Why I’m still skeptical that there’s a “big cat” loose on the Herts & Essex boarder.

I’d like to address a topic that’s now come up a number of times recently in the local area. Namely “Big Cat” sightings.

This is a copy of my article in the Herts & Essex Observer about an alleged big cat/panther sighting from 21st March 2014. I’ve reproduced it here because yet another story has appeared, this time from a 73 year old man and wife saying they saw a big cat in the area. I’ll address some specific points to this case at the end.

LAST week’s Observer front cover story made for tantalising and terrifying reading. “Is this a panther at large?” the headline asked, with a full-page image of a mysterious, long-tailed creature.

Was this the mysterious panther that people claim to have seen on the Hertfordshire-Essex border over the last decade or so?

It seems not. It appears to have been a local dog, now identified by the daughter of the owners of the field as a fairly regular visitor. The reaction, or lack of, by the horse and goat seems quite likely due to their familiarity with the hound in question.

It’s always important to be sceptical of these sightings, whether they’re accompanied by photos or videos, or not. People have been known to fake pictures for fun or attention, although I’m not suggesting that Lynn* Lacey did that here.

Soon after the camera had become affordable to the average household, hoaxes began to appear. The Cottingley Fairies in 1917 is a fine example of this, which had Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, famous for penning Sherlock Holmes, utterly convinced in the existence of fairies.

We should always be careful to use logic and evaluate plausibility when sightings of big cats or unfamiliar creatures are reported.

A zoologist would tell you that a big cat, like a puma or cheetah, would probably survive for only 15-20 years in the wild. Any animal supposedly released after the tightening of restrictions under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976 would have long since died in the early 1990s. I’ve never heard reliable evidence that people did release their big cats into the wild, anyway; most went to zoos or were, sadly, put to sleep.

Even if hundreds were released, they would have to be of opposite gender, of the same species, find each other, like each other, breed and then raise a cub to an age where it could fend for itself. All this while also not killing any food, being caught, being properly photographed or recorded and leaving their remains upon death.

You’ll forgive me for not worrying too much about the Essex Panther or any subsequent blurry sightings. Let’s see some real scientific evidence before we go scaring the locals and whipping up a panic. If I see anything in the garden, I’ll be sure to lasso it with my daughter’s skipping rope!

I have a few specific issues with this new story that add more to the implausibility on the balance of probabilities, rather than being specific logical certainties.

I think my first and probably main concern is the couples familiarity with the area. They are said to be “visiting the village for a family barbecue” which makes me wonder how well they would be able to scale their surroundings. This is a significant deficit that is inherent to nearly all people. We scale things based on our prior knowledge about the sizes of objects. If something isn’t all that familiar, we’re more likely to make sizing guess errors. I’ll give you a very simple example, just to make a point.


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The red lines are the same length, but our brains can’t help but add depth to the image that doesn’t exist.

Of course the evolutionary advantage to this bias is fairly obvious. The person that sees an animal and assumes it to be a small cat only needs to be wrong once before getting eaten! The person who sees a small cat and assumes it’s a big cat (and a threat) will likely run and survive another day. We have a constant battle to override our evolutionary biases and we make a lot of judgement errors along the way. If you add in the element of speed; the detail that he was driving and it makes these mistakes more likely.

The size of the creature is also a little bit confusing. Apparently the big cat in question was “the size of a rottweiler, beautifully shiny black, with a big long tail and a bit of underbelly,” said William.” Well, apparently William is unfamiliar with a bread of animal that has a long tail, is shiny black, has a bit of underbelly and is the size of a Rottweiler. It’s a Rottweiler! Or a mix. Possibly a Labrador mix as in the photo below.

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Different dog mixes have different facial shapes, tail lengths and fur colours. It would be an easy mistake to make.

I’m not too sure if I should touch on the age of the couple, so I’ll err on the side of not. In general increased age can cause worsening judgements. But I don’t know anything about this man or his wife, so it would be unfair and unnecessary to speculate. I say unnecessary because this would be a simple mistake for anyone of any age to make.

On a personal note I find Michael’s writing of this new article a little bit frustrating. I understand the nature of a local paper and that website visits drive advertising and profit. But he didn’t really need to cite Lynn’s photo as evidence because I already found out that it was a dog, making its inclusion completely irrelevant. Writing the details of the account is significantly more acceptable than presenting a less than wholly honest view of the “evidence” as it stands.

I would say misidentification is the most likely issue here, rather than a size attribution error. But either way it’s fairly unlikely to be a panther/big cat.

There is of course a fairly easy way to shift the balance of probabilities: some actual, testable, verifiable evidence. A legitimately caught specimen would be a fairly solid evidence! I’ve never said that there aren’t big cats in the wilds of Herts or Essex, just that it’s extremely improbable. An extremely improbable claim would need some extremely convincing evidence. As of yet no good, let alone convincing evidence, has been presented. I hold no “belief” either way (as has previously been suggested) and my reasoning wouldn’t change if hundreds were to be discovered. The evidence would change, not the process or logical reasoning behind my skepticism.

No doubt they’ll be more stories like this in the future. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few come out over the next week or so as it plays on people’s minds. It doesn’t take much for people to start seeing things when they’re primed to see them.

(Note: the * marks a spelling correction of Lynn’s name in the article on the paper’s site. Oddly, it was edited in to the story. The copy I sent to the paper had spelt her name correctly as “Lynn.”
I also didn’t choose the title of the article, “Cheetah or cheater?” which I still feel suggests that there was deliberate fakery at hand. I’ve never suggested this, nor do I think it’s fair to make this assumption.)

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