PAWS FOR THOUGHT
In an exclusive interview with Carl Marshall, the Assistant Director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, (otherwise known as the CFZ), curator of the ‘CFZ Big Cat Study Group’, and former curator of insects at the Butterfly Farm in Stratford-upon-Avon (the largest entomological zoo in Britain), Tim Whittard of the ‘Britain’s Big Cat Mystery’ documentary production team, finds common ground and unity in purpose after an introduction which had them both with their claws out, nearly running straight into an untoward cat-flap…
From Cat-Flappers to Purrfect Partners
To say our initial interaction had been tense would have been an understatement. It was a little over a month ago perhaps that we both got our whiskers in a twist, with early promotional work for the ‘Britain’s Big Cat Mystery’ documentary spilling out across social media and the unavoidable onslaught of interest triggering the keyboard armies of the internet to begin posting comments, both positive and negative. It was amidst this frenzy of comments that I first came to interact personally with Carl Marshall.
The Lynx Effect
Speaking to him now, it is hard to understand why we had gotten off to a shaky start all those weeks earlier; that is, without appreciating that, as for many who research this subject, the layers of conspiracy, rumour and myth, compounded by hoaxes, misleading research and hostile rivalries had served to exasperate Carl, who actually shares my own enthusiasm for this subject and also despairs at the damage which is done to the credible work of serious committed researchers by the broken promises of those who claim to have the undeniable evidence that the rest of the scientific world craves; evidence which never seems to materialise after an almighty initial fanfare. It was upon learning this that the channels of communication became easier to navigate, and with the benefit of reciprocal intelligent discussion, we both quickly realised that whilst not working for the same organisation or project, we could still consider ourselves as being on the same team.
Carl is a biology student with a background specialty in entomology, yet he cautiously steps outside of his field of experience to explore and consider interesting zoological (and cryptozoological) theories and finds from wider adjoining areas of study, with some great discoveries and papers being credited to his work with the CFZ; that said, there is one particular article among the many, which really caught my attention. Last month, in the latest edition of the journal ‘Animals & Men’, an article titled “The Missing Lynx” gives readers nothing short of a bombshell. For upon reading, the presentation of quite possibly some of the best recent evidence for the existence of big cats in Britain is revealed so coolly and casually, that it is quite possible many readers will require a double-take or a re-read.
In the article, readers are presented with an account of a small group of naturalists looking for wild boar in the Forest of Dean, before chancing upon something completely unexpected; several paw print impressions in the soft Gloucestershire clay, which after careful analysis are found to be near-perfect matches to a large cat. This discovery has the potential to cause massive shockwaves among zoologists, ecologists, and wildlife and nature specialists alike, especially given that the forensic and detailed analysis of the paw prints seem to tilt the argument strongly in the affirmative.
My interpretation of the article, given the collective profiles of the experts who appraised the exceptional evidence, is that this is almost a ‘Patterson and Gimlin’ moment in the study of British big cats, and certainly would have been, should Carl have chosen to allow the tabloids to butcher his evidence across their front pages, before presenting it in a measured scientific write-up. Thankfully, Carl chose the latter course of action, which may hopefully allow those with a vested and genuine interest in moving the subject forward to appraise and discuss his findings without a media circus hijacking the debate. It is in his course of action toward publishing these findings, that the rest of us can determine two things about Carl; firstly, his passion for scientific rigour in the big cat debate, and secondly, his wilful and deliberate avoidance of any media attention which would indicate a narcissistic desire for fame and glory. These two facts alone are enough to demonstrate that despite approaching the subject from different perspectives and backgrounds, we do indeed, like the wild cats we are both so mystified by, share overlapping territories.
Suffice to say, the photographic evidence found by Carl and his budding young apprentice as detailed in his article, is in my view, at worst convincing, and at best conclusive. So where do we go from here?!
During our conversation, Carl humoured me as I shared with him some of my ideas surrounding the mysteries of the reported lynx sightings in Britain. Being from the ‘Felis’ family, the lynx is slightly smaller than their larger cousins in the ‘Panthera’ lineage, and is often said to be the stealthiest of all the larger cats, and is also possibly the best equipped for a life of secrecy and camouflage. Carl believes that a lynx is the most-likely candidate for the animal responsible for the paw prints he and his colleagues found, which then prompted us both to consider the work of Blake et al (2014); the discovery of a dead lynx, held in a museum for over a century after it was shot by a farmer in Newton Abbot, Devon in 1903 is nothing short of proof that large cats were living in the wilds of Britain well over a hundred years ago.
