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Half a century ago, Belgian Zoologist Bernard Heuvelmans first codified cryptozoology in his book On the Track of Unknown Animals.

The Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) are still on the track, and have been since 1992. But as if chasing unknown animals wasn't enough, we are involved in education, conservation, and good old-fashioned natural history! We already have three journals, the largest cryptozoological publishing house in the world, CFZtv, and the largest cryptozoological conference in the English-speaking world, but in January 2009 someone suggested that we started a daily online magazine! The CFZ bloggo is a collaborative effort by a coalition of members, friends, and supporters of the CFZ, and covers all the subjects with which we deal, with a smattering of music, high strangeness and surreal humour to make up the mix.

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

NEIL ARNOLD: The London Leopard Fiasco

I have known Neil for fifteen years now since he was a mod schoolboy with ambitions for adventure and I was an earnest young hippie who merely wanted to start a club for people interested in unknown animals. Nothing much has changed over the years. We are just both a tad older...


Wow! News travels fast. A colleague of mine at the Southwark News in London contacted me recently after a man walking his dog had an interesting encounter on March 16th 2009 which read as follows:

“Just walking my two dogs late this evening (at Peckham Rye) when one of them started acting strangely near the back of the garden area. Then something came out of the shrubs and started to walk across the path into the picnic area. At first I thought it was a fox, then realised it was actually bigger than my dog, which is a young Labrador. Its tail was long and thin, curling up over its back and it had sandy-coloured fur with a leopard patching. It dawned on me that this was some kind of wild cat, then seconds later a second one, smaller, appeared alongside it and they both turned and headed up the path towards the wooded area.”

I was naturally intrigued about the sighting as I have covered much of London and the south-east for many years, but what mystified me, and also made me giggle more than anything was how my comments in response to the sighting, which I covered on my Saturday Strangeness column for Londonist.com, were picked up by the ‘big cat brigade’, namely Mark Fraser of Big Cats In Britain. I simply stated that I didn’t believe the witness had seen the normal spotted leopards as, in all my years of research across the south, I’d never received any consistent sightings or evidence to suggest such cats were out there. Black leopards, yes. But normal leopards, no. In fact, the witness could well have seen anything from a lynx, as I’ve seen lynx with slender, but not overly long tails, or something smaller such as a serval. I had no reason to believe it had been a pair of leopards. And no further sightings have emerged to suggest so.

The next moment, Cryptomundo website featured my article, and Scotcats (Mr Fraser) was quick to react:

“BCIB archives have several reports of spotted leopards in the UK, and even a picture to boot.”

In my article I also commented that I was the UK’s only full-time researcher into sightings of ‘big cats’ which also touched a raw nerve.

He commented: “I would also assume that people like Di Francis would have a little amusement as not being classed as a full-time big cat researcher here in the UK.”

I found this pettiness a little sad considering only a few months previous I’d written a post speaking of such ‘ner-ner-ner-ner-ner’ attitudes in the world of UK ‘big cat’ research. At the end of the day, to comment on my own research and then be criticised for it kind of shows how silly this has all become. The criticism also emerged on the Big Cats In Britain blog, under the childish headline, ‘Dooh they say no reports of spotted leopards’. Of course, the ‘they’ Mark was referring to was little ol’ me, and then the post began with, “Again we come across an author who claims there are no reports of spotted leopards in the UK.”

The ‘author’ of course being me.(and whilst it was actually nice to be called an author rather than something nasty,) I’d just like to finish by saying, Mark, I actually think it’s good that you’ve constructed the website for people to report sightings nationwide. I also respect Di Francis and her work, if it wasn’t for her books many ‘researchers’ out there wouldn’t be doing what they are today. But considering my opinion on normal leopards in the south was based on my research, and never did I say anything regarding the rest of the UK or your research, it’s crazy how such a detail has irritated you. But then again, I guess that’s what plagues this kind of research, it always has done. It’s going to go on forever. As many groups etc, emerge from the shadows of the mythical British Big Cat Society, it’s clear that it’s Ufology all over again. And proof also that it’s not about the cats, but the catastrophe of petty politics within a field that should be fun. The gloves are off…the anoraks are on.

If anyone has any grievances with me, my mobile number is 07851602853. Surely this can be dealt with by being adults ?

9 comments:

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

All of this begs one obvious (to me, a biologist, but obviously not to the Big Cat researchers) question:

Why, when the black coat colour is recessive and extremely rare in the wild, hasn't one or two escapee leopards such as were certainly present during the 1970s releases of pet animals mated with the native melanistic black leopards and produced a crop of normally-coloured offspring?

