The following article is based on a talk given at Pagan Pathways in March 2012
Mystery Cats are widely regarded as normal flesh and blood creatures, their presence in the landscape usually explained as animals that have escaped from captivity, or have been deliberately released into the wild since the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976. The popular theory is that because of the stringent requirements of the Act, which added to the expense of keeping dangerous animals, some owners released Big Cats into the wild where they would have to fend for themselves. There have been isolated cases where this might have happened, but the assumption that Mystery Cats can be explained by this theory has many flaws. First of all, it was a lady by the name of Di Francis who first published a book exclusively about Mystery Cats in Britain. She took the view that these animals were a pre-Ice Age species native to the UK, and somehow had succeeded in surviving undiscovered to the present day. Cryptozooligists take a similar view. They believe that such animals are either an unknown species yet to be discovered, or a species once known to science but mistakenly assumed to be extinct.
One of the main problems with this particular literal view is that serious efforts to hunt and capture these creatures have been carried out time and time again but to no avail. Organised searches by the army and police have failed to track these animals, despite the use of high-tech devices and helicopters fitted with heat seeking surveillance equipment. No hunts so far have been successful, despite many close-up sightings reported by farmers, gamekeepers, and shepherds; the sorts of people unlikely to wrongly identify an animal. The general public, along with police officers, have also reported sightings, often having seen the animals at close quarters in broad daylight where mistaken identity is also highly unlikely.
The territorial range of these animals is very wide, having been seen in many parts of the UK. So much so, that the media has given them specific titles. There is the Surrey Puma, The Exmoor Beast, The Beast of Bodmin, The Fen Tiger, The Shooters Hill Cheetah, The Lincolnshire Lynx, The Wildcat of the Wolds, and The Beast of Gloucester, to name just a few. When a spate of these various creatures is reported, it's usually referred to rather wittingly as a cat-flap. Their height is usually said to be around three feet and they are said to be sleek, fit and lean. Their fur is often described as jet black with a healthy sheen, suggesting again that they are highly unlikely to have once been in captivity; former captive animals tend to be flabby in appearance and ill nourished, as a result of being unaccustomed to surviving in the wild. According to eyewitnesses the length of these Big Cats is usually estimated to be around four feet, excluding the tail, which adds another couple of feet.
Many eyewitnesses often describe these Mystery Cats as lynxes, pumas or panthers. However, when eyewitnesses go into more detail about what they have seen, the descriptions tend not to conform to the standard features of these creatures. Lynxes, for example, are smaller than leopards and tigers, which are certainly big cats. An unmistakable feature of lynxes, apart from their smaller size, is their short stubby tail and also a tuft of black hair on top of each ear. As for pumas - these creatures, unlike most Mystery Cats, are never black. Their colour tends to range from fawn to ginger and also a sort of dark tan.
It has been suggested, owing to the large numbers of sightings where Mystery Cats are described as completely black, that these animals are black panthers. However, a black panther is actually a leopard, but without visible spots owing to a genetic condition affecting its coat. They are actually fairly uncommon and therefore valuable exhibits in zoos, which means there's a strong incentive to capture one. If Mystery Cats are indeed panthers, then presumably they would be breeding and before long large numbers of conventionally spotted leopards would be seen. But as it turns out, no reports have yet come in of Mystery Cats having spots, despite the huge number of sightings that take place in broad daylight and at close quarters.
There is also the added problem that a leopard, whether spotted or otherwise, is an extremely dangerous animal and will often attack humans owing to their resemblance to monkeys, which are common prey to leopards. Many sightings of Mystery Cats take place at very close quarters - no more than several yards away in some cases - but these cats never attack. They simply tend to stare in a sort of detached way at the eyewitness before turning away and sometimes bounding off at great speed; other times they just slowly saunter off and disappear into a hedge or some undergrowth.
In 2010 the 'Big Cats in Britain' research group set up fifty trail cams in hotspots throughout the country. These are cameras so designed that when a solid object passes in front of the lens the cameras are automatically triggered into taking a photo. Needless to say, a variety of wild animals have been caught on these cameras - but so far, no Big Cats! Another feature of technology nowadays is that many people have mobile phones with built-in cameras, but still no Big Cats have been photographed, at least not clearly enough to provide any good evidence. Some eyewitnesses have said afterwards that they regret not having taken a photo of what they had seen, but somehow at the time it never occurred to them to do so. Why such opportunities are lost is an interesting and relevant point, which I'll come back to near the end of this article. A few pictures, however, do tend to appear from time to time in magazines dealing with the unexplained, but the images are nearly always vague or clearly the result of obvious crude hoaxes - and there are never any shortage of those.
