Early one morning at the beginning of September 2015, I got a call from a free range poultry farmer in a secret location in North Suffolk who told me their CCTV security camera had captured what looked like a big cat.
The North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy - but read to the end!
We convinced ourselves we had seen some sort of young puma, or possibly some long-legged, pointy-eared lynx or serval. (Whatever it was appeared to have a long, slim body with a relatively short tail. At first we thought it had a dark patch at the end of its tail, like a puma's, but on closer inspection this seemed more likely to be some kind of shadow.) The footage began with a cat-like animal, shot in infra-red on a dark night at around 1am, walking towards the farm gate. Its eyes were two huge blobs that reflected the infra-red light. Then it walked towards a building just out of shot, at which point it tripped the visible light motion-sensor light and more details became visible. Possibly reacting to the light coming on, the mystery cat did a turn and casually walked out of view at the bottom of the shot. (It's a CCTV camera bolted to a wall, it doesn't move.) The whole sequence lasted just under a minute.
Its eyes shining in infra-red, the North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy approaches
It was an odd-looking cat - long limbed and long-bodied with a small head. My first reaction on seeing it was that I wasn't immediately convinced it was a big cat, but I felt that it couldn't be an ordinary domestic cat because its proportions were completely "wrong."
The CCTV records the footage on a desktop PC, it's not very high resolution and it was filmed mostly in infra-red in darkness. It was hard to make sense of the footage. Sometimes the mystery cat appeared like a stripped-down, wiry whippet-like slim puma, a bit like the pumas you see in South America. In a couple of frames, just after the light hit it, it appeared mottled or spotted. In one frame we thought we saw long pointed lynx-like ears. I realised most of this "data" was in fact artefacts produced by a low-resolution camera in low light.
Are the spots or is its coat mottled? Or is it just an artefact of a low-resolution camera struggling to capture data in low light in infra-red?
And are those pointed ears? Or is it another digital footage artefact?
The biggest problem with the footage is that it's filmed in just a featureless tarmac yard - there's absolutely nothing to give any kind of scale, except for a black rubber doormat in front of the door of a just-out-of-shot building. (We measured the length of the doormat - just over 1.83 metres.) When the light comes on, you can see in the footage the shadows of the bars of the gate, and various people suggested some complicated maths involving the length of these shadows and the length of the shadow thrown by the cat, and the distance of the light source from the camera. For various reasons we had to discount this.
As the creature walks out of the shot, the shadows of the bars of the farm gate are visible
My witness said his CCTV had some months earlier shown a "big domestic cat" (a feral?) that looked "nothing like" whatever showed up on his CCTV that early September night. Unfortunately, the software automatically overwrites footage that's not saved, and he didn't realise at the the significance of the earlier footage might have in offering some kind of comparison for scale.
Within a few days I was on the scene with the farmer, and we started doing some measuring, based on our estimate of how near the mystery cat got to the mat. It appears to walk alongside the mat for a second. From the farm office where the monitor for the CCTV cameras is, we were able to set up some crude markers based on shouted instructions out of the window in the approximate (emphasis on approximate!) distance from the edge of the mat that the cat got to in its walk.
There was some maths and some measuring the screen of the monitor and the proportions of the shot, and working out where to place markers based on this. We were warned by an expert at this point that just going out and measuring in real life features that animals walk past in the footage often isn't a reliable enough guide - there are all sorts of factors like perspective to take into consideration as well. This is especially true if the animal walks towards you in the shot.
We realised this was not very scientific and further study would be needed. Our very tentative estimate was that we were dealing with an animal that was just under a metre long, minus the tail. This would make it the size of a not very big puma. The way it hung its tail - pointing downwards then upwards at the end - seemed uniquely "big cat"-like at first, but in the following months I noticed some domestic cats - marmalade cats in particular - held their tails like this too.