Normally-coloured leopards are cryptically coloured, and evolved this pattern for stalking animals like deer. Disruptive patterns like this are the absolute best way of breaking up an outline, and since most visual systems from mammals to reptiles, octopi to even bees use outline-spotting to recognise objects, breaking up an outline is really good camouflage. Pure black animals don't do very well since a pure black outline is really easy to see for prey, and puts the cat at a competitive disadvantage.

Working from this, the gene-pool of black leopards in the UK (if they are leopards and not giant fertile hybrids of domestic cats and a wild species) must be really, really small and cramped. This could explain the normal behaviour of UK leopards where people are concerned; our sub-species might well be so inbred that it really isn't up to much aggression and generally is re-evolving towards hunting smaller prey such as rabbits.

This hypothesis is supported by the deer population of the UK. Deer in Britain are doing really, really well and are hitting plague proportions in places since there aren't enough deer stalkers to cull the numbers back. In some parts of the UK the deer population is secondarily being hit by Bovine tuberculosis, caught from the wildlife reservoir here, badgers.

Part-starved deer infected with a disease that hits their lungs are really, really easy to catch. You'd expect that were efficient predators of deer present in an area with a high deer population and a disease-ridden deer population that the predator populations would boom and the deer population be efficiently culled by these predators; in particular you'd expect that disease hotspots like the LACS deer reserve at Baronsdown would be leopard paradise.

This isn't the case, though. We don't seem to have leopards in the country that are behaving as expected, and the reason may be a very, very cramped gene-pool which is drifting away from what you'd call a bog-standard leopard towards something smaller and a lot less dangerous.

So, what I'd like to see from the big cat researchers is a concerted effort to gather as much big cat DNA as possible, with a view to looking for species-specific markers and looking to see how diverse the population of these cats actually is. I'd personally expect it to be very, very limited indeed and I'd also expect the zoo population of black leopards to be pretty inbred too, given how rare the melanistic mutants are normally.

CFZ MANCHESTER said...

Of course Dr H is right and the focus should be scientific but the point is, and perhaps one he's missed, and this is perhaps not surprising as he has a life and most people inside such groups don't, is that they have NO INTEREST in solving any supposed mystery but in maintaining it.

With UFO research - a subject to be avoided at all costs - I soon found that the anoraks didn't want an explanation. They wanted more wild theories, more speculation, more fog around their subject. To them it was the number of years of involvement rather than what they had achieved that counted. Most of them had spent years achieving nothing and their methods were so unscientific that they'd never be taken seriously; so they had to blame scientists and speak of dark conspiracies when it was really their own lack of vision and education that was the real issue.

So this is about the people involved rather than anything else....big fish, smaller and smaller ponds.

To them an explanation, or the involvement of real life scientists, is not required or wanted. They want a mystery. They want aliens. Or "alien big cats".

Those criticising Neil Arnold clearly don't see how utterly sad and ridiculous they look. They are a sect within a cult.

Simply collecting sightings and more sightings is a failure of tactics and thinking. Sightings are just that, more evidence of not a great deal! And what is done with these sightings? "Ah we put them in the database!" And then what do we do? Talk about them!

What needs to happen now is to track these probably not so elusvive beasts down using common sense methods. Max Blake alluded to such methods recently in one of his blogs.

Who cares who manages this as long as the work moves scientific understanding forward and allows us to understand how and why big cats roam our countryside.........

Kazz said...

Quote "In my article I also commented that I was the UK’s only full-time researcher into sightings of ‘big cats’ which also touched a raw nerve"

A lot of us would like to be in the field full time Neil. but we have to work to pay the bills, fund fuel etc to do the field stuff!!

Dr Dan Holdsworth said...

The thing about being in the field here is an interesting comment: when you're in the field, what are you actually doing?

If all you're doing is mooching about compiling reports of doggy walkers who've met something big, black slinky and cat-like, then really I'd say that you weren't actually doing a great deal of good. Research on mountain lions in the USA shows that people and big cats very, very, very rarely meet one another and that the frequency of meeting depends much more on the individual character of big cats than it does on population density. Similar research in other parts of the world seems to show that big cats cat recognise individual humans; they aren't stressed by known faces, but don't like people they haven't seen before.

So, by compiling reports of sightings of big black cats, all you're actually finding is that one or two individuals have learned to tolerate people and don't mind bumping into the odd doggy walker on a morning.

What you're not doing is working out how many individual cats there are (DNA sampling of shed fur would help greatly here), nor are you working out home ranges (one black moggy looks very much like another), nor are you working out precisely what species or species hybrid these animals are nor are you even collecting enough scat samples to work out what they are eating.

