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Doncaster News and Features: The Cusworth Big Cat Story
From The Scottish Big Cat Society.
By Dave Baker (YUFOS / CFZ).
For some time now, I have been a member and local representative of Jon Downes Centre for Fortean Zoology. A few weeks ago, I narrowly and regretfully missed joining in with The Hunt For The Cannock Croc described by Mark Martin in last months - and this months - Project Red Book due to work commitments, and I was determined that I would not miss the next opportunity to tackle a cryptological critter.
My chance came when, out of the blue - as so many of these kind of cases are apt to do - an Alien Big Cat report landed quite nearly on my very doorstep.
According to an account distributed via the forteana Internet newsgroup, an out-of-place jaguar had been spotted in Doncaster by a school-girl a little over a week earlier.
According to the report, on the 9th August, 2003, 9-year old Charlotte Clarke was returning home from a visit to Cusworth Hall Museum with her cousin Thomas and her Grandmother. They were driving along Cusworth Lane when Charlotte saw something in a spacious field opposite the hall. At first attracted to the sight of a long tail emerging from the tall grass, she soon saw the animal itself, crouching as if ready to pounce Charlotte alerted her cousin and Grandmother, but neither of them saw the beast, or even believed her. She did not know at the time exactly what it was she had seen, but described it to them. When she arrived home, she told her mother Diane, who did believe her, and gave her a large format book on mammals of the world. After pouring through the book, Charlotte was able to eliminate all other possibilities, recognising the jaguar by its distinctive rosettes, spots, and sandy coat.
Diane called a number of organisations, including the South Yorkshire Police and Cusworth Hall itself.
Charlottes story subsequently appeared in a number of newspapers, including the Doncaster Star and The Yorkshire Post on 12th August and featured as a typically tongue-in-cheek segment on BBC TV's regional news show Look North on Wednesday 20 August.
Only a few minutes after downloading fortean times reprint of The Yorkshire Post article, I received a message from fellow YUFOS and CFZ member Mark Martin, who had seen the story on the internet himself, who suggested we team up to investigate the case. I agreed.
However, we needed somewhere to start; all the reports I had read were light on tangible details I could use to track down Charlotte and her mum, Diane.
I called the South Yorkshire Police, and spoke to PC Trevor Suter, who was very friendly and extremely helpful. He gave me a run-down of the story more or less as I already knew it, and confirmed that there had been a number of similar Big Cat reports over the years from the Doncaster area, but usually of pumas or panthers. He explained that as a rule, the police only investigate such cases if the sighting is recent, as a matter of public safety. If there is no immediate threat to the general public, the report is usually passed on to other departments, even those outside the police force, such as the RSPCA.
More importantly though, PC Suter was willing to pass on Diane Clarke’s mobile telephone number, as she had made it clear that she was happy to talk to anyone with a genuine interest in her daughter’s sighting.
Moments later, I was talking to Diane, who elaborated on Charlotte’s encounter, and said that she had more than just a motherly interest in it as she herself had seen a “black panther” 2 years previously. We spoke for some time, and it became clear that Diane was well aware of the Big Cat stories circulating Doncaster and it seemed like she would make an interesting interviewee herself.
Diane had no objections to our visiting the family to interview them, but it would not be suitable until the following week.
Mark and I had already decided that we would visit Doncaster and investigate the location of the sighting and the grounds surrounding Cusworth Hall itself, even if we could not trace Charlotte. As Mark works long shifts, we could not arrange a date until Thursday the 21st. I telephoned Diane on that morning, and she agreed that we could visit them that afternoon.
By incredible luck, synchronicity, or by the arcane manipulations of the Cosmic Joker, The USA’s Most Maverick Investigator of UFOs and the Paranormal ™ Tom Bolloxinski was in the country too, supposedly for an appearance on Channel 4’s bastion of quality teatime magazine TV shows, Richard & Judy. Even better - for him - he was once again staying over at YUFOS Towers rather than a posh hotel “for the cute Limey ambiance, and the excellent company,” and not, he assured me over a glass of my diminishing Wild Turkey bourbon, “because its free.”
