One of the most popular subcategories of current cryptozoology, particularly in Britain, is the investigation of what are known as alien big cats, or ABCs. The word "alien" here is meant to denote large felines that are "out of place," rather than "extraterrestrial" -- for instance, a common panther or leopard found somewhere that conventional zoology says it should not be. Fortean Times co-editor Paul Sieveking reported that ABC sightings have recently become the hottest topic of interest among the magazine's British readers. Perhaps one reason for the popularity of alien big cats is that they are a more tangible quarry for monster-hunters than more fantastic creatures like Bigfoot. And there are sightings aplenty, totaling around 300 in 1996 alone.
In the early 1990s, reports began to circulate of alien big cats in and around Cornwall, in southwestern England. Bodmin Moor became a nerve center of these sightings and reports of inexplicably slain livestock, and the alleged leopard-like felines of the region came to be popularly known as the Beast of Bodmin Moor. All the talk of dangerous wild cats led Great Britain's Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to conduct an official investigation in 1995. The study's findings, released on July 19, concluded that there was "no verifiable evidence" of exotic felines loose in Britain, and that the mauled farm animals could have been attacked by common indigenous species. The report did concede, though, that "the investigation could not prove that a 'big cat' is not present."
On July 24, less than a week after the government report, a boy uncovered a startling piece of evidence in Bodmin Moor. Fourteen-year-old Barney Lanyon-Jones was walking with his brothers by the River Fowey at the southern edge of the Moor, when he saw a strange-looking object bobbing in the river's current. Barney thought it was an oddly-shaped rock until he pulled it out of the water, and discovered that it was a large cat skull. Measuring about four inches wide and seven inches long, the skull was missing its lower jaw but possessed two sharp, prominent incisors that suggested a leopard (as seen in the photos on this page). The story hit the national press on July 31, a well-timed counterpoint to the official denial of alien big cat evidence in Bodmin Moor.
The Lanyon-Jones family turned the skull over to London's British Museum of Natural History for verification. Dr. Ian Bishop, the museum's Assistant Keeper of Zoology, examined it and determined that it was a genuine skull from a young male leopard. But he also found that the cat had not died in Britain. Bishop concluded that the skull had been imported as part of a leopard-skin rug.
The back of the skull had been cleanly cut off in a way that is commonly used to mount the head on a rug, and there was an egg case inside the skull that had been laid by a tropical cockroach that could not possibly be found in Britain's climate. There were also fine cut marks on the skull indicating that the flesh had been removed with a knife, and the skull had slightly begun to decompose only after a recently submersion in water.
This was not the first time the skull from a mounted trophy had stirred confusion in the search for alien big cats. In 1988, two teenage boys found a skull on Dartmoor that was never turned over for official study, but the missing back of its skull made many experts suspect a rug-based origin. In 1993, the Natural History Museum had previously identified a large cat skull found in Exmoor as being part of a work of taxidermy. Doug Richardson, assistant curator of mammals at London Zoo, has suggested that a prankster may be planting these skulls on the moors in hopes of misleading their discoverers.
Sightings of the Beast of Bodmin Moor still continue. In October 1997, officials from Newquay Zoo claimed to identify pawprints left in mud to the south of Bodmin Moor as the fresh tracks of a puma. Soon after that discovery, an alleged photograph of the Bodmin Beast materialized, which seemed to show an adult female puma that was looked like it could be pregnant. The authenticity of this piece of evidence remains unconfirmed.