fredag den 2. december 2011

The legend of the lynx and the law

The population of alien big cats in Denmark is somewhere between minute and almost not existing. There are usually only one or at most two animals at large at any given time, and there is not the slightest indication of an actual population like in Great Britain. So, whenever an ABC is actually at large, the entire Danish cryptozoological community (i.e. yours truly) is on red alert. And so it was during the latest case of ABC-activity in September and October 2011.
On the eve of September 24th a European lynx escaped from a private enclosure located just outside of Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark. As news go, this was far from being a world-shattering event, but from a cryptozoological point of view, it was extremely interesting. This was basically a perfect experiment. I knew exactly where the cat was coming from, and when it had escaped. This was the perfect opportunity to follow an animal from the moment it escaped, study the pattern of subsequent sightings – real and imagined, and see whether the animal was actually capable of surviving in the wild for any length of time. So I sat back and waited with bated breath for the action.
What I hadn’t bargained for, but which turned out to be a very interesting sociological bonus, was the reaction from the general population, both in the immediate area and in the country in general, and especially from a small select group of self-styled lynx-experts, who tried their very best to whip up a sense of general panic. And this in turn had a very distinct effect on the pattern of sightings.
The whole charade started out on September 24th when a man living just outside of Aarhus discovered that one of his animals (he had special permission to keep lynxes as well as ocelots) had escaped. It was a European lynx, an animal he had imported from France a year or two earlier. It was born in captivity, and had never lived in the wild. The man duly reported the escape to the authorities, and then started looking for his animal, hoping it would return when it started to get hungry.
The first sighting of the lynx was reported about 24 hours later, when a jogger in a nearby forest reported seeing a large cat, the size of a big dog, with very long legs and a very short tail. The animal appeared frightened, and ran off very quickly. Three days later a local hunter saw the same animal in the same general area, and reported the sighting to the authorities. He knew what a lynx looked like, and found it highly interesting. At the time he had not heard anything about the escaped lynx. The next day, a couple going for a walk in the same forest saw the lynx as well, and then all hell broke loose – a whole group of more or less self-styled experts started coming out of the woodwork, confusing matters and sowing the first seeds of panic. And local as well as national media started reporting on the story.
Expert 1 was the owner of a small zoo on the other side of Aarhus. He had several lynxes in his care, and in his opinion, they were dangerous animals, and this one, was “getting more and more dangerous, everyday it was out and about…it could easily mistake a child for its normal prey, because it was getting more and more hungry.”
Expert 2 was the owner of another small zoo. He assured everybody that he would keep well clear of a lynx in the wild, because these animals could be very dangerous.
Both of the zoo owners mentioned quite frequently the lynxes they had in captivity, no doubt hoping for an increased influx of paying guests following the escape.
All of this inspired a local chief of police to state that the animal was dangerous, that it should under no circumstances be approached, and that people should keep an eye on their children, if they were walking in the forest where the lynx had been seen. What followed was a frenzy of sightings.
Within five days, more than 60 people, some of them scared out of their wits reported sightings of the lynx. Only a few of them reported told the police though. I got most of the calls, being the only cryptozoologist in Denmark, and thus fairly well known. People were by now so nervous that they started to misidentify all kinds of animals as lynxes. On October 1st four sightings of the lynx was reported within a space of twenty minutes. The only problem was, the sightings were at least 15 km’s apart. There was absolutely no way the animal could have gotten around so fast. October 2nd the lynx was seen on a balcony on the sixth floor in the middle of Aarhus. It was seen on a playground, in a park in the centre of town, and on no less than six different fields in various places outside of the city. Dogs, cows and in one case a deer was misidentified as the lynx, and so was several domestic cats, as well as an old abandoned tent in a field. There was still a few sightings in the area around the place were the lynx had been in captivity (probably the only genuine sightings of the lot), but that was all.
At this stage several people tried to shed some calm (yours truly included), and pointed out that lynxes were not dangerous, and if they were, places like Norway and Sweden, where lynxes are a-plenty, would have dead children all over the place. But of course nobody would listen, least of all the “experts” and the newspapers were having to much of a field day to take notice of anything.
The chief of police were now in a state of panic as well, giving local hunters permission to shoot the animal on sight. This only added to the panic of course, as well as scaring a very concerned owner of the lynx who publicly stated his fear that letting a number of trigger-happy hunters go on a rampage would carry a substantial risk of accidents, dead dogs, shot cows and perhaps even wounded people – not to mention the fact that he had no wish to see his animal stuffed in somebody’s trophy room.
Within days (hours actually) he was charged with having violated the law concerning wild animals in captivity, because he had allowed the animal to escape.
I think there are quite a few lessons to be learned from this ridiculous chain of events.
First of all – be very careful with your sightings, when the “experts” have been at it, especially if said experts are of the panic-mongering kind. People’s fear and apprehension makes them see things. It can be very difficult to persuade these people that they have in fact seen a dog, a garbage bag or an old tent. “I know what I saw!!! Don’t you come gallivanting in here Mr. High and Mighty with your natural explanations. Don’t you dare patronize me, because I know what I saw!” So – a big pinch of salt is needed, and a lot of common sense. Try to focus on the zoology of the thing, and don’t be misled by very spectacular sightings, and please don’t be tempted to overdramatize things. Large numbers of simultaneous sightings, often over very large areas is a sure symptom of this stage in the proceedings. Relax! In this case we were dealing with an ordinary, although probably scared and confused animal, not a monster from another dimension capable of teleportation.
Second – be wary of experts, especially the self-styled kind. They can be very reluctant to withdraw their statements. In this case none of them cared that lynxes are not considered dangerous anywhere, except for the odd deer and similar creatures. This one was dangerous! And it was getting more and more dangerous by the hour! I am quite certain it would have been called a potential man-eater had it managed to evade capture for another week or two.
Thirdly – don’t expect the media to be willing to let your pour oil on troubled waters. Panic and general mayhem is much more fun – and it sells more newspapers.
Oh yes, I nearly forgot. The lynx was treed not far from where it had originally escaped, shot with a tranquiliser dart and brought back to its owner on October 9th, after little more than two weeks on the loose.