Of course, as soon as he knew that an expedition was on the cards, Tom was more than eager to join in, “…and show you guys how a real man chases pussy” - a joke we were “treated to” more than once on the day’s adventures.
However, as Tom is an expert wilderness tracker with years of hunting Thunderbirds, Skunk-Apes, Bunyips and Midgeman under his belt, Mark and I could not refuse him, so on Thursday 21st August we piled into Mark’s trusty Crypto-mobile, and, to the scene-setting sounds of The Darkness’ ball-busting Black Shuck blasting atmospherically from the car stereo, we set off for deepest, darkest, mysterious Doncaster…
A LONG TIME AGO
On the trip down to Cusworth we discussed other sightings of large felines in the general area over the years. Tom was particularly interested to hear about the visit Mark, myself, and fellow YUFOS member and PRB-publisher extraordinaire Jonathan Slater had made earlier in the year to the small village of Barnburgh. Our aim was to investigate “The Barnburgh Cat and Man” legend, so beloved of the Dearne Valley.
In 1455, according to Deane Valley local legend, an important South Yorkshire landowner, Sir Percival Cresacre was returning to Doncaster after a meeting with the Knights Templar, when a wild cat “issued forth” from the woods and attacked his horse. Cresacre was thrown from the animal, and a vicious fight began between Man and Cat. The battle continued through the woods, right up to the steps of St. Peters Church at Barnburgh. Cresacre eventually succumbed to his many wounds and fell to the ground, fortuitously crushing the beast to death beneath him. With his dying breath, Cresacre gasped his story to a servant who attempted to tend to his wounds and according to the legend his blood stained the porch of the Church and can be seen “to this very day”.
All we could find was a vague stain that was more than likely a natural colouration of the stone, and the cleaner we spoke to - who was the only person around the church, knew nothing about any bloodstains. We were allowed inside the church to film and photograph Cresacre’s tomb, which is on display in the nave. If this had been an episode of Most Haunted, every single digital photo we took would have shown spectacular orbs.
Tom expressed an opinion that perhaps the Barnbugh Cat and “our” Jaguar was the same one - “just real, real old”, but I think he was kidding. I hope he was anyway.
As we had plenty of time to kill before our arranged time to arrive at the Clarke’s house, we stopped off at Cusworth Hall first. Before exploring the grounds of the hall, we parked up alongside the field we suspected to be the one in which Charlotte had witnessed the jaguar, and - wary of trespassing on private land, examined the field as best we could.
Unfortunately, there was little to see. Since Charlotte’s experience the crop or grass had been cut, ready for ploughing, and the long stretch of hot dry weather the British Isles had been enjoying for the past couple of weeks precluded any chances of finding tracks. We filmed and photographed the field for the record, and then decided to move onto the grounds of the Hall itself. The Hall is actually a museum, and caters particularly for parties of schoolchildren, encouraging them to experience and nuture an interest in nature and conservation.
These beautiful grounds are perfectly suited for a large feline, with wooded areas, open fields and lawns, and some distance from the buildings themselves, a beautiful lake, but again we found no traces of a large animal. It should be remembered though that Cusworth Hall and its grounds are extremely busy, and populated by many visitors and staff; certainly more than enough human activity to keep a wary big cat away, at least during the hours of daylight.
On a whim we decided to enquire at the Hall itself if anyone had seen anything unusual in the area. A quick chat with the genial, but decidedly wary guide at the door revealed nothing; the man claimed that he had heard only a vague story about the jaguar, knew nothing at all about other reports, and suggested we talk to Colin Howes, the Keeper of Environmental Records, who was “somewhere around, probably down by the lake”.
By now though, time was catching up with us. We didn’t know exactly how to find the Clarke’s house and were reluctant to be late.