In view of the elusive nature of Mystery Cats the suspicion has arisen amongst some researchers that something uncanny seems to be going on. But what is it? And can any sense be made of the phenomenon? Merrily Harpur, who has investigated the issue in great depth and written a book on the subject, has arrived at the conclusion that Mystery Cats, like Black Dogs, are possibly daimonic in nature. According to the Neo-Platonists and the Ancient Greeks, a daimonic entity is not actually a ghost or spirit in the conventional understanding of the words. Daimonic creatures are said to inhabit a reality between the physical world we all live in, and an invisible realm allegedly just beyond our so-called reality. In other words, daimons are essentially paradoxical entities, with a foot - or in the case of Mystery Cats - a paw in both realities.
If Mystery Cats are indeed daimonic, then this would account for their contradictory nature; on the one hand they're elusive and apparitional, but on the other hand they often leave physical traces such as paw prints, scratch marks and evidence of having killed farm animals. In other words, Mystery Cats give every impression of being completely corporeal and solid, which they are in a way, and this has obviously led to the assumption that they are normal flesh and blood creatures. Mystery Cats have also frequently been seen dashing across roads in front of approaching cars, and occasionally been struck by vehicles. But when the driver has got out expecting to see a road kill, there is no sign of the animal but there is usually extensive damage to the front of the vehicle. Unlike Black Dogs, Mystery Cats don't patrol roads; they tend to cross them, often in a single bound, barely touching the tarmac more than once. And then they've gone. But Mystery Cats have been observed running along railway tracks, especially on lines where there is an embankment on either side.
Looking at the issue from an Earth Mysteries perspective, Mystery Cats are mostly seen where there seems to be a good balance between yin and yang energies. These areas where the topography suddenly changes from level to steep are also liminal, or threshold, areas. They're in-between places, and daimons, of course, are in-between entities. Other liminal features of a landscape are rivers, streams and footpaths - in fact any feature that creates a boundary or defines one place from another is liminal. Many Mystery Cats have been seen close to gates, which are also boundaries. Other areas where Mystery Cats have frequently been seen are golf courses, with their flat, yin energy and yang hillocks or bunkers. Quarries also frequently come up in reports; quarries are basically large holes in the ground, which are balanced against steep cliffs surrounding the excavations.
Another feature of daimons is the speed at which they can move. Many eyewitnesses testify to the unnaturally tremendous speed of Mystery Cats as they've run across fields. One eyewitness described it as more like gliding than running, with the body held close to the ground. Being contradictory entities, they've also been perceived as moving almost as if in slow motion. Yet another feature of daimons is their renowned trickiness, a trait also shared with other entities of the fairy realm. When some eyewitnesses have attempted to follow Mystery Cats, the creatures have somehow managed to suddenly and mysteriously double back and appear in a completely different place. There are reports of nature spirits of the Earth variety having done the same when someone has tried to follow them.
For centuries, daimons have been known for their tendency to mimic the creatures of our own world, be they animal or human. For example, Mystery Cats have also been seen stalking small prey, which sometimes they catch, but at other times just seem to go through the motions of stalking. Real live animals, such as cattle, sheep and dogs have also shown a response to the presence of Mystery Cats. Sometimes the response of the animals is agitated, as one would expect, but at other times livestock simply observe the presence of the Mystery Cat in a curious sort of way. One Mystery Cat was actually seen in a field casually sauntering through a flock of sheep. At first the sheep stared at the cat, before going back to eating grass, as sheep tend to do.
Daimons are also notorious for creating missed opportunities, which might be why people armed with cameras never think of taking a snapshot. One farmer with a shotgun actually had a Mystery Cat in his sight, but for some reason decided not to squeeze the trigger, and watched as the cat strolled away. The late Tim Dinsdale, who spent many years of his life around Loch Ness searching for evidence of the Loch Ness Monster, once told a story of how he had been manning a camera post all day when something large broke the surface about 200 yards away. However, as he spun the camera, a tree trunk blocked his view and he missed the shot. There are also numerous reports of cameras that have jammed when attempting to photograph anomalous creatures - or if the camera shutter has functioned properly, then the film after processing fails to show any image. If Mystery Cats are indeed daimons, then they can never be pinned down by the efforts of humans. They can only be recognised for what they are - creatures of paradox.
Recommended further reading:
Mystery Big Cats: Merrily Harpur
Daimonic Reality: Patrick Harpur
Mystery Animals of Britain and Ireland: Graham J. McEwan
Explore Phantom Black Dogs: Edited by Bob Trubshaw
Explore Fairy Traditions: Jeremy Harte