We decided not to release to the media any footage until we'd got some more expert opinions and definitive measurements. Jon Downes, director of the Centre for Fortean Zoology, advised caution, and recalled some red faces when some previous footage of a "big cat" turned out to be just an ordinary domestic cat. A room full of close to a dozen big cat experts at a gathering of British Big Cat Research Group people came to the conclusion that our footage was more likely to be a "mutant moggy" than our hypothetical "North Suffolk young puma." The prospect of a mutant moggy feral domestic cat close to a metre long, though, was an exciting one!
British Big Cat Research referred us to Mark Fletcher, a wildlife filmmaker who works both in the UK and the US (his work includes filming North American pumas in the wild). He was happy to do some "scaling" work for us, overlaying video images from the footage on something that could give an idea of scale (he's done this sort of work before). First we needed, though, to get some measurements - to go back to the location in the CCTV with some measuring poles and ideally some big cat cut-outs with stands that could be positioned at various points in the yard for comparison.
After various delays (other - paid - work for me, mostly) I finally turned up at the secret North Suffolk location with my improvised archaeologist's-style measuring pole - one metre long, with a 50cm stripe in red and a 50cm stripe in white. (I'd talked to real archaeologists at the Dunwich Dig in August, they told me it should be two metres long, but I had to transport it by bike part of the way. (My previous cryptozoology trip to a nature reserve in Kerala, India, was much easier than getting a mere 30 miles across Suffolk by folding bike and public transport!) I'd sent the cardboard cut-outs ahead by post.
Me with the original one-metre long mystery mutant moggy cut out. It was way too big and the legs were far too long, as it turned out.
The cut-outs I'd made were a one-metre long, long-legged slim big cat (based on trying to make sense of the footage), which I gave a triangular chin and a short tail. Our first trial run with the cut-out in front of the CCTV camera showed that I'd over-estimated the legs - so we did the "big cat cut-out run" again, with the legs of the cut-out tucked in and taped back so they weren't so ridiculously long.
The "shortened-legs" version of the big cat cut-out, with a one-metre measuring rod for comparison
Our second cut-out was inspired by one that appears in a photo in Big Cats: Facing Britain's Wild Predator (page 51). This is a 75cm-long cat with a more domestic cat-type body, 75cm being the point at which big cats become "of interest." I named this cut-out the "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out. (Photo to follow.)
Our third and final cut-out was a domestic cat cut-out, intended as some kind of control. Curiously, both the domestic cats at my home declined to be measured for this - I eventually got the "average" domestic cat measurement of 50cm long excluding tail from a reference book. My own domestic cat completely freaked out when they saw the "big cat" cut-out too. My partner's cat was as unfazed as he is by everything else, and walked up to the domestic cat cut-out to demonstrate that is was about the right size.
Domestic cat cut-out compared to one-metre measuring pole
The whole thing was nearly called off because our measuring day coincided with a gale, but I managed to persuade our man in North Suffolk agriculture to let me go an in, measure, out quick-as-possible expedition. It's a part of North Suffolk where everybody knows everybody, so I had to do the "cut-out runs" in front of the camera literally at a run. There were occasional cars going past his farm, and I didn't want to compromise his anonymity with any suspicious goings-on with big cat cut-outs.
Simulating a big cat walking around the same yard as in the above nocturnal footage. Just visible on the right is the same doormat (covered in leaves) that's the only discernible feature in the night-time footage
So finally we had some footage of me marching around a yard with a one-metre measuring pole, following as best I could the path taken by our mystery mutant moggy. This was followed by "runs" with our one-metre-long big cat cut-out (with and without modified legs tucked in), our 75cm-long "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out and, finally, our domestic cat cut-out for comparison.
I'd abandoned placing the cut-outs standing up in various parts of the yard because the gale meant they'd blow over, so I just walked them across the yard, not always able to ensure they touched the ground, as the wind was so strong. We also had to be quick as the rain would quickly turn the cardboard they were made from into papier-mache. Footage of me doing all this recorded on CCTV, my partner in crime said he'd been inspired to return at a later date after dark (as in the original night-time footage) and repeat the exercise.
