to have their animals put down or taken away, and could not afford to licence them, so they released them in remote locations where the animals established feral populations. This is considered the most likely explanation, and is the most often heard. The British Big Cat Society claims to have evidence of at least 23 releases of big cats in Britain, However this evidence has not been published.
- However, the fact that 85% of big cat sightings are of black animals strains this theory. Black 'panthers' are rare and have always been valuable: it follows that any irresponsible owner wishing to save money would release the spotted leopards and sell the black ones. Yet in forty years, and among many thousands of sightings, no-one has ever reported seeing a spotted leopard.
It is argued that reported big cats are supernatural creatures or ghosts that haunt remote areas, or are in some way associated with the "Devil Dogs" or Barghests (such as the Black Shuck) of other areas of England. A similar belief is that they are ghosts of cats which lived in the area in the past. Other people take the similarity of big cat sightings to reports of supernatural events to be evidence for their nonexistence, and suggest that such sightings typify cultural mythologies.
One theory asserts that the reported big cats are what the Ancient Greeks, in particular the Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus (died AD 326), defined as daimones or in English 'daimons'. These are intermediate beings, both material and immaterial, well known to traditional societies as, for instance, trolls, brownies, fairies, kobbolds and so on, but discredited by modern Western culture. It is the daimons' relegation to the cultural dustbin, so the theory goes, that has forced them to adopt rather more insistently noticeable forms such as big, menacing 'black panthers'. This idea was first put forward by Merrily Harpur in Mystery Big Cats (Heart of Albion 2006).
It is sometimes claimed that with sightings of big cats people "see what they want to see" - for example people living on Exmoor may glimpse an animal, not fully focus on it, and "think" that they have seen "one of those big cats". In fact most people say that they at first assumed the animal was a dog, for example a black Labrador retriever, only to become curious - then shocked - at the progressive revelation of feline characteristics. Going on photographs of so-called black panthers it seems a surprising number of people have confused black domestic cats with the "real thing". Against this may be set the extraordinary number of sightings of ABCs at close quarters by farmers, gamekeepers, poachers and similar country people who are used to distinguishing between different species of domestic and native animals.
Hybrid domestic cats
New breeds of domestic cat where genes from other species have been introduced into them are sometimes bigger than ordinary domestic cats and have caused big cat scares in a number of areas. A Bengal cat (a domestic with spots containing leopard cat genes), was shot in Lancashire by a game keeper when it attacked pheasants.
When the Beast of Exmoor story first came about, many people thought it may have been a dog. This may have been the case to a certain extent, as some dogs can kill sheep and do so regularly. Generally dogs will harass the whole flock of sheep, but cats will single out a sheep and kill it with injuries to the neck. Cats will also generally eat most of the carcass, but dogs will kill for the sake of it. Cats may drag the body to a special "hiding place" or even store it in a tree. Feral dogs and dogs used for poaching make this picture more confused, and sheep that die naturally may be scavenged by foxes, buzzards, and other animals to make it look as if the sheep has been killed by a predator.
Although much evidence has been put forward over the years, none has led to official acceptance of the big cats' existence. Many of the pictures were either taken from such a distance that it is impossible to make out the animal, or the picture is of poor quality. A few examples of hoaxes have also been exposed.
Captures and remains
- There has been only one capture of a big cat - a puma which though not officially classed as a big cat is of leopard size. "Felicity the puma" was alleged to have been captured by farmer Ted Noble at Cannich, Inverness-shire, Scotland in 1980, after a string of sightings from the area, which are supposed to have continued after her capture. She lived out her days as a tourist attraction at the Highland Wildlife Park, Kingussie. There remains some controversy over whether she had ever been "wild" for any period of time. After her death she was stuffed and mounted and is now on display in the Inverness Museum, Inverness, Highland.
- In July 2005 a farmer in North Devon discovered a large cat's skull, which has since been identified as a puma's. It was apparently taken for scientific analysis, though no results have ever been released. It follows many reports of cats in the area (Beast of Exmoor), and even a report of a farmer shooting and later burying a puma.
- A Eurasian lynx was shot in summer 1991 near Norwich, Norfolk. It had killed around 15 sheep within two weeks. The story was only reported in 2003, and the lynx is apparently now in the possession (as taxidermy) of a collector in Suffolk. For many years this incident was considered to have been a hoax, particularly by the hunting community, But in March 2006 a police report confirmed that the case was true. It was probably an escapee from a facility in the area that bred animals including Eurasian lynxes.
- A clouded leopard, a rare cat species of southeast Asia, escaped in Kent in 1975. She was shot nine months later and had fed on rabbits and lambs in the meantime.
- A jungle cat (presumably killed by a vehicle collision) was found at the side of the road near Ludlow, Shropshire, in 1989. It was rumoured that the cat mated with farm cats in the area and produced offspring, including a cat, called "Jasper", who had all the characteristics of a hybrid.
- A leopard cat was shot by Stuart Skinner on the Isle of Wight after mistaking it for a fox taking his poultry. However it was not reported immediately because he thought he had shot a protected species.
- A Eurasian lynx nicknamed the "Beast of Barnet" was captured in Cricklewood (near Golders Green), Greater London in 2001 after a witness reported "a leopard sat on her garden wall". The lynx was captured and later taken to London Zoo.
- A Eurasian lynx was shot by an RUC marksman in Fintona, County Tyrone, Northern Ireland in 1996. Its body is currently in the freezer of a museum in Belfast.
