Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The Monster Files

A few days ago I received an email from a man named Darren Weaver who had read my book, Man Monkey: In Search of the British Bigfoot. The book focuses on the strange story of a weird, spectral, Bigfoot-like creature that has been seen in the woods of central England since at least the mid-1800s.
As Darren correctly noted in his email to me, the book refers to the fact that the police force in the area where one particular encounter occurred in 1879 had some knowledge of the mysterious events in question.
This prompted Darren to ask me if I had tried using Britain's Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) in an attempt to determine if (a) the police had put together a file on the strange affair; and (b) whether or not such a file might ultimately be declassified - if it even existed, of course.
Well, Darren's email has prompted me to undertake such a task and I will keep you informed of any and all developments.
However, this got me thinking about something similar: namely the many and varied files that exist in official British archives on other monsters and mysterious beasts.
The following is by no means intended to be a comprehensive study of all the various documents that the British Government has declassified on cryptids. Rather, it is a taster for a much longer and in-depth piece of work I'll be publishing in the near future.
For decades, people have reported seeing so-called "big cats" prowling around the British countryside.
In a statement made in the British House of Commons in 1998, however, then-Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, Elliot Morley, confidently assured the House that: "Until we obtain stronger evidence, the reports of big cats are still in the category of mythical creatures."
Thanks to the FOIA, we now have that "stronger evidence."
Replying in 2006 to a FOIA request from a member of the public with an interest in big cat sightings seen in Hampshire between 1995 and 2005, the county’s Police Force released files that stated:
"Hampshire’s Constabulary’s Air Support Unit has been deployed to assist with the following reports: January 1995 – Black Panther like animal seen in Eastleigh. Two likely heat sources found by the aircraft, but nothing found by ground troops. March 1995 – Black Puma like animal seen in Winchester. One heat source found that could not be classified by the aircraft crew, kept running off from searching officers, search eventually abandoned."
Notably, when a similar FOIA request was filed with Sussex Police in late 2005, documentation was made available to the requester that read as follows: "Firearms officers have been deployed in response to such a report on one occasion, on 22 July 2004 – sighting by a member of the public in Seaford. The area was searched, but no trace was found of such an animal."
The story is far more spectacular on the east coast, however. In 1991, documents show, a lynx – that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believed may have escaped from a zoo – was shot dead near Great Witchingham, Norfolk, by a man who then placed the body in his freezer before selling it to a local collector who had the creature stuffed.
It transpires that an extensive dossier on the affair was opened by local police that – as with the above-reports on other exotic felines prowling the British countryside – would have remained under lock and key were it not for the FOIA.
It all began when police officers were investigating a gamekeeper who, it was suspected, was responsible for the deaths of a number of birds of prey in the area. The officer that interviewed the man in question wrote in his now-declassified report:
"At the start of the search in an outhouse, which contained a large chest freezer, I asked him what he had in the freezer, and he replied: 'Oh, only some pigeons and a lynx.' On opening the freezer there was a large lynx lying stretched out in the freezer on top of a load of pigeons! He had shot this when he saw it chasing his gun dog."
Britain’s big cats are no myth.
Some of us may think that a still-living dinosaur lurks within the deep waters of Loch Ness. Others may believe that the stories are nothing more than a ploy to help boost Scotland’s economy. For British Government civil servants, however, the nation’s most famous monster – Nessie – has secretly been a favourite topic of investigation for decades.
In the late 1970s, FOIA documents made available to the public in 2005 reveal, the then-Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher had seriously considered a request to use dolphins in a search for Nessie. If the existence of the monster could be proven, Whitehall thought, it would have a very positive bearing upon Scotland’s tourist industry. Amid complaints from the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, however, the plan was never put into action. But still the Nessie file remained open.
In the mid-1980s, Whitehall civil servants were tasked with determining if the Loch Ness Monster was at risk from hunters and poachers. At one point, government officials were seriously considering drafting new legislation to protect Nessie – a creature that no one could be sure even existed.
Eventually, FOIA-declassified documents show, the government concluded that: "The legislative framework to protect the monster is available; provided she (or he) is identified by scientists whose reputation will carry weight with the British Museum."
Of course, so far no such identification has been made. Unless someone in Whitehall knows something we don’t. And perhaps they do. In 1965, additional files show, the Royal Air Force’s Joint Air Reconnaissance Intelligence Centre at RAF Brampton analysed film footage taken in 1960 that purported to show the Loch Ness Monster and concluded: "One can presumably rule out the idea that it is any sort of submarine vessel for various reasons which leaves the conclusion that it is probably an animate object."
As I said, I have merely scratched the surface on the "monster files" of officialdom; and much more of a fascinating and eye-opening nature will soon be surfacing.
If anyone has any knowledge of official files on - and investigations undertaken into - mysterious creatures, I would be very interested in hearing from you.

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