Tom, however, was not convinced that there were not spoor to be found, and suggested he stay behind and put his animal and monster tracking skills to use. “I’ve found ‘Quatch tracks in a Californian dry lake bed after three months without a drop of goddamn rain. On bare rock!”, he growled as he marched off into the trees. “I sure as hell can find paw-prints from an overgrown pussy in goddamn rainy England!”
Which, for the record, he didn’t, by the way.
We agreed to pick him up later on the way home, and then, making a mental note to contact Colin Howes at a later date, we left the Hall and Tom behind and headed for Doncaster.
CAR PARK OF HORROR!
Finding our way to a house in the middle of a city turned out to be more difficult than locating a hall in a remote area of the countryside. This wasn’t helped by Mark driving back up the motorway towards Sheffield and away from Doncaster because we were too busy talking about Mothman, The Loch Ness Monster and the CFZ’s upcoming Weird Weekend. Nevertheless, once we had realised our mistake, we were back on track, only to make the mistake of deciding to pull into Doncaster’s own ASDA car-park in order to consult the map and find out exactly where the Clarke’s lived.
This turned out to be the driving equivalent of entering a black hole, as it took absolutely eons to get turned around and leave the bloody place. How dare Doncastians go shopping on a Thursday afternoon? Didn’t they realise that there was a YUFOS/CFZ investigation going on? Mark told me that for weeks afterwards, he would awaken in the middle of the night, cloaked in cold sweat, madly screaming “Let us out out! Let us out! Curse you Asda, curse you to hell!”
Eventually though, we managed to filter back out into the traffic, and track down the Clarke’s home; and still with a little time to spare.
INTRODUCING THE CLARKES
We were made extremely welcome by Diane, Charlotte, her brother Reece, as well as the baby of the family.
Diane had told me that Charlotte had been featured on the BBC’s Look North programme the night before. As both myself and Mark had missed the report, we asked if we could watch it before the interview.
Typically, it was a fine piece of balanced, intelligent TV journalism. Charlotte was interviewed briefly, a piece of footage was shown - surprisingly enough, actually of a jaguar - (so someone in the research department of the Beeb was doing their job) and then the journalist-in-the (literal) -field, went out to investigate the location. He wore a jungle-style floppy hat, opened up a tin of cat food, and made jokes about saucers of milk. Laugh? I thought I’d never start.
After watching the TV segment, we headed out into the back garden to film the interview itself.
Charlotte is a very intelligent, friendly girl, and appeared to be an excellent witness. She thought carefully before our questions, was very precise when she knew the answer, and did not appear to embellish on details if she was not sure. Indeed, Dr. David Clarke who later watched the video at the following YUFOS meeting declared Charlotte a more competent witness than most adults he had interviewed in his time.
Here is part of the transcript of a personal interview with Charlotte conducted by Dave Baker and Mark Martin, both of the Yorkshire UFO Society (YUFOS) and the Centre for Fortean Zoology (CFZ) on Thursday 21 August 2003.
The initial interview was videotaped outside in the Clarke’s garden and further questioning taped on cassette recorder in the house.
DAVE BAKER: So Charlotte, can you tell us exactly what it was that happened?
CHARLOTTE CLARKE: Well, I was coming home from Cusworth Hall, and I saw a jaguar. When I went in the car, I looked in that field, and I saw this thing standing up, or getting ready to pounce at something. So I told my grandma and my cousin Thomas that I saw something, but I didn’t know what it was. So I asked them what has black circles and two little black circles, and (was) a sandy colour.
DB: And you stopped seeing this because the car drove past it? Or did the animal go out of sight?
CC: Erm….I think it was still standing in the middle…
DB: But the car drove past so you couldn’t see it anymore?
CC: ‘cos I was looking…still looking out the back of the car to see if I could see it.
DB: And was it in long grass?
DB: So how tall do you think it was?
CC: Erm…about up to my waist…do you want me to…? (Charlotte then stood up and indicated with her hand at waist -level) Up to there.
DB: Right, and could you tell how long it was?
CC: No, not really…
DB: No, well it is difficult to tell sizes with things like that. And what was the animal doing?