Extrapolating this idea further, it is possible to entertain the notion that this lynx could have been a lone example of a long-hidden, struggling remnant population of lynx which may have survived in Britain beyond their assumed extinction. This notion, whilst wacky to some, could have been supported, were it not for the fact that the analysis indicates that the cat in question is most likely a Canadian lynx, as opposed to a Eurasian lynx (which would be the biological ancestral relative of any lynx naturally occurring in Britain, or elsewhere in Europe for that matter).
Despite this, it is still an idea I like to entertain, for if true, it could mean that all lynx re-introduction efforts and campaigns could be potentially far more misplaced than any cats which such campaigners wish to release into the British wilderness; furthermore, if true, then any such efforts would not serve as re-introductions, but rather, to supplement a struggling remnant population. I must be clear that it is not that I am against re-wilding (not even in the slightest), but I would find it amusing if the semantic pedantism often espoused by some of the elite re-wilding fanatics could serve to act as a trip-wire, should they stray too far into this debate with an educated cryptozoologist, who they may (like myself in the past) overlook as a pseudoscientist.
Castle of Illusion
Carl remained cool-headed as we discussed his article. He seemed to agree with my sentiments regarding the implications of his findings, but remained cautious in reply, demonstrating a level of insight into the limitations of his work which was refreshing. For much of the remainder of our discussion we spoke about the barriers which hold back mainstream acceptance and disclosure, focusing on problems such as the misidentification of known animals or domestic pets.
Cracking my knuckles, I sat forward, at last ready to contribute something of real substance to our conversation; this is much more my forte, having a career in psychiatry and mental health does often mean that in your professional work you will be tasked with helping individuals who may be experiencing symptoms of ‘psychosis’, which can include hallucinations and also illusions. Carl immediately saw the relevance of this and really paid attention as we talked about the impact of human ‘fight and flight’ instincts, and how when under stress, or with the addition of anxiety or fear, our sensory inputs can be inadvertently misinterpreted and give rise to extra-perceptual abnormalities and anomalies. This is a radically simplified précis of erroneous perceptual processing, but nonetheless does a reasonable job of explaining why so many people see monsters in the woods and forests of Britain.
That said, I do not believe that the majority of sightings of mystery big cats in Britain can be written off as likely misidentifications, but it does stand to reason that at least a small proportion of sightings can be attributed to errors in witness perception.
Honey I Shrunk the Cryptids
As our conversation drew to a close, Carl delighted me with a teaser for an upcoming project of his. In an area of study or interest where so many of the subjects (or cryptids) are described as being larger-than-life, with prefixes to their suggested names such as ‘big’ in the case of Bigfoot, ‘mega’ in the case of Megalodon, or with monikers for other examples including the ‘giant’ sloth, the ‘giant’ squid, or indeed ‘big’ cats, it was certainly interesting to have my eyes opened to the world of smaller cryptids. Carl is currently working on a refinement of the work of Bauer and Russell (1988), who first coined the term “microcryptozoology”; after labouring for nearly a decade on this concept, Carl now defines this term as relating to the study of cryptids which by description can be presumed to weigh less than 2kg (or 4.4lbs) based on the testimony of eye-witnesses, or the circumstantial or disputable material evidence which is essential for cryptozoological research.
Carl is now exploring this as a unique branch of cryptozoological study, with potential to refine the famous methodology of Heuvelmans (1958), with a view to updating it specifically to this new area of application; something I will very much look forward to in anticipation of possibly beginning a fresh adventure, to cease investigating ‘Britain’s Big Cat Mystery’, in favour of searching for any mysterious miniature moggies of this little island instead…
Find out more about 'Britain's Big Cat Mystery' at: https://www.britainsbigcatmystery.com
Find out more about the 'Centre for Fortean Zoology' at: http://www.cfz.org.uk/
Written by Tim Whittard FZS SACDip.
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING
Bauer, A. and Russell, A. (1988) Evidence for the tzuchinoko equivocal. Cryptozoology (7) p.110-113.
Blake, M., Naish, D., Larson, G., King, C., Nowell, G., Sakamoto, M. and Barnett, R. (2014) Multidisciplinary investigation of a ‘British big cat’: a lynx killed in southern England c. 1903. Historical Biology 26(4) p.441-448.
Heuvelmans, B. (1958) On the Track of Unknown Animals. Rupert Hart-Davis.
Marshall, C. (2020) The Missing Lynx. The Journal of the Centre for Fortean Zoology. Animals & Men (70) p.41-49.
Whittard, T. (2020) Britain’s Big Cat Mystery – Documentary. Mysterious Britain & Ireland. [Online] – Available from: http://www.mysteriousbritain.co.uk/cryptozoology/britains-big-cat-mystery-documentary/ (Accessed on 14th August 2020).
About the Creator
Tim Whittard is a mental health nurse specialising in psychiatric intensive care. Additional interests include; parapsychology and zoology/cryptozoology. He has written and published several essays and also a bestselling book.
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