I was recently sent a review copy of Merrily Harpur's book, Mystery Big Cats. I had heard very good things about this title, but had yet to read it - until last weekend. I've digested a good many published works (books, self-published papers, magazine articles, etc.) on sightings of unidentified Big Cats in the UK, and the problem that I had with many of them was that, frankly, they were deathly boring.
Reams of recorded material along the lines of: "10 June 1966: Puma seen near city of London; 18 August 1977: Wildcat seen on Scottish Highlands, etc., etc." may be of interest to those who wish to have access to a complete data-base of every such case ever reported. However, simply relating such material in robotic, unimaginative style does not a good book make.
Thankfully, Merrily's book inhabits very different territory.
This is a publication that is all things: informative, insightful, thought-provoking, and written by someone who has a keen appreciation, awareness and knowledge of her subject matter; as well as a fine understanding of British folklore, history, mythology, and the complex mysteries inherent in the conundrum that has come to be known as the British Big Cat.
Mystery Big Cats is essential reading for anyone wanting to develop a good understanding of the subject, and what may very possibly lay at its heart.
Many readers of this blog will be aware of the longstanding theories that suggest Britain's Big Cats are all escapees from private zoos, traveling circuses, and the descendants of exotic pets released into the wild when the British Government's Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed in 1976.
However, as Merrily expertly demonstrates, that theory is very much an article of faith. Indeed, she reveals how, upon rigorous scrutiny, and as a catch-all theory, it quickly falls down. So what are these mysterious beasts then, and where did they come from?
Theories pertaining to indigenous Big Cats are discussed, as are the parallels (and differences) between the Big Cats and the Phantom Black Dogs of British folklore. But, again, although some students of the phenomena have made a connection between the two -- with the Big Cat being seen as the modern day equivalent of the Black Dog -- the evidence is highly controversial, and the similarities tenuous.
Nevertheless, people are clearly seeing something. And Merrily makes this very obvious, too. It is to the reader's advantage that Merrily is a skilled writer - the result of which is that even though the book relates the details of numerous Big Cat encounters spanning countless decades, her style is neither boring nor repetitive.
And this is made all the more apparent when she digs deep into problematic issues surrounding (A) physical evidence for the presence of flesh-and-blood creatures in our midst; (B) photographic and film-based data; (C) the intriguing ability of the beasts to avoid capture or killing; and (D) why, curiously, so many of these animals are - time and again - seen near railway tracks and other specific locations.
So, what is it that people are seeing? Well, this is where Merrily's research really comes to the fore. It would not be fair of me to reveal to those that wish to read Mystery Big Cats for themselves the intricacies of Merrily's theory.
I can say, however, that this book will likely polarize readers into one of two camps: those that see merit in the theory, and those that are determined to look elsewhere. I will also say that Merrily's theories move away from the world of the strictly physical and into other realms of existence, into the world of ancient British folklore, and the nature of what reality is (or is not!), how we perceive that same reality, and what the presence of the Big Cats really means to us as a species.
This is a truly excellent piece of work that does not shy away from controversy - and, to me, that is a good thing. Merrily has produced a first-class piece of work that will enlighten, entertain, and lead to much musing and pondering with respect to her conclusions.
Readers outside of the UK should note that Mystery Big Cats is only available from Britain; and therefore if you wish to purchase a copy, it is recommended that you contact the publisher Bob Trubshaw for shipping rates, payment methods, etc. at email@example.com