fredag den 17. juni 2011

The blue albatross

A couple of years ago a got a call from a friend of mine, with a problem. He is very much interested in birds, especially sea-birds, but unfortunately he is also the kind of person who can get seasick just watching The Deadliest Catch on the Discovery Channel. So he asked me if I knew of any place in the world where it was possible to do a decent spot of sea-bird watching from land. I told him in no uncertain terms to buy a ticket to New Zealand, and told him about various good spots.

That's nice, I hear you cry, but where does the cryptozoological bits come in???

He took of in november 2008, and soon I was experiencing a deluge of postcards, mails and phone calls from him, ranting and raving about petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses. All very nice, but nothing out of the ordinary, apart from one very interesting sighting. On December 6th 2008 he was birdwatching close to Kaikoura. The weather was filthy, rainy and windy, but a lot of the good stuff was coming in close to shore, among them several albatrosses - two phantastic royals and a wandering, and several smaller individuals of other species - and one of those was pale blue. Now he knew, and I knew, that we have several grey albatross species, and these could maybe look blue under certain circumstances. Except for the fact, that he saw the bird with several others, among those a couple of grey birds, and he insists, that this rather special looking thing was blue.

A blue albatros?? A marking experiment perhaps? No, my friend said, it was uniformly pale blue all over.

A genetic abberation? Perhaps - or perhaps even a new species.

