Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Cupar roe deer carcass

Britain is home to exotic cats of several species, big and small. If this seems like a bold assertion to make, I should point out that the evidence for the existence of so-called alien big cats, or ABCs, is compelling and if you want to know how I’ve arrived at this conclusion you should start by reading a former blog post: British big cats: how good, or bad, is the evidence? Once more, ABCs are the subject of much discussion here in Britain, in part because the TV company Channel Five is advertising a ‘big cat search’ project (website here). It’s fronted by Nick Baker, one of the few TV naturalists whose knowledge and approach to the subject I respect.

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.

15 Comments:

Anonymous Mark Konings said...

Couldn't the deer have been the victim of a poacher's snare, and then have accidentally fallen off the poacher's motor vehicle, after which its damaged carcass was partly eaten by smaller predators?

7:10 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Well, no. Snares leave very obvious evidence of their presence. And where is the evidence for 'smaller predators'?

Thanks for your comment.

3:35 PM  
Blogger Steve Bodio said...

For what it's worth-- I have seen (slightly more "eaten") cougar kills here (New Mexico) and the damage seems similar.

4:08 PM  
Anonymous Ville said...

Interesting.
What is the problem with these ABC's? Why aren't they publicly accepted? Very easily such cats could escape and live in the wild. We had a Lion reported in eastern Finland in early 90's. Numerous sightings and tracks.
I wonder if such escapees could start breeding in the wild or interbreed with native cat's?

7:21 PM  
Anonymous David Marjanović said...

What native cats? You mean ones that escaped earlier?

11:30 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

its good to see some one with some actual science training commenting on this issue - as an australian who's seen what feral cats can do I have no problems with the possibility a caged exotic or two ot three or a dozen might have been released or escaped into the wild tho I do rather hope our mystery big cat the so called "penrith panther" turns out to be a marsupial predator.

Just a thought - does anyone know if a lynx or scottish wild cat could take down a deer ?

2:50 AM  
Anonymous Filipe said...

In Portugal we have been arguing about surviving lynx (native). The damn things are hard to spot, even a small population. If you're talking about a solitary individual a carcass like that is already pretty good evidence.

On a different but somewhat related note, I see you have a question on who discovered Cryptoprocta ferox. Does that mean we should expect a post on the fossa? Are you going to talk about C. spelea (Grandidier 1902)? There is always the possibility that it exists as a cryptid. From Goodman et al (2004): "à Morondava l’agent forestier d’une compagnie nous a déclaré avoir capturé dans son poulailler un fosa de deux mètres de longueur, pesant trente kilogrammes !"

Goodman S. M., Rasoloarison R. M. & Ganzhorn J. U. 2004. — On the specific identification of subfossil Cryptoprocta (Mammalia, Carnivora) from Madagascar. Zoosystema 26 (1):129-143.

4:14 PM  
Anonymous Tristram Brelstaff said...

Has any one (independent of Barnett) checked with the police that they actually were called out to this incident and that Barnett's account is accurate? Is there any independent evidence that the photos were actually taken at that time and place?

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Roger B. said...

I tend to be sceptical about most big cat sightings in the UK, mainly because very few of them are made by the people who would be most likely to see big cats if they're out there (i.e. birdwatchers and other naturalists).

Last year I came across a roe deer carcass in south Cumbria that made me re-examine my scepticism.

The deer had been very recently killed - the blood was still moist and there was no smell of decomposition.

The carcass had been eviscerated and large amounts of flesh had been removed in a short period of time. It was hard to imagine that any of our native carnivores could have inflicted so much damage.

I have a photo of the carcass if it's of interest to anyone.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Roger: thanks for your comment. I'm with you on the scepticism. However, contrary to what you say, some of the best sightings I know come from the very people that you'd predict to see the animals: naturalists and farmers who spend lots of time in the field, often 'outside normal hours'.

Your deer carcass sounds interesting: I for one would certainly be interested in seeing photos. If you have them as attachments do use my gmail address, thanks.

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Roger B. said...

I didn't realise that sightings had been made by farmers and naturalists. The ones that make the headlines tend to be from 'Joe Public'.