Performing for the benefit of the CCTV camera again, this time doing the walk with a "legs shortened" big cat cut-out
I sent off our little films of me briskly walking around the yard with cut-outs to Mark Fletcher, who very quickly got back to me with "overlays" that revealed that our mystery mutant moggy was, beyond doubt...
an ordinary domestic cat! And a small one at that!
Oops! The ghostly overlaid cat (bottom right, superimposed on measuring stick) is awfully small!
The above still from the video shows me with a measuring pole, placed on the ground as I reconstruct the walk of the mystery mutant moggy in the original footage. Superimposed on it is the ghostly outline of the big cat from the original footage, in exactly the same spot. (It's a fixed CCTV camera, the camera doesn't move.) The ghostly white rays are the illuminated gaps between shadows in the night-time footage, which show up on the overlay.
The "North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy" affair shows how easy it is to misidentify animals as big cats, particularly in the dark. I feel it's been a useful exercise, and the outcome shows the value of getting your mystery animal footage and photos checked out before you release them to the media. (I'd run it past Dorothy Byrne, head of Channel Four News, who'd past it on to ITN, and I'd contacted BBC Radio Suffolk who'd past me on to the BBC East Anglia bureau, but we'd all agreed to hold our horses for the time being, as it were.)
We had applied scientific methods and, as the police would say, eliminated from our enquiries one mystery "big cat." The best evidence for a big cat in Suffolk remains an ambiguous and faint 1990s photo of a big paw print from Dunwich Forest. (Elsewhere in the UK, the evidence for big cats is much better.)
The North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy didn't even come close in size to the "biggest possible domestic cat" cut-out
I'm also now much better equipped to respond to any other footage or photos from a particular location that come my way from Suffolk - or from East Anglia. I'm getting reports of big cat sightings, both recent and in the last few years, from North Norfolk as well.
My North Norfolk informant says there's a rumour going round that someone shot and killed an black leopard in North Norfolk in 2013 and in traditional East Anglian fashion, kept quiet about it. I couldn't help noticing that my database of well over 100 big cat sightings in Suffolk and just over the Norfolk border has a significant dip around 2013, the only year in which Suffolk Police recorded no big cat sightings at all.) My cut-outs will have pride of place at the book launch for Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, which will be somewhere in Ipswich early this year. (firstname.lastname@example.org for enquiries about the "guesty" for this.
I also have convincing testimony from a witness who's seen a different type of big cat - a black leopard - through a telescopic rifle sight in the immediate vicinity, and heard several other reports of a sandy big cat in the immediate neighbourhood. So there is, it seems, something big out there. As a result of this exercise, I'm in talks with some people about the possibility of setting up some camera traps on my North Suffolk informant's land, in what could be a possible "big cat corridor."
Thanks to Mark Fletcher, Rick Minter, Jon Downes and others who will have to remain nameless for their help and advice on the "North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy" and to the drivers and bookings team of the excellent Suffolk Links Pathfinder Demand Responsive Transport service for getting me most of the way there and back.
And finally... what about the weird proportions of our skinny, long-bodied, long-legged mystery mutant moggy, whose shape first led me to believe it couldn't be just an ordinary domestic cat? I showed the footage to someone in East Anglian animal rescue, who told me he though it could be a savannah cat - a cross between a serval and an Abyssinian cat.
They're "legal" from F3 - the third generation of being crossed with "domestics", but anything that's got more serval in it and you need a licence to keep it, and only a very small number of people in the UK are licensed to breed F1 and F2 servals. My East Anglian animal rescue source tells me he's heard from one of these legal breeders that there are unlicensed breeders out there in the East of England too, who are still breeding - and releasing - hybrid domestic cats with an awful lot of serval in them. So our small North Suffolk mystery mutant moggy could in fact be a mystery mutant hybrid exotic.
There's more in the forthcoming Mystery Animals of the British Isles: Suffolk, which is on Twitter.