I have no idea - my friend did not have a camera, so no pictures. But since then I have collected two other sigtings of blue albatrosses in New Zealand waters, one from the outer end of Milford Sound in 2007, and another one from the Cook Strait in 2010. It could be three different birds - it might even be the same one. I don't know - but please keep an eye out for a blue albatross, and if you get af picture - send me a copy!

torsdag den 9. juni 2011

Trial and tribulations of a cryptozoology

Sometimes people ask me:What exactly is it that you do? Well - just to give you an idea. On the cryptozoological front, I am currently analyzing various hairsamples from Australia - possibly from a yowie, the australian version of Bigfoot. I have a rather large sample of hairs from an orang pendek - taken somewhere in Sumatra. There are a few antler bits making their way through DNA analysis (who knows, there might be a new species in there somewhere). A strange carcass washed up on a danish beach a couple of weeks ago - that has to be solved as well. There are 7 tissue samples waiting in line for DNA - analysis. A couple of strange bird sightings have to be checked, and there are sightings of free-living siberian chipmunks here and there too. No problem in Siberia, but a bit strange in Denmark.
Oh yes, and there's a lady who wants me to rid her house of a poltergeist. Not exactly cryptozoology, but all in a days work.

The bird that shouldn't be

I have been a birdwatcher for more than 35 years, and like any other similarly inclined, I dream of seeing something rare, perhaps a species never before seen on my local patch, perhaps even a new species for my country (Denmark, in case you wondered) – I actually did once, but the Danish rarities committee wouldn’t accept it – or maybe even (dare I say it?), a species new to science, or one considered extinct. Although I am a qualified zoologist, I can’t claim any new species to my name, but when it comes to rediscovering, well… read on.
I have a lot of books in my apartment, most of which I am very fond of, and would hate to loose, but I suppose I could live without should the need arise. But by far the most precious ones are the lot sitting on the two top shelves of the bookshelf just to the left of my desk. These are all my old notebooks, chronicling my sightings of birds, insects, snakes, plants and sundry other organisms since I was about 14 years old. In case of fire they would be the first I would save after wife and kids.
Every now and then I take down one of them, flip through it and reminisce. I usually pick one at random, but every now and then I hit on number 17, the one that chronicles my first trip to New Zealand in 1991. I have been back several times since then, but this book contains the details of a sighting, that have bothered me for far too many years by now.
It was a beautiful spring day in New Zealand, and I was visiting Pureora Forest, a national park a bit south of Auckland. I had been in New Zealand a couple of weeks at the time, and had managed to see a fair selection of New Zealand birds. I had met a ranger who directed me to a very big observation tower in the forest, and told me I would have a good chance of seeing some good stuff, but just how good he probably hadn’t imagined. The observation tower was quite a magnificent structure and tall enough for people to be able to see over the top of most of the trees.
There wasn’t a soul about, as it was on a weekday, and not in the holiday season, so my girlfriend and I had it all to our selves. I was quite eager to see what was going on, so I sort of sprinted up the stairs onto the observation platform. Just as I hot up there, and stepped up to the edge to take a look, a bird took of from a tree about 20 meters from the tower. It flew straight off, with its back to me, continued for about 100 meter, and dived back into the trees. I never was able to find it again, and did not think much about it at the time, but I did make a drawing of it in my notebook. It was about the size of a European jackdaw, with what to me looked like slightly longer and narrower wings, and a longer tail. The colour was deep black with a greenish metallic shine, except for a broad white band across the tip of the tail-feathers. I couldn’t see the head of the bird, but it did call a single time. It sounded like the last part of the song of the European common rosefinch, something along the lines of “hyuuuuu”. And that was it – after making my little drawing, with the idea of trying to identify the animal at some later date – I forgot all about it. That is until I finally had time to sit down with an identification guide, which unfortunately was 7 weeks later back home in Denmark.
On the surface this sounds like any other poor sighting of a bird, and I would gladly put it to rest except for the fact that the only bird species in New Zealand with a tail like that supposedly became extinct sometime in the 1920’s. Ladies and gentlemen, please give a big round of applause for: The Huia. A very strange bird – mainly because the male and female had different shaped beaks.
So, did I see a living huia that fateful day so many years ago? I’d like to think so, and I still regret the fact, that I did not try to identify the thing at once – then perhaps some other birdwatcher could have gone in and taken a closer look.