CC: Erm…I think it was catching something….like, trying to catch a rabbit, or… something like that.
DB: So as soon as you got home, what did you do?
CC: I asked my mum what has the description I gave to my Grandma, and I looked in a mammal book and saw what it was. And it was a jaguar.
Charlotte then brought the book over and flipped through the pages until she found a double-page spread of big cat paintings. The pictures included a tiger, leopard, cheetah and cougar, among others.
DB: Right so you looked into this book and you were able to find and identify the animal that you saw? And which one was it?
CC: That one (points unerringly at the jaguar) At first I thought it was a leopard, but it didn’t have the spots in the middle.
DB: That’s right, yeah. And what did you do when you had identified it, did you report it to anyone?
(Charlotte was a bit confused at this point, and could not remember whom her mum had called and in what order, but knew that the police had been called, among others.)
MARK MARTIN: And how far away from it do you think you were, Charlotte?
CC: Ermmmm….about where my mum’s standing…not really far… (This was about 15-20 feet)
MM: Not really far? So if I walk down your garden…just down here…and you say I was the Big Cat…… I don’t look like a Big Cat but we’ll pretend…how far away…if I walk back like this…? (Charlotte stopped Mark approx 20 feet away from her)
CC: Yeah, yeah about there.
MM: About there?…From you…which is about.. less than 20 feet…
DB: And where would you say it’s back was…where would it reach on Mark?
MM: So if it was standing here? How far up my legs would it go?
CC: About…about in the middle, where your hand is…
MM: About there?
CC: a bit…up… (This was about 3 foot)
DB: And was it side-on to you, or was it facing you?
CC: Erm…it wasn’t even…it was looking at something else…it wasn’t looking at me, it was like, erm… like looking at something, like its prey or something…
DB: Right okay, but was it sideways like, moving across, or was it towards you?
DB: Okay. Mark, get on your hands and knees (Mark got down on all fours on the lawn, much to the amusement of Charlotte and Diane, his head facing to Charlotte’s right)
MM: Was it like that or…..?
CC: Facing the other way.
DB: Go on, mucky your knees as well… (Mark scrambled around to face the other way.
All joking aside, this simple correction by Charlotte proved to me more than anything that she really did see something. An adult probably wouldn’t even have made any correction, assuming that this was irrelevant.)
DB: Okay so would you say it was shorter than that across, or longer?
CC: A bit longer.
DB: So a bit longer, right…Okay, you can get up now, Mark. That’s just to try to work out the sort of size it was, from a distance, because its difficult to remember if you don’t have anything to compare it to. (From this we can estimate that the animal was about 5ft long, not including its tail)
(Mark walked back to us)
MM: Well that distance there…..20 feet maximum. 18, 20 feet, that’s all.
DB: How long would you say you saw it for?
CC: Erm…..a few seconds….about...30 seconds.
DB: So it’s a fair time then? (My thoughts are that it was probably not this long, although Diane admits that her mother does drive “very slowly”, and Charlotte had said that she had continued to watch the animal through the rear window of the car as they drove on)
DB: Did it have a long tail or a short tail?
CC: Kind of a long tail…’cos people were asking me if it was a cub, but it wasn’t. It was too big.
We talked for quite some time with Diane and Charlotte after the interview, which was taped with their consent.
Diane has quite an interest in Big Cats and wolves, and shared a number of additional tidbits of information with us. At this time of writing we are not sure if these are local gossip, urban legend, the literal truth, or variations on it, but I shall look into these further in updates to this case.
*Rumours that that someone from the police was working with the Lancashire Fire Service Search & Rescue dog team in a bid to train the dogs to track Big Cats.
I was later able to squash this rumour by an e-mail to the leader of the dog team, who told me that: “There is no truth regarding this rumour, The Fire Service search & rescue dogs are trained only to find live causalities (persons).”
