Monday, 27 August 2012

Lion Hunting in Essex

For people to see mystery big cats in Britain is not so unusual. Such sightings have been a staple of the August "silly season" for at least fifty years, ever since the "Surrey puma" of the mid 1960s. "Our newspapermen report each big cat episode with a kind of playful excitement," wrote Michael Goss in Folklore some twenty years ago. "They show no great desire to investigate the matter; they simply collect what everyone else has to say about it, from eyewitness to police spokesman to zoo expert... If a story is a good story, then its 'goodness' justifies it being told - or, to supply a terse formula for the same journalistic philosophy, if it's good, then that's good enough."

Today's story of a "lion" on the loose in Essex, which had already gone global by the time police called off the search shortly before 3 O'Clock this afternoon, was certainly a "good story", if a rather hackneyed one. What gave it such a high profile, though, was the seriousness with which the local police appeared to be taking the reports; a seriousness that now turns out to have been entirely unjustified.

At around 7pm yesterday, Essex police were contacted by a four middle-aged caravanners - a brother and sister and their respective spouses - who told them that they had seen and photographed a lioness in a field at St Osyth, a village in northeast Essex about 5 miles west of Clacton-on-Sea. A couple of hours later, the force issued a public warning urging people to stay indoors while the beast was hunted down. "Police are working with experts from Colchester Zoo who can tranquilise the animal when it is found," said an official constabulary Tweet. Around thirty officers, accompanied by staff from the zoo, were drafted into the nocturnal search, armed with thermal imaging equipment. A police helicopter was also used to help the impromptu lion hunt.

When reports first surfaced on Twitter, I was immediately sceptical. I commented that "Surely if there were a lion loose in Essex someone would have reported it missing". Much of last night's reaction was satirical or amused - for example, the creation of a number of Twitter accounts in the name of the lion, the most prominent being @EssexLion. But not everyone was dismissive. The lion sightings had, after all, been given considerable credence by the police. According to media reports, moreover, zoo experts were convinced that the photographs they had seen did indeed show a lion.

By this morning, with the creature apparently still at large, the police were urging people to "be extra vigilant and cautious". An official statement encouraged anyone seeing the lioness to ring 999. But this afternoon a new statement appeared, announcing that the police now believed that "what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat. Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area." The police offered no apology for any public alarm their warnings might have caused.

Was there ever anything to suggest the presence of an actual lion?

The police stressed this morning that "Public safety is our priority, which is why we are taking the sighting and all associated evidence seriously." Public safety is indeed important. But it's not in itself a reason to bandy around implausible claims for which there is no corroborating evidence. Essex is not natural lion country. So the question that Essex Police should have asked themselves was not "does the picture look like a lion?" but "have any lions been reported missing?" The answer to that question was a clear No. Colchester Zoo soon confirmed that all its lions had been accounted for. Indeed, one would hope that any zoo escaping from a zoo or wildlife park would be missed long before it turned up in a field twelve miles away. Initial reports suggested that a circus - one of the last in Britain to use wild animals in its act - had been in the area a fortnight ago. But it soon emerged that the circus had no lions, only tigers, and that none of its tigers was missing.

It's astonishing that Essex Police should plough vast resources into a lion hunt without establishing that there was, in fact, a missing lion. Their first step, having eliminated the zoo and the circus, should have been to check with all known lion owners, who should be registered under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1974. There are said to be twelve privately-held lions in the whole of the UK, so it should not been too time-consuming to check that they are all accounted for.

The Mail suggested that the Essex Lion "could be an illegally owned animal", which was, indeed, the only possibility (unless it had materialised from some other dimension in space and time; there are those who believe that "alien big cats" are paranormal in origin). But there's no evidence that anyone is illegally keeping lions in the UK. In his account, Goss notes that both the "escaped exotic pet" and the "escaped from the circus" theory are "motifs commonly invoked in alien big cat stories - a piece of rationalising attached to explain the otherwise incredible."

The police might nevertheless have been justified in taking the claims seriously had the photographs given to the police shown unequivocally an image of a lion, taken locally.

Early reports suggested that the image had indeed been positively identifed by experts. But this later fell apart. Colchester Zoo's Anthony Tropeano, who analysed the pictures for the police, later described them as being "of such poor quality it's not possible for us to say one way or the other what it definitely is." Meanwhile, Sarah Forsyth, who also works for Colchester Zoo, told the Guardian that in her opinion the photo showed a large dog.

