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Far from the madding crowd: big cats on Dartmoor and in Dorset, UK

posted on 2023-05-22, 17:28 authored by Adrian FranklinAdrian Franklin

According to recent accounts by social scientists and environmentalists (widely supported by scientists and governmental agencies), most claims and beliefs about the presence of so-called 'alien big cats' (henceforth big cats) in Britain are largely imagined fantasies, social constructions and media-driven hysterias (Buller 2004; 2009; Monbiot 2013). The key elements of this story are as follows: a few big cats, escapees, have been found but a belief arose around the preposterous (and unproven) possibility of their surviving and breeding in the countryside; a number of cult-like cryptozoological groups have formed to study and monitor these animals (developing imaginaries that link these cats to other mythic and primordial bestiaries); the press have picked up on these stories and instead of promoting a healthy scepticism they have reinforced a positive sense of their presence, particularly around the rural hinterlands of cities and towns; and in turn, the constant stream of big-cat stories has served to create a solid sense of their presence in the countryside and thus other animals are mistaken for them in the half-light and shadows, predominantly by urbanites. This desire to believe in their presence draws on very deep-seated meanings and changing relationships between British society and British nature. Such sightings are likened to the long history of imaginary beasts in the UK and a yearned-for return of true wildness. In short, it appears that people now believe them to be there, but more than that, they want them to be there, they have become the focus for a new form of aelurophilia, or 'love of (in this case feral) big cats'.

I visited a few villages and small towns on the upper slopes and high country of Dartmoor over a period spanning January to mid-February 2011, and in North Dorset over two periods in April and June 2011. In both localities tourism has been a valued and essential feature of the local economy for over 100 years and so an enquiring tourist is neither unusual nor avoided. The ubiquitous presence of people with either dogs or in clothes that indicated they had been working with farm animals made beginning conversations about big cats very easy. I could open conversations by expressing concern about the dangers of big cats to their dog or lambs.


Publication title

Anthropology and Cryptozoology: Exploring encounters with mysterious creatures


S Hurn






School of Social Sciences



Place of publication

United Kingdom



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Copyright 2017 selection and editorial matter, Samantha Hurn; individual chapters, the contributors

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