City Lion, Country Lion
[Excerpt mystery animal clip from news]
Welcome to MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters. I’m your host Blake Smith and I am doing something a little different in this episode because there is no interview. This is an investigation episode about The Norwalk Lion. On July 29, 2014, a security camera in the Los Angeles suburb of Norwalk recorded an animal passing by on the sidewalk. The video was grainy and ambiguous but someone felt it looked enough like a mountain lion to report it and the video was posted to the Facebook page of the city of Norwalk.
MonsterTalk listeners will not be surprised that the ambiguous video was a highly popular topic of discussion. Was there a mountain lion in Norwalk? There are certainly mountain lions in within 30 miles, but to get to this site would require extensive urban travel even for a stealthy animal. And then there were the people who said it didn’t look like a mountain lion but more like an African Lion!
The story was picked up by big news outlets. Local affiliates for FOX, CBS, ABC, the LA Times, and many others spread the tale of an African Lion loose in the suburbs of LA. Experts were sought for comment. Some said it didn’t look like a mountain lion — which in the minds of many supported the African Lion hypothesis. A big cat biologist was quoted by Time as saying it did look more like an African Lion than a Cougar.
I was intrigued and decided to investigate.
Being from the east coast of the US I don’t know much about the Los Angeles area. My first step was to evaluate whether the video truly showed anything mysterious. To be honest, what I expected to see in the video after reading about it, was a house cat. It can be so easy to misjudge size and distance that people frequently think they’re seeing very large cats when what they actually are seeing is a domestic cat without useful scale. This has figured into many monster stories — especially “Alien Big Cats” sightings of Britain.
But one should not presume “house cat” without examining the evidence any more than one should presume every UFO is a weather balloon or Chinese flying lantern. The house cat idea didn’t fit the video this time. Whatever it was slowly crossing the screen with such feline grace was not a house cat. It really did look like some kind of very large cat.
Confirming it was a real animal, the next step was to try to find a better video than the one the news outlets were showing. After a bit of digging I found that all of the videos being shown were second generation at best — the video had been recorded from a monitor doing a replay of the recorded footage. When I tracked down the best copy I could find, I paid attention to the screen where the date-stamp was located. There, in an easy to ignore pan across the screen, was a very important clue. The monitor revealed that the playback was at half speed. Literally every news outlet was showing the video at 50% of its natural playback speed.
I decided to see what the animal looked like at normal speed, so I took the clip of the footage and applied a speed increase to it. Suddenly the feline quality was gone and this looked like a much more familiar animal. I put this sped-up footage on YouTube and I’ll put a link to that in the show notes.
I still wanted to know the scale of the animal so I reached out to Jim Underdown and Ross Blocher of the Los Angeles branch of the IIG — the Independent Investigations Group. They’re a group of scientific researchers into all kinds of claims to the paranormal. If you have any special paranormal powers, you should look them up. They have a cash prize to anyone who can demonstrate such powers — and a link to their site will be in the show notes.
I asked if they could send out someone to look at the area where the film was made and find out if we could use any landmarks in the area to get scale for our mystery creature.
While I waited to hear back, I did some digging on other claims of “African Lions” in America. Surprisingly, there have been such cases. Loren Coleman, formerly of Cryptomundo and the creator and curator of the International Cryptozoology Museum, had some interesting things to say on the Norwalk Lion.
“At first, it was thought to be a mountain lion. But upon closer inspection, and as you can see in these freeze frames of the video I made, there is a mane on the cat.”
Loren then shows some screen captures of the video where there are dark patches behind the ears of the animal which he suggests shows dark mane. Why the mane only appears in some frames despite the video showing the animal always in profile is not explained.
“Look what happened in 2002, in Arkansas. … Are these relict Panthera atrox or escaped African lions? Even when these cats are taken, we sometimes still do not know, due to the fact most authorities are not familiar with these cats as cryptids.
These existing photos of the two killed Arkansas lions (mostly one is shown), for September 23 and 24, 2002, were of “mystery cats” found and killed. They were said to not be escapees or pets. But then DNA sampling was not done, and both bodies were destroyed. Clearly the photos show a maned felid. What species were they?
Coleman refers to Panthera atrox — an extinct north American lion. It has been extinct for around 10,000 years and specimens were about 25% larger than African lions according to Wikipedia. In the photo a couple of men are standing around the body of a dead lion in a pine forest. Full disclosure, I had not heard of any mysterious maned lions in Arkansas so I stopped my Norwalk Lion research to look into the case of the mysterious Arkansas Lions.
I didn’t have much to go on except for the year, the state, the date and the body of dead lions. I typed in “Arkansas lions September 2002” into Google. Amazingly, just providing that little bit of information Google was able to help shed a good bit of light on the matter. The first hit was a website with an AP release. Here is an excerpt.
“The Vaughans believe the lions belong to animal farm operator Steve Henning, who moved in on the other side of the patch of trees almost a year ago with 11 African lions, 30 tigers, five mountain lions and a lynx.
“Henning says the lions killed in the woods were not his. He speculates that someone who tried to give him lions last week turned them loose on the 44-acre property of Safari Unlimited, the lion and tiger farm he operates. The farm is not open to the public, Henning said.
“Aside from the pens where Henning keeps his cats, the property is not fully fenced.
“Neighbors expressed disbelief over Henning's response.
“’That really blows my mind how anyone could believe that story,’ Lisa Vaughan said.”
So Loren was speculating that the lions might be a relict population of presumed extinct giant North American lions when this article clearly suggests the presence of African Lions would not be entirely unheard of since there is a lion preserve near where the animals were shot. One might excuse such wild speculation if, perhaps, Loren had never read that article — but it might be worth mentioning that the AP release was from … LorenColeman.com.
There was no mystery about what the Arkansas cats were, only about whether the big cats were escapees or dumped pets. In the end, four lions were