The latter is important since there are whispers around that a new rabbit disease is around and is much more deadly than Myxomatosis; if this clobbered the rabbit population then that's one food source for big cats gone. In this case, what are they going to switch to eating? How many of the animals are there (proper statistical estimates, please, not back-of-a-fag-packet tabloid speculation) and how much of an effort would it be to crash the population if we needed to, for instance in the case of a Rabies outbreak?

The thing is, the British Big Cat researchers could be doing a lot of very valuable research even if this is just at the level of sample collection (which is drudge work usually foisted onto PhD students in universities) which has a fairly substantial lead-in time before a person gets good enough at it to be useful. DNA technology is just getting to a stage where a high level of automation can be applied to it; and present research on cats seems to indicate that there's something a little weird going on in their genetics since a lot of fertile little-cat hybrids are known which tends to make a mockery of the commonly accepted notions of what constitutes a species.

The thing is, to get anywhere in this research we need data. As far as I'm aware not even the DNA from the two skins of the rabbit-eared cats has been looked at properly yet, despite their being highly unusual and potentially quite interesting.

Neil A said...

Dan, I totally agree with all your points.My post was, however, simply proof that my older post a month or so back, about the pettiness within the 'field' was accurate. I really do believe that normally coloured leopards have been sighted across the British Isles (as Mr Fraser was quick to point out), but again, my original article was based on my own opinions etc. And from that, I find it at once hilarious and sad that my 'opinion' was ridiculed.

I certainly agree that these animals (black leopards) are feeding on smaller prey, and that the population is relatively small, certainly across the south-east (and, if anyone petty is reading this, I said 'south-east' - not the UK).

I agree also with the irregular behaviour of leopards which you pointed out. I was also interested greatly in the Malaysian leopards, and their small frame and slim build.

Tim (CFZ Manchester) however, has hit the nail on the head, which is why I've pretty much given up on the hope of 'big cat' research' in the UK. I worked with professional animal trapper Quentin Rose before he tragically died. This guy was scientifiaccly monitoring these animals and believed that humans would soon fall prey to such cats, and so called for government intervention. Quentin was, for some reason, ridiculed by 'researchers' across the UK, simply because he was serious in what he did. He didn't care about the mysticism these cats offered, he wanted them tagged or culled. He wanted to know why there was only black cats and not normally-coloured cats. When he set up camera traps to film cats, he wasn't simply interested in doing so in order to brag about his footage, he wanted these cats studied. He also invented the Rose Cuff, a trap device to secure but not injure cats.

Believe me Dan, I've determined several individual cats and their territories and been privileged to see felids in the wilds. However, constantly being lumped in with all the other 'researchers' can actually make one look an absolute twat to be honest. What you've said Dan I aready know, although I'm sure most wouldn't, so with all due respect, I think you need to realise why I've written these posts, for the same reasons you've mentioned...that 'real' data needs to be collected, but when this kind of research means nothing more than looking for UFOs, you need to understand why, despite whoever slaps on face-paint and camouflage, it will never break out of being a product of newspaper jouenalists who have nothing better to write about, and a hobbie. Science isn't accepted in 'big cat' research despite the fact you'll constantly hear of zoologists, biologists etc, belonging to 'big cat groups'. At the end of the day, full-time research cannot be devoted to these animals. Now, I'm sure a body will turn up one day or some 'researcher' out there will get his nice bit of footage but who cares ? No-one. It's tabloid fodder.

I've been disillusioned with the situation for a few years, and it's reached a bit of a peak now as time and time again I watch the same documentaries, read the same stuff on the net, round and round in circles....reams of reports, lack of biology, blah blah. And this is because 'big cat research' in the UK is a fad. A trend. A past-time. An armchair mystery. A place where people bicker. A place where everyone wants that piece of elusive footage. A place where everyone wants to be the official, or the biggest register, group, or cuddly-toy carrying prat.

And Kazz,I think you took my post the wrong way.I completely understand that not everyone can do this full-time, hell, it would be great if that was possible because then, like Dan Holdsworth said, more data could be collected instead of newspaper clippings. I was simply stating as to how the press print stupid quotes, which in turn aggravate the 'others'. And it goes on and on and on....

I hope scientists, zologists, biologists etc, in mass, get involved in the research, and hopefully then push out the ego's of the enthusiast who has turned this situation into a laughing stock.

stormwalkernz said...