My picture of the roe deer carcass can be found on Flickr at:
http://www.flickr.com/photos/roger/11988236/

With hindsight, I should have taken more pictures - including close-ups of any wounds - but it didn't occur to me at the time.

8:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I came across a link to your excellent blog on LJ, so I hope you will forgive me for suddenly appearing.

ABCs from all around the world are an ongoing source of fascination for me, although I remain skeptical - meaning willing to consider all evidence for and against- on the subject. I do have a question reguarding the British ABC. In much of the literature I have read, both supporting and refuting the existance of ABCs, British ABCs are often described as black and panther-like and of similar size. Assuming that there *is* an unknown species of big cat in Britain, there is one immediate question to answer: is it a native species or an escaped exotic with a small breeding population? Given the relative scarcity of black lepords to spotted lepords, it'd really be much more likely that if there was an exotic breeding population of lepoards in the UK, the vast majority of the individuals would be of the classic yellow and black spotted type. Yet time and time again ABCs in this size range are invariably discribed as black and panther-like.

Is it possible that there is an undicovered native species of large cat in Britain? Or is there another explanation for the 'black panthers' beyond the obvious (hoax/mistake/drinking etc)?

11:31 AM  
Anonymous ralph barnett said...

Hi Darren. Both surprised and delighted to see you taking an interest in my experience and photographs and the various comments posted by others. After this I became actively involved in researching the ABC 'phenomenon' for while until other pressures on my time prevented me from taking other than an occasional interest. I still think the whole area warrants a lot more 'serious' research. On a point raised in one of the other threads re carnivore kills in Africa, I was fortunate enough to visit South Luangwa in Zambia last month where I saw a juvenile giraffe which had been attacked by a hyaena. The giraffe had a large chunk of flesh torn from its front upper leg, the theory put forward by my guide being that this is a typical modus operandi of the hyaena, leaving the prey to collapse through blood loss or infection before finishing the job. The resident lions and leopards, on the other hand, do the deed immediately with results strikingly similar to those in my photographs.
Thanks again for your interest.
Ralph

11:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Darren,
I found your comment about Merrily Harpur, the Conference organiser, rather below the belt; you're obviously not acquainted with her works and if you took the time to correspond with her then you might learn something. Some of her theories may not appeal to everyone but I think her credentials are a hundred times better than a lot of the Big Cat 'experts' out there who simply plagiarise other peoples work. At least she actually organised something; it was unfortunate that she couldn't attend due to ill health as I think her contribution was sadly missed. Unfortunately the world of Big Cats is populated by many self indulgent egos; there are far too many people proclaiming themselves to be in the know and far too few involved in actually researching what is happening. Merrily's contribution has been outstanding and she has brought together an extraordinarily dedicated band of researchers that actually get out there and look objectively at the facts; I am proud to be part of that group. If it hadn't been for Merrilys foresight I would probably never have met most of the people involved. And who knows, maybe she is right and these creatures are something extraordinary that we daren't even consider....

11:08 AM  
Blogger Darren Naish said...

Response to Anonymous.. thank you for your comment. However, for some time now I have urged blog readers NOT to leave anonymous comments, and I regret that this is the last uncredited comment that I will publish. Please include your name in future.

I have not corresponded with Merrily Harpur, but I have attended talks she has given, have read her book, and have read articles she has written in Fortean Times and elsewhere. I'm on the consultancy board of the CFZ and have had long discussions about Merrily and her ideas with other people in the British cryptozoological community.

I agree that Merrily has made a contribution to ABC research in getting researchers to collate their data a bit more, but I stand by the comments that you regard as 'below the belt'. In a talk that Merrily gave in 2004, she argued that ABCs might be 'daemons' from another world, she compared them with the MIBs from the world of UFO mythology, with Mr Spock from Star Trek, and with pointy-eared elves from Lord of the Rings (really: I'm not making this up).

I don't see any need for ideas of these sort. Do I reject a paranormal explanation for ABCs? YES, I think it is total crap!! So, sorry, but I am not about to say kind things about Merrily's point of view.

Perhaps I'll see you in Hull...

10:32 PM  

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