With no reports of missing lions in the vicinity (or, indeed, anywhere in the country), a massive lion-hunt looks like a gross overreaction to a couple of ambiguous and grainy holiday snaps.

The photographs were not released. Instead, the Mail website featured a picture of a lion which had been circulating on Twitter, "believed to be" the Clacton Lion - despite the fact that it clearly shows a male lion, taken at night, whereas the lion-spotters described seeing a lioness in broad daylight. According to Jonathan Haynes, the Guardian's Web news editor, the picture in question had in fact been circulating for more than a year. It purported to show a lion that had escaped from London Zoo during last year's summer riots, but was in fact a fake.

This sort of confusion is only to be expected. In the absense of actual pictures, a fake picture emerged to meet the demand for visual proof.

UPDATE: When the pictures did finally emerge (see, for example, here) what they showed was so obviously not a lion the police reaction seems even harder to justify. It's difficult to believe that experts from Colchester Zoo would have positively identified them as any sort of big cat.

What of the eye-witness reports? There were a number of sightings (anywhere between two and six) but they are far from consistent. The initial report came from the caravanning couples. Denise Martin said that she had seen "a shape in a field", a tan-coloured creature with a white chest which "looked like a lion":

We weren't scared at all - it was excitement. You don't often see something like that in the wild. One time it sat up and looked at us and we could see its ears twitching. It knew we were there and it sat down and started cleaning itself.

Her sister-in-law, Sue Wright, added that the couples had watched the lion for about half an hour before it wandered off. "The moment I saw it, straight away I said 'That looks like a lioness'."

A lioness, of course, differs from a male lion in that she lacks a mane.

Another report came from Rich Baker, a van driver from Romford, who was out walking with his two sons.

A man started running towards us yelling 'It’s a f****** lion!' He looked so panicked you knew it was not a joke. The lion you could see it from the side. I grabbed my children’s hands and we ran towards our caravan. My children started to scream, “daddy, is the lion going to get us?” It was one million per cent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane, it was fully grown, it was definitely a lion. It was just standing there, it seemed to be enjoying itself. There were a dozen or so people who saw it.

What happened to the dozen other witnesses isn't clear. But the full-maned creature that Mr Baker claims to have seen cannot have been the lioness reported by the Martins and the Wrights. Perhaps there were two escaped lions - or an entire pride. Then there was Rob Hull, a barman, who had already heard about the lion via Facebook and Twitter when he saw it "ambling laconically along by the lake in the field, like it didn’t have a care in the world." And Che Kevin, who was sitting with his wife "in the front room playing backgammon at around 10pm" when he heard a "very loud roar. It was incredibly odd to hear something like that at that time of night."

There are lots of things, both animal and mechanical, that might "roar" in the night. But when you know that the police are warning people to keep a look-out for an escaped lion, you may well interpret an unexpected sound as a roaring lion.

So that's the Essex Lion of 2012: a few misidentified photographs; an animal - probably a big dog - seen in the distance; a handful of inconsistent, indeed, incompatible, eyewitness accounts, some reported by people who were actually expecting to see a lion. It's easy to write it off as just another silly season yarn. But what really fuelled the story was the attitude of the police, who instead of calmly and rationally weighing up the likelihood of there being an unreported escaped lion on the loose in Essex indulged in misleading and irresponsible scaremongering.

And this matters, not simply because of the waste of resources in this particular case, but for what it says about police attitudes more generally. A lion is an obvious and dramatic threat. It's easy to imagine the worst-case scenario: a member of the public being devoured by a lion. This may have outweighed any rational calculations as to its likelihood to a police force anxious to neutralise any conceivable threat, however far-fetched. It's the same mentality that led the police to shoot Jean Charles de Menezes because he might just have been a suicide bomber, and which leads to security theatre at airports or to stationing anti-aircraft missiles on tower blocks during the Olympic Games.

Many will blame the media for getting over-excited. And they do. But the coverage was in the main fairly tongue-in-cheek. When official police sources warn the public to stay indoors overnight, when helicopters are scrambled and dozens of officers are seconded to the search for the animal, it's only natural to assume that reports are based on something more substantial than wild rumour. When the police announce that they are "working with experts ... who can tranquilise the animal when it is found" you could be forgiven for assuming that existence of the lion is not in doubt. When the police urge anyone who has seen a lion to immediately phone 999 it's not surprising that people start seeing lions.