- A puma was shot in 1987 by police officers near to the Greenwich Observatory, Greater London.
- A jungle cat was killed as it crossed the road at Hayling Island, Hampshire in 1988.
- In 1988 a leopard was shot and killed by a farmer at Widecombe-in-the-Moor, Dartmoor, Devon.
- In May 1980, a dead lioness was found in a lake near a disused railway quarry in St Helens, Lancashire. However, this story may be false due to allegations that the animal had been deliberately drowned.
- In the late 1970s, a puma was caught near the Civic Centre in Barnstaple, Devon.
Video and photographic evidence
Many photographs have been taken of "cats" over the years, nearly all indeterminate, some fakes. In recent years indeterminate evidence has also come from CCTV cameras.
- The legendary "Fen Tiger" was filmed by Mr. William Rooker in Cambridgeshire in 1994. The video lasts for around 2 minutes, and it remains the best video footage to date. The video probably shows a black panther stalking a field.
- A photograph of a large black cat was taken on the Kent marshes in 1998. The animal in the photo is definitely feline, very dark brown in colour, but not a black leopard. It is difficult to judge the size of the cat in the photo, and some have said that it shows a jungle cat.
- Two pieces of video footage, one from Cornwall in 1999 and one from the Isle of Wight in 2001 appear to show large black cats.
- A probable puma was caught by CCTV cameras at a car park in Hertfordshire in August 2005.
- A probable black panther was recorded on a CCTV camera in a working brickyard near Telford, Shropshire in the summer of 1999.
- A photo of a large, black cat at Bexley, Kent was taken in February 2006. Sightings had been reported there since 2003.
- On more than one occasion, police helicopters have tracked what are thought to be big cats on infra red surveillance cameras. However, many of these animals are soon lost amongst dense woodland.
- In June 2006 a large black cat was filmed in the countryside of Banff, Aberdeenshire. Footage of the cat was broadcast by the BBC on 24 May 2007. The cat filmed has been assumed to exemplify the characteristics of a small panther or lynx and meets the accounts given in separate sightings.
Famous phantom cats
It has become common for the press or media to "name" any cats after the immediate area to the sighting, for example the Beast of Exmoor or the Beast of Bodmin. Sometimes they are named by the area where they are sighted followed by the species, e.g. the Surrey Puma or the Wrangaton Lion.
"The Beast of" followed by the location is the most common name given.
- Cath Palug, Isle of Anglesey, medieval
- Beast of Exmoor, Devon and Somerset, 1970s - Present 
- Beast of Bodmin, Cornwall, 1992 - Present 
- "Felicity" the Puma, Inverness-shire, 1980 
- Surrey Puma, Surrey and Hampshire, 1959 - 1970 
- Fen Tiger, Cambridgeshire, 1950s - 1990s 
- Clouded Leopard, Kent, 1975
- Wrangaton Lion, Devon, 1998 - 1999 
- Beast of Riber, Derbyshire 1970s - Present
- The Beast of the Chignals, Essex, 2004 - Present
- Bucks Beast, Buckinghamshire, 1995 - Present
- The Beast of Basingstoke, a big cat sighted around Basingstoke in the early 1990s, and believed to be a lion or puma.
- The Beast of Bevendean, a big cat which has mauled dogs in the suburbs of Brighton.
- BCIB Yearbook 2007, Ed. Mark Fraser, CFZ 2008
- Beer, Trevor The Beast of Exmoor: Fact or legend? Countryside Productions 1988
- Brierly, Nigel They stalk by night - the big cats of Exmoor and the South West Yeo Valley Productions 1988
- Francis, Di The Beast of Exmoor and other mystery predators of Britain Johnathan Cape 1993
- Francis, Di Cat Country David and Charles 1982
- Harpur, Merrily Mystery Big Cats Heart of Albion 2006
- Moiser, Chris Mystery Cats of Devon and Cornwall Bossiney Books 2002
- Moiser, Chris Big Cat Mysteries of Somerset Bossiney Books 2005
- Moiser, Chris Mystery Big Cats of Dorset Inspiring Places 2007
- Shuker, Karl Mystery Cats of the World: From Blue Tigers to Exmoor Beasts Robert Hale 1989
- . ^ The Big Cats in Britain research network
- . ^ Hetherington, D. A., Lord, T. C. and Jacobi, R. M. 2005. New evidence for the occurrence of Eurasian lynx (Lynx lynx) in medieval Britain. J. Quaternary Sci., Vol. 21 pp. 3-8
- . ^ Lawrence M.J. & Brown R.W. 1967, Mammals of Britain: their tracks trails and signs, Blandford Press, London, pp.58-61
- . ^ An example of this idea is found in Bord, J & C. "Alien Animals" (Granada 1980), p.204.
- . ^ William Cobbett: Rural Rides (1830), p204 in Penguin 2001 edition
- Big Cats in Britain
- The Centre for Fortean Zoology
- Dorset Big Cats
- Scottish Big Cat Trust
- BBCS Big Cat Identification
- KENT BIG CAT RESEARCH
- UK Big Cats
- Nomad Cat's Journal
- BBC Gloucestershire: Big Cat Photographic Evidence
- BBC News Release
- BBC News Release
- BBC News Release
- BBC News Release
- Bucks Free Press news
- The Cryptid Zoo: Alien Big Cats
- Five's Big Cat Search
- Fortean Times