So often we hear of such sightings of big cats in Britain which are often never fully resolved. What is it about big cats that provide such a spectacle to entertain our imaginations? Is it simply the danger, or the exoticism, or the strange, almost supernatural sense of disbelief that accompanies such stories.
I find myself sympathising with those on both sides of the mystery. I remember myself seeing what I thought to be an unusually large black cat after dark in Lathkill Dale in the Peak District. It stared at me from some distance, and each time I half-pressed the shutter button on my camera to focus on it, its eyes lit up with a bright orange glow (which I still cannot explain). It was an eerie, experience, almost in the realm of the Hound of the Baskervilles. In that story, Dr Watson perhaps distrusts his own flights of imagination, counting on Holmes’s unswerving, rational judgment to find solve the mystery. Despite what crazed imagination you might glean my own sighting in the Peaks that night, I hold no belief whatsoever in the supernatural, religion, the afterlife, or mythical creatures. To my mind, some rational series of circumstances most likely have caused the illusion - the human eye can have especial difficulty judging distances and perspective after dark (oh no, did I really fall for the old Father Ted joke of the small cow and the cow that is far away?). It’s also worth remembering that in Hound of the Baskervilles, like so many of those 19th-century Gothic novels which no doubt influenced Conan-Doyle in writing it, there was a rational reason for the bizarre but consistent sightings of the dog which glowed in the dark appeared to be breathing fire (it was a hoax, played out in order to re-enact an old legend and cover up a crime). All very Scooby Doo.
But it is the way in which animals act as a trigger to the human imagination that interests me, whether or not the Essex Lion turns out to be genuine or a hoax. False and unconfirmed sightings of big cats in the landscape have been a source of fear and wonder for millennia, and as the speculation rises around this series of events in Essex, the reports reminded me of an ancient Indian folk tale which appears in The Pañcatantra, a collection of allegorical tales that date from around 300BC, which teach principles of successful governing in the form of animal stories:
Once there was an ass belonging to a certain washerman. Worn out by carrying heavy loads of clothes, the ass had become emaciated. The washerman, hoping to fatten up the ass, covered him in a leopard’s skin and turned him loose at night in the cornfield belonging to some man. The ass began to eat the corn at will, and, thinking it was a leopard, no one dared to go near him to keep him away from the corn.
One day a farmer who was out keeping watch over his field happened to see the ass. Thinking, ‘It’s a leopard! I am as good as dead!’, the farmer covered his body with his grey blanket and, crouching low and holding the bow with his upraised hand, began to stealthily slip away. The ass, who had become plump and had recovered his strength, seeing the farmer from a distance, mistook him for a she-ass and, since his end was near, started to run after her at full speed. The farmer, for his part, ran even faster. The ass then began to think: ‘Seeing me covered in a leopard’s skin, maybe she does not recognize me for who I am. So I will take back my own identity and captivate her heart with my braying.’ With this idea in his head, the ass began to bray.
When the man who was guarding the fields heard that, he recognized from the braying that it was an ass. He turned around and killed the ass with an arrow.(From Book 3 of The Pañcatantra, translated by Patrick Olivelle)
The story anticipates so many ideas of later story telling: it provides a perhaps more ironic twist than Matthew’s warning in the New Testament of false prophets which may appear as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, while the mistaken identity of both characters in their unwitting dressing up anticipates Shakespeare in its comic conception (was Shakespeare aware of this story when writing All’s Well that Ends Well, I wonder?). Perhaps there’s a lesson here in us being genuine when representing ourselves, or in representing nature, or perhaps a lesson in how we engage with other natural beings.
For these reasons, the story of the Essex lion would almost be more interesting if the reports turned out to be false – it tells us a great deal about how our imagination interprets nature and creatures in the landscape, at a time when such engagement it waning. Either way, stories of big cats have been in the human imagination for thousands of years, and we have not seen the last of them yet.