The Cupar roe deer carcass
British ABCs have also been in the news this year because Danny Bamping, founder of the British Big Cat Society, has reported his successful exhuming of a puma skull from north Devon in July 2005. Furthermore, the first formal conference devoted to British ABCs was held in March of this year at Market Harborough in Leicestershire. Because the conference was organized by a researcher who believes that ABCs are ghost-like entities from a parallel dimension I chose not to attend, but as luck would have it she wasn’t involved in the end and Jon Downes had to step in to handle the meeting. Jon is also organizing the cryptozoology conference that I’m attending later this week.
Among the pieces of evidence used by some to support the reality of ABCs have been livestock corpses. For many years farmers and other people have reported finding the carcasses of large mammals – mostly sheep but also calves, foals and other livestock – that seem to have been killed by ABCs (for photos see Brierly 1989, Francis 1983, 1993). Supposedly, the wounds present on these corpses, and the manner in which they have been gutted and/or eaten, are diagnostic of felid killers. But like many who have tried to examine this body of evidence impartially, I remain sceptical, and in virtually all cases it is never really clear that dogs can be excluded outright. But there is one exception that stands head and shoulders above all the others: the Cupar roe deer carcass.
On the night of June 16th 2001, journalist Ralph Barnett was driving home from Dundee to Cupar (north-east Fife, Scotland). As a journalist, Barnett has admitted familiarity with the subject of ABCS, and in particular with the ABCs of Scotland, but he had no special prior interest in the subject. On rounding a bend and coming out of a slight dip in the road, he switched his headlamps to full beam. What he took to be the headlamps of another car immediately ahead caused him to undertake an emergency stop, but it wasn’t a car in front of him, it was – so he reports – a big dark-coloured cat. It leapt away out of sight, and as it did Barnett realised that it had been feeding on the carcass of a Roe deer Capreolus capreolus, still lying there in the road.
Barnett called the local police on his mobile phone and they ‘attended in significant numbers – certainly more than would normally be available for a disturbance in Cupar town centre at that time on a Saturday night’. The police elected not to retain the carcass and it was unfortunately dumped at the roadside and left there, but Barnett took excellent photos, all of which have been posted on the Scottish big cats website. A detailed description of the carcass was posted to accompany the images, and after being asked questions about the carcass by several ABC investigators Barnett supplied further additional details.
As seen in the accompanying close-up, the deer seems to have been killed by asphyxiation. This is evidenced by bulging eyes, an open mouth with protruding tongue and clotted blood pooled on the side of the face. The eyeballs were ruptured and still moist. A series of sub-parallel lacerations on the side of the neck look exactly like claw marks (and were interpreted as such by Barnett): they were deep grooves incised into the neck.
The fact that the carcass was in the middle of the road suggests that it was dragged there (Barnett suggested that the cat was in the process of moving the carcass when he chanced upon it). In keeping with this the carcass had been eviscerated, and what appeared to be a sub-circular grip mark was present on one of its shoulders. The carcass was cold to the touch and without signs of decomposition, and both Barnett and a police officer agreed that it had been dead for less than 48 hours. The tip of one of the antlers was broken off, which would also be in keeping with the carcass having been dragged across the road surface. The entire carcass was split open along its ventral surface, the bones of its pelvis were partially dislocated, and its left hindlimb was defleshed right down to the bones. Its ribs had apparently been cleanly broken. Barnett reported that moist blood, tufts of deer hair and disturbed earth were present at the side of the road.
So far as I can tell – and this opinion is echoed by those who have investigated the details provided by Barnett – this is a pretty convincing big cat kill. The extensive trauma present on the carcass simply cannot have been caused by anything else. The good evidence for asphyxiation strongly suggests that the deer was killed by a conventional felid throat-hold: if anyone can come up with a better explanation for bulging, ruptured eyes, a protruding tongue and clotted blood massed on the side of the face I’d like to hear it. The only way you could fake this is by catching the deer live and strangling it to death by hand, and this doesn’t strike me as likely.
In the adjacent image the labels denote the following: A. SIGNS OF ASPHYXIATION; A1. Mouth open / tongue swollen; A2. Face congested with blood / eyes bulging; A3. Neck raked by teeth and claws. B. SIGNS OF BEING DRAGGED; B1 Bite or grip mark on back shoulder; B2. Broken antler tip. C. DAMAGE TO CARCASS; C1. Split from breastbone to groin; C2. All internal organs missing; C3. Pelvis dislocated; C4. Rear left leg stripped of flesh. With credit to the Scottish Big Cat Trust.
For me, this case is a big deal as it’s the only truly compelling British big cat kill: there are others, sure, but the evidence hasn’t been as well documented or reported, nor is it available. Whether Ralph Barnett really encountered a big cat crouching over that carcass is of course something that only he knows, though personally I see little reason to doubt the veracity of his account. However, whether he saw what he said he did or not is irrelevant as the photos speak for themselves. Given that the other lines of evidence we have for British ABCs – the hair, photographic evidence, and the dead bodies – already demonstrate that the animals are a reality, it is inevitable that genuine big cat kills would be discovered and documented eventually. In my opinion the Cupar roe deer carcass is the first good, well documented example, and as such it's an important piece of additional evidence for ABC reality. Comments - negative or otherwise - welcome!
Finally, it’s worth noting that Roe deer are ideal prey for big cats like pumas and leopards, and they are regularly predated upon by leopards where the two coexist.
Incidentally, Britain’s roe deer are usually thought of as native – in fact together with Red deer Cervus elephus they are always said to be our only truly native deer (and this is in a country with seven wild deer species). But it’s little known that Roe deer were in fact extinct across most of southern Britain by the 18th century and have since been restocked from elsewhere (mostly from Scotland). Nowak (1999) – that’s Walker’s Mammals of the World (Sixth Edition) – cited Christopher Lever’s The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles (Lever 1977) as the source for this, but Lever only mentions roe deer once and not in connection with this successful reintroduction. An excellent source on the history of roe deer in Britain is Richard Prior’s Living With Deer (Prior 1965). While a handful of English roe deer might be true natives, it’s only really those of Scotland that represent the original populations. More on alien deer in a future post.
Note that this post was promised a loooong long time ago: see British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? and The bear-eating pythons of Borneo and Ichthyosaur wars and marvellous mixosaurs and Toys, toys, toys and How big is a white rhino. I may take my time, but I do keep my promises, see. For the latest news on Tetrapod Zoology do go here.
Refs - -
Brierly, N. 1988. They Stalk by Night – the Big Cats of Exmoor and the South West. Yeo Valley Publications, Bishops Nympton.
Francis, D. 1983. Cat Country. David and Charles, Newton Abbot.
- . 1993. The Beast of Exmoor and Other Mystery Predators of Britain. Jonathan Cape, London.
Lever, C. 1977. The Naturalized Animals of the British Isles. Hutchinson & Co, London.
Nowak, R. M. 1999. Walker’s Mammals of the World, Sixth Edition (two volumes). The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore and London.
Prior, R. 1965. Living With Deer. Andre Deutsch, London.