Neil, once again a wonderful comment, and very very truthful. I became disillusioned quite a few years ago with British big cat research is seen to be just an arena for accolade sparring. I personally am not involved in big cat research here in New Zealand, I have a colleague and leave the big cat reports to him. Each to their own speciality.
I too am a researcher, though disabled and I'm unable to get out into the field I tend to look at more the behavioural side of reports. I am more a thinker been able to doer.
I did find the current situation among researchers is extremely sad and have often declared that some sort of review board needs to be put in place to assess research and have some control over the bickering and fighting that goes on. Most scientific establishments worked on peer review system, and I think until such a thing is in place this "science" which we devote so much of our lives and time to will never be taken seriously and the bickering and fighting will be a trademark of such a fiasco.

meeow said...

Well Said Dr Dan. Instead of using your blog to put other researchers down Neil how about you coming up with some of the DNA samples that Dr Dan has mentioned and showing us that all those black cats of yours are indeed black leopards and not just large black moggies!

I am in touch with other big cat groups, more than one, and from what i hear they do not jump to the conclusion that every sighting reported is a definite big black cat, let alone a black leopard. In-fact I have asked them several times if they do actually believe they are out there as they are very skeptical when reports come.

The thing that you are missing Neil is that those groups you are slagging off do collect data and store it all but there is a lot more to them than that. They put in a lot of effort keeping the website up to date and making it well known so that people do want to contact and tell them about their sightings because basically if we didn't have them then we have nothing at all! The group do collect samples and casts and spend a lot of time mapping cats and working out territories, which is what i'm doing myself at the moment. I think there is enough room for many researchers in this field the more the better really but I do wish you would ease off and get on with your research instead of trying to belittle those around you. The way you describe Mark Fraser is exactly the way you are behaving yourself. Why does it have to be a competition anyway? Oh and for your information, I research big cats and even if I had a picture of a black leopard sat 3 feet away with a cub I wouldn't share it with the press, we are not all fame hungry as you say!

Jon Downes said...

Meeeow - you are missing the point. Nobody is doubting that BCIB and other indipendent researchers are doing a fine job. That is not the issue at point.

The issue that concerns me is the way that certain people in the BCIB hierarchy spend their time sniping at researchers such as Neil and myself for no good reason.

This whole affair started because Mark F took exception to something Neil said in his original newspaper interview. He said that HE (Neil) had not come across accounts of spotted cats in his area of operation (Kent), not that there were no accounts of spotted cats in the UK.

Since then Neil has been accused of all sorts of acts of unprofessionalism, and I have had an email from another member of the BCIB heirarchy accusing me of publishing "torrents of abuse" against the organisation. Anyone who can read will look at the history of this blog thread and be unable to find any abuse at all.

Now let me make this public statement. I have offered the hand of friendship over the years only to have it rejected. But I will work with anyone within the cryptozoological community provided that their modus operandi adheres to our basic guidelines, and provided they conduct themselves in a civilised manner. And I have to say at this juncture, that I have never known Neil behave other than as a gentleman.

Neil A said...

Meeow, once again, like so many others, you've taken everything completely out of context.

I'm not slagging anyone off but I have a right to stand up for myself and my views, and don't like the fact that cowardly peope across the UK are keen to have their say without being brave enough to mention names, or maybe they should give me a call.

I've obtained numerous piees of evidenceover the years, such as droppings and hair which have been analysed, and proven to belong to black leopard, puma and lynx, and I've seen a black leopard on three occasions. Why I need to prove this to you I don't know, but you seem to be rather ignorant to the fact that a black leopard resembles nothing like a large domestic cat, and I'm sure you believe it's important to be sceptical in these field to reports, but I think it's actually better to be open-minded.

I think it best Meeow that you stick to your 'other' cat groups, because it's clear that on here you don't like views which do not fit in with others. You also seem to be ignoring the fact that 'big cat' research in the UK HAS become the next thing to UFOlogy and 'trainspotting'. I'm not slagging individuals off, I'm slagging the research off, because I've never come across such a petty load of cowards in all my life. Again, it's that sense of competition where certain individuals state, "We are the biggest, report to us", or, "Well, we've got a photo of a normal leopard...ner-ner!". So what.

I have responded to comments made about me, and I'm allowed that opinion, the same as you, but you've stated that I should get on with my research, and yet every time I do, there is some twat making a snide comment.I think they need to take a look at themselves in the mirror, and get on with their research but also expect that everytime they make a comment, they'll get a response.

You say that without these groups "we'd have nothing at all"...oh dear, how tragic that would be for people like yourself.

Time and time again this comes around, so thank you Meeow for proving my point.