*Sightings of a Puma in the Bessacar area 2 years previously. Diane claimed that she witnessed a “black panther” herself, as it walked casually and serenely beside the motorway. Indeed, the so-called “Beast of Bessacar” was witnessed on a number of occasions in 1999 in and around Doncaster, and features in a number of articles in the Sheffield and Rotherham issues of The Star.
*A pregnant panther was released or escaped from a circus which passed through Bessacar 6 years ago. Diane says that the circus also had a male panther, which “pined” without the female and so was released by the circus on its way back from the region. Diane says that this is on record in the Doncaster Public Library, but although I have not yet had the time to check this out, it is true that Doncaster does occasionally pay host to a circus, which pitches it’s tent close to the area of Charlotte’s sighting.
Personally, I can see that a large cat may have been deliberately released, or may have escaped, but it seems unlikely that the puma’s mate would have “pined”; panthers are solitary animals, coming together purely to mate. Few mated pairs of animals “pine” at the loss of its mate. On the surface, it also seems unlikely that the circus would have taken the risk of releasing another large and expensive animal into the British countryside. That said, there is some precedent for this, and the story fits in with the all-round theory of just how large cats get into the wild in the first place. For example, a Yorkshire Post article (12 August 2000) describes how ex-lion tamer Leslie Maiden admitted releasing a panther and a cougar into the countryside off the A-57 Snake Pass near Sheffield in the 1970s, following the introduction of the dangerous animals act. It may even be this report, which has become mixed up with an entirely bogus circus story, to become local legend.
*Diane also told me that the photographer from The Yorkshire Post mentioned that a year or so previously, at a farm “5 miles from Cusworth Hall”, a “jaguar” leapt down from a tree onto a farmer riding his combine harvester below. The animal’s clawed attack missed him, but scratched the harvester instead.
This story was also told to me by a Doncaster policeman I discussed the case with afterwards, but he had heard that animal was a “tiger”, and that it had scratched the farmer’s arm.
I have a problem with this version, though. Jaguars and leopards do climb trees, dragging their slaughtered prey high into the branches and out of the way of scavengers, but tigers rarely do so, such is their huge size and weight. It is also my personal opinion that a tiger would have scratched the farmer’s arm off, or at the very least made a horrific mess of it anyway, but that’s by the by.
*A worker at Cusworth Hall told Diane that someone “down the lane” from the hall kept big cats, including lynx, and - apparently - a puma. The story went that this individual had been jailed for “drugs offences”, and that he may have released his animals into the wild before he was imprisoned.
This is an explanation heard time and again, and now so common that it has attained elements of the urban legend, but there are definite precedents for this. Much as carrying guns are now part of the drug and gang culture, the desire to appear to their peers as ruthless, windswept and interesting in a Hollywood Villain sort of way has, according to RSPCA and police, driven many drug-dealers into buying exotic and more to the point, dangerous pets.
*Potterick Carr Nature Reserve, within walking distance of the Clarke family’s home, has been the location of a couple of puma sightings in the past, and also the home of a small pack of wolf-hybrids, which during the Summer can often be heard howling in the night.
Mark and I explored the fielded and wooded area near the Clarke’s home, which in itself is an expansive place, and borders Potterick Carr Nature Reserve, separated only by a fence and the train-lines.
Unfortunately, we found no physical evidence for Big Cats of any kind, or wolf-hybrids. The weather had been too dry and the ground consequently too hard for tracks, and big cats usually cover their droppings. However, we found it easy to imagine that an animal like a large cat could exist there at least for a time.
Finally, we returned to the field where Charlotte saw the jaguar, but - as we expected - the beast and any signs that it may have left were long gone. The tall grass had been cut, and the field ploughed over.
After picking up a dejected Tom Bolloxinski, we returned home and, skilfully avoiding wrong turns and deadly car-parks, finished off our day with a stop off at a local hostelry for a couple of well-deserved pints of lager/cider.
However, the case continues: I have slowly been working to forge ties with the South Yorkshire Police, and have been added to their database. I have been assured that if any further Big Cat sightings are reported, I will be immediately informed.
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