Doubtful News is an evidence-based critique of news of the paranormal, pseudoscience, health claims, and anomalies. I'll be writing pieces especially for SWIFT that take a sharp-eyed look at claims in the media.
Today, we examine a piece that appeared in Harborough Mail in the U.K.: Another sighting of the infamous Black Beast!
Claim: A panther-like "black beast" creature is in the Harborough area.
Evidence: Eyewitness accounts
What should we think about this claim based on the information we are provided in the news piece? Let's unpack things.
From the local news story:
The incident is the latest in a series of sightings of ‘black beasts’ stalking the Harborough countryside which go back as far as the 1990s.
These include sightings at Kibworth, East Farndon, Foxton and Market Harborough.
The most recent was in Arthingworth in May 2012 when a report was logged to the Big Cats in Britain group, after someone saw a black beast with white patches on the front through a low- powered telescope.
Sightings are usually put down to pet leopards, pumas or panthers being brought into the UK illegally before being released or escaping.
He says he has seen it twice, on consecutive nights. But there is no word that anyone else reported a sighting at this time. The obvious question is, "Could it have been a dog?" Mr Voyce answered: “I’m definitely sure it wasn’t a dog."
How can he be sure? It was dark so the mystery animal was illuminated only by headlights. What is “mid distance”? We have to assume that Mr. Voyce is accurate in judging size and distance in order to take his word as fact.
Did he go back to that spot and look for tracks or traces? Not that we are told. Why not?
Additional information gives us more background.
A black animal shaped like a medium-sized dog was seen near Lubenham on Sunday and Monday night.
It was spotted by James Voyce about half-a-mile outside Lubenham on the Laughton Road.
Mr Voyce said: “I was on my way home from work on Sunday night and driving down the Laughton Road away from Lubenham. I noticed something in the mid-distance in my headlights.
Mr Voyce says he saw a similar creature about ten years ago along the same road.
He said he saw the same thing the day after, adding: “I saw it again on Monday in the same road.
“It seems to be hanging around in the same spot.”
There are MANY options to explain this recent event. The article contains an underlying assumption that all the sightings are attributable to one cause - strongly suggested via that last sentence to be exotic big cats that roam the UK. That has not been conclusively established. Sightings of such cats have been claimed for decades in the U.K. It is possible that exotic cats were released or may have escaped but that assumes it was done frequently (to account for all the sitghtings over the years) and also that they are still around or still being released (since the 90s in the current area in question). Without some information about native wildlife, it's not unreasonable that readers might assume that potentially dangerous cats exist here.
If a large cat is responsible for this sighting, we should expect other evidence. Other people should also notice it, not just one or two individuals occasionally. It would leave physical traces, such as prey carcasses indicative of predation by a large cat, feces and tracks, or a body (many cats are killed by cars). If we have any of these, it's not mentioned. This would bolster the claim considerably, therefore, since it's not mentioned, we might reasonably assume such supporting evidence has not been found.
There is even more to this story that we are not getting in the news report.
People are really poor observers, especially under less than ideal environmental conditions (like low light) or if it's a stressful situation (perceiving a potentially dangerous animal). There have been many incidents documented where people have mistakenly misjudged the size or type of animal observed. They may judge a smaller animal as being larger but far away or a small animal closeup (like a bird flying overhead) as huge. Humans are notoriously bad at this. Our less than ideal observation of details is well-established.
How does this witness remember a similar sighting accurately from 10 years ago? Our memories are also very poor and extremely open to change. It’s possible his memory now conforms closer to what he saw on those two nights; or, what he observed recently was interpreted with reference to the past memory. That's, unfortunately, how our brains work.
Large black cats, melanistic jaguars or leopards, do exist - in South America, Africa, zoos and animal sancuaries. The all-black coloration, while not rare, is less common than the typical spotted patterns. It has not been demonstrated that pumas (cougars) can be all black.
There also exists a popular cultural belief in black cats. Large cats are frequently reported to be this color. The feature feels more menacing and lends an additional air of eeriness to the story.
Domestic cats can get very large. Dogs can be mistaken as large cats. We KNOW large domestic cats and black medium dogs exist. This one article is absolutely not enough to conclude any of the following: that Mr. Voyce saw a panther, that there are exotic big cats in the area, or that there are panthers roaming the UK. If someone were to be impressed (or nervous) enough to pass this on and suggest any of those conclusions, that would be poor reasoning based on the incomplete information we are given.
There could be a population of rare, melanistic, non-native big cats living undetected in the UK. There also could be one recent animal, maybe even a big cat, that isn’t related to those past sightings at all. Or, people make mistaken observations under difficult conditions and then fit it into the local framework. Or, they are making it up for some reason. (This is not at all to say Mr. Voyce did this, but it does happen in some cases so it is an option.)
You can see that things have gotten rather complicated and the answer is not straightforward at all.
What did Mr. Voyce see? Given this information, we don't know. The eyewitness account is simply not good enough.
To accept that this particular incident is a panther is to fail to consider all the evidence that we have and instead resort to an emotionally appealing idea. It’s typical for local news outlets to exploit that and write such an uncritical story like this, maybe with just a bit of weak token skepticism. It gets attention, but it doesn’t reflect the best answer. As a result, it can engender a false belief that may scare people and affect behavior when the most likely explanation is just a big moggie (the cute name they call domestic cats in Britain) or dog and no reason to panic.
Sometimes, the BEST answer is “I don’t know” and to not continue to propage doubtful news.
More stories of about "alien big cats" in the U.K.:
Why did the cat cross the road? To create a newspaper story.
Police looking for lion in Essex, U.K. (UPDATED: called off)
British big cats: Where’s the evidence?
Beast of Bodmin pic is good evidence of … foxes
Sighting of Essex “black panther” (Update: Dog)
Panther pranksters in Epping Forest