Photo by LaggedOnUser
Stood at a Novotel in Longford, Coventry on a mid-October Saturday morning – with the nearby traffic of the M6 hissing over the fields that separate us – I don't feel like I'm set to witness anything particularly out of the ordinary. It's a landscape indistinguishable from countless other places and, framed with damp, autumn skies and a Northern breeze, the only emotions it musters in me are depression and a slight anger that I'm not still in bed.
Of all the scenarios such a dull place might play host to, one of the last you'd imagine is a wild panther roaming through the shrubbery. That, however, is exactly why I was there, accompanied by a member – let's call her "Jane" – of Big Cats in Britain (or BCB), a fringe group dedicated to tracking down the large, wild felines that people think they've seen roaming around in the British countryside.
So, just to reiterate: some people who live in Coventry have phoned-in sightings of a panther. I am here to "find it".
"Jane" investigating markings on a tree, potentially caused by the Coventry panther.
Every so often, the public will get interested in the work the BCB do, as they did when Essex police spent the best part of the August bank holiday chasing a potential lion around the commuter belt. But, for the most part, their world is one plagued with mockery and disbelief. However, while the Essex lion story was quickly relegated to the ranks of urban folklore, the BCB's search for big cats is constant and deadly serious, unaffected by an entire nation's worth of cynicism.
I'd count myself among the dubious, but after hearing stories of the Coventry sightings – both reported in September, near the same estate agent's building – it's hard to not let that little rush of nervous excitement up your spine sway your opinion a little. As I followed Jane on to a scrap of green while she looked for any evidence to suggest the Coventry panther had been in the area, I asked her how she first got into this.
“It’s just something I’ve always found fascinating," she replied. "Since I've had the computer the last couple of years, I've started reading up on things and the interest got stronger. I emailed a few groups to see if I could get more up-to-date information, then eventually found a lady called Merrily Harpur on Facebook. She pointed me in the right direction and I joined BCB soon after.”
If you're looking for an introduction to big cats in Britain, Harpur is a good place to start. Straddling an indeterminate space between speculative cryptozoology and something kinda, sorta, half-reputable, her book Mystery Big Cats confronts the lack of physical evidence for big felines living in the British countryside head on.
Her argument is that the beasts don't exist in any physical sense, but that they're actually ancient daemons and spirits, benignly lurking in places of transition (gates, doors, railway lines), occasionally manifesting in front of a startled passerby. Although that theory may seem a little ridiculous to anyone who doesn't believe in spirits appearing as jungle cats, it's one that taps into a tradition, started by the likes of Carl G Jung, that values experience over empirical evidence. Because one powerful nugget of truth within the big cat enigma is that the cats are regularly being seen.
Jane had a story of her own to tell me:
"My partner and I were out having a meal in quite a rural place and, while I was having a cigarette, I saw something across the fields – a brown, chestnut colour – jumping about. I asked my partner what it was and he said 'a pheasant'. I didn't think anything of it at first, but as we drove away, something clicked in my head that made me realise it wasn't a pheasant. I wouldn't have seen something that small from that distance. It was an animal of some kind. It reminded me of my cat chasing butterflies."
With mine and Jane's search of Coventry's undergrowth starting to feel increasingly desperate, with nothing to show for our efforts but a mangled hedgehog, I ask her another question: Isn't this whole thing kind of like a religion?
"Yes. Well, I suppose we have faith, at least. We had a challenge recently to get a photo of any wildlife out there – not cows in a field, but rabbits or deer, or anything you see in the wild – and it's really not as easy as people think."
That is the crux of the BCB; it's an organisation sustained by articles of faith and the passion of its members. And, like all faith groups, it has its haters.
"People join the Facebook page wanting to see pictures of big cats, and when there's nothing for them to see, some of 'em start ranting and getting crazy. I suggested to one that he talk to the local police wildlife liaison officer and go and have a look for something himself, then he got really irate and said, 'Oh, I'll go and bake the police a fuckin' cake shall I? You're all being a bunch of fuckin' nutters.'"
That scepticism is easier to identify with as we approach the estate agent's building and spot, hung from the wall, the silent and mocking icon of a big black cat – the company's logo. Seems likely someone saw BCB on television during the Essex lion panic, and decided to take the piss.
The beauty of BCB, though, is that they carry on regardless. Ignoring sideways looks from the estate agent staff, Jane tells them the stories of the panther and dutifully asks if they have any CCTV footage from the dates and times of the sightings. She explains, "It's our duty to investigate and it'll come out either way. We'll either find some evidence or we won't."
Why do you think so many set out to mock you? I ask her.
"I've got no idea. I don't understand what the aim is. Maybe they just want their 15 minutes of fame."
It's a point that stays with me, because it's easy to mock believers and – as Richard Dawkins might tell you (although he probably wouldn't) – attacking the speculative beliefs of others is a quick route to fame.
There is something special about this wild belief, though – that it can turn a landscape of ruin and deprivation into one of mystery and intrigue, all through a mere leap of the imagination. Maybe one day a photograph will emerge as indisputable proof that big cats are out there, but perhaps it's better that the felines stay as they are: either symbol of some ancient meaning or schoolboy joke, depending on your outlook. Because, let's face it, if the cats ever were found, they wouldn't stand a chance.
Spending the day with more people you wouldn't normally spend a day with: