Tuesday, 11 June 2013

The Trouble With Eye Witnesses

     A major drawback with cryptozoology - and a lot of anomaly research in general - is that it has to rely to a large extent on eye witness testimony. Of course, we would like additional evidence: footprints, photos, films, hair and other DNA samples, and - the holy grail - a carcass. But, by and large, before anybody even looks for such evidence, somebody has to see something - and tell us about it.
     Now, eye witness testimony puts people in jail, so it shouldn't be scoffed at. However, as anyone involved in criminal investigation knows, there are eye witnesses and eye witnesses. To put it bluntly, some people's powers of observation and recall are less than adequate. To illustrate, let me share two double witnesses sightings I investigated. Even when two people see the same thing, there still remains the problem of cross-fertilisation, especially if they have discussed the matter before being interviewed, as is usually the case. Certainly, it is always important to interview both separately. Just the same, the bottom line is that two pairs of eyes are better than one. So, with these reservations, let us proceed.
A Good Case
    This first sighting took place near Cooyar, a small town in the southeast Queensland ranges, situated at approximately 26° 59' S, 151° 50' E. The witnesses were Robert (Bob) Reid, miner, of Clermont and Mike Kohens, refrigerator mechanic, of Caboolture. I interviewed them separately by telephone on 10 and 11 May 1997.

1st Witness:  Bob Reid
     Some time in January or February 1997 Mike got called to a job in Cunnamulla and Bob decided to accompany him.  They left Caboolture in a van about one in the morning, and were passing through the Cooyar district about 2.30 or 3 a.m. when the incident occurred.  The night was quite cold.  The road was winding, so they were not going fast.  The countryside was thick vine scrub, and there was an embankment about 5 or 6 feet high on one side.  Suddenly the animal sprang across the road in two or three bounds, missing the front of the vehicle by several feet.  When it landed on the top of the embankment it turned and looked back at them, still in the glare of the headlights.
     It was a cat 2'6" to 3' high, with a long body and very muscular legs.  The body was a greyish, fawny colour. He volunteered the information that he differed from Mike in his perception that it was striped, whereas Mike felt it was mottled or spotted.  The head was distinctly white, and the white extended to the shoulders.  It had a long tail stretching straight out the back.
     Other sightings: They did not report the sighting for fear of bringing hunters into the area, but they did make enquiries.  They found no-one who had suffered stock losses, but there had been other sightings.  One was near the Oakey RAAF base, and there was a rumour that US airmen brought them into the base as mascots in World War II. (This rumour is common throughout the country.)

2nd Witness: Mike Kohens
     He had got a job at Cunnamulla, so he and Bob left Caboolture about 2 or 2.30 am.  He would have to check his diary, but he thinks it was 21 or 28 February.  At any rate, it was a Friday morning.  They had had some sleep, and were wide awake, but were in a quiet reverie, and he was driving.  It was about 3.30, and they were about a kilometre south of Cooyar.  Suddenly the animal appeared about 15 feet in front of them.  It took 2 or 3 steps from the right hand side of the road and then, its feet close to the centre, took one mighty leap onto the embankment without ever touching the left hand side of the road.  The embankment was a couple of metres high, and grassy.  Then it turned, looked back at them, smiling, and disappeared.
      "Holy shit!" said Mike.  "That was a big animal!  I thought it was a stoat, but it was much too big."  They discussed it, and agreed it must have been a big cat.
     The only thing he thought it might be was a snow leopard.  He thought of a stoat because of its long, slender proportions.  Indeed, he said he disagreed with Bob's perception that it was thick and muscular.  On their way back they saw a truck or van decorated with a drawing of the Pink Panther, and his (Mike's) immediate reaction was: that's what we saw.  From the shoulders to the tip of the tail it was a very light grey with slight grey mottling.  He said that Bob believed it had light grey stripes.  The long tail arced down in an even curve like a segment of a circle, and had a bit of a tuft at the end.  The head was very large and round, like a large dinner plate, and both head and neck were pure white.
Comment: It is interesting to note that both witnesses were aware of subtle differences in each other's perceptions.  This gives it the ring of authenticity.  It appears to have been a big cat of unknown species.  It should be noted that the site is not far from the Bell-Kumbia Rd where a black panther was seen two years before, and the Tarong Power Station, where another black panther was sighted(Bunyips and Bigfoots, page 137).

A Not So Good Case
     On Sunday 9 August 1998 I received a phone call from a tour operator at Longreach. The previous week his three daughters had visited him from Brisbane. When they returned to Brisbane, they phoned him and told of nearly running down a striped, catlike animal. I then phoned both daughters, and obtained their separate accounts. Although both told me they had no objection to publicity, I have decided to omit their surnames.
1st Witness: Michelle, a 31 year old divorcée.
     The date was Wednesday, 5 August 1998, not long after dawn, which is about ½ past 6 these days, so it would have been about 7 am. The site was on the Rolleston to Roma section of the Carnarvon Development Road. They had left Emerald at 4 a.m., and had been driving somewhat under 100 kph. This would imply a distance from Emerald of 250 - 300 km. It was probably closer to the former, because an average speed always seems to be less than the speed limit. After I consulted the map, she agreed it would not have been far from Injune. The road was newly sealed, and the vegetation had been cleared on either side. Nevertheless, they were in the hilly country leading up to Carnarvon Gorge, and the bush was rather dense. There was light rain, but the visibility was good.
     Michelle was driving, with sister Jenny in the front passenger seat. Another sister in the back seat saw nothing. Just then she (Michelle) must have seen something in the corner of her eye, and hit the brake. The car was already in a skid as the animal came fully into view. It ran across the road from left (driver's side) to right, and passed right in front of the bonnet. She almost hit it. It looked back at the car, then continued running. The sighting lasted only a couple of seconds.
     She described it as catlike but "bigger than any cat I've ever seen". It was about the size of a blue cattle dog. It reminded her of a tiger cub, but was obviously mature i.e. thickset and muscular. It also reminded her of a puma. It was a tan colour, with very dark markings - stripes going around the body, not horizontally. She thinks that the stripes were all over the body, but the tail was dark. However, she volunteered that Jenny thinks the tail was also striped. The tail was long, and held straight out. It was thick in a muscular way, not bushy. The head was broad and catlike - like a tiger's, thick across the cheekbones.

2nd Witness: Jenny
     Her story was quite different from her sister's.  She said it happened a bit before dawn, say 5.30 am. It was pitch dark, and although it had been drizzling, the weather was now clear. The lights were on high beam, and visibility was very good. She was quite definite that it was before Rolleston. They had left in her car about 4 a.m. and she had been driving. At Springsure Michelle took the wheel, and the sighting occurred 15 or20 minutes before Rolleston. It was rugged, bushy country, and they had just gone over a bridge across a little creek.
     She (Jenny) was reclining in the passenger seat with her eyes closed, when suddenly the car braked with a screech, and her eyes sprang open just in time to see the animal move in front of her side of the bonnet. They only just missed it. At first she thought of a possum, then realised it was no possum.
     It was sheep dog size, above knee height. While talking to me she got out a tape measure and estimated its height at 75 cm and its length with tail (which streamed out behind it) at more than 130 cm.  It had the fluid movement of a cat. It was nothing like a dog's movement. Its fur was long and tufted or fluffy, especially towards the rear - longer than a German shepherd's. The body appeared multicoloured. It was dark over the hindquarters, with white or cream bands over the rump and extending along the dark, very thick tail. The head was catlike, but with a pointed nose. She had never seen anything like it, and it was most definitely not a dog.
Comment: Michelle said that her second sister, who did not see it, tells her it must have been a feral cat, but she and Jenny are sure it wasn't. To obtain the information above I had asked a number of misleading questions about the stripes and the tail, but I wasn't able to get them to turn the description away from that of a tiger. It is pretty certain it was some sort of cat, but if it were a normal feral cat, then they must have been seriously mistaken about both the size and the coat pattern.

     So there you have it. In both cases, the sighting lasted only a few seconds. In the first, both witnesses described essentially the same thing, and were solid enough in their recall to recognize their differences. In the second case, there were radical differences. Indeed, they could not agree on whether it occurred just after dawn, or while it was still pitch dark. One saw a dark animal with light bands, the other a light animal with dark bands. Both could only be true if the stripes were so close together, they resembled a zebra's. For this, they may be excused, bearing in mind the brevity of the sighting, but the bottom line is, if you relied on either description, you would come away with a false impression.
      The point, of course, is that if only one account had been available, we would have no idea of its unreliability. Likewise, if only one witness had been available for the Cooyar sighting, we would not know that it could be relied upon.
     The ultimate lesson is: it is the big picture which matters. Only when large number of individual reports are collated can you have any confidence in the details.

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The Possum Book

I am pleased to provide a link to a website of a friend of mine, Robyn Tracey, who has written a fascinating story about her dealings with brush-tailed possums in the outer suburbs of Sydney. You can download the book for free, or read it on the site. Go to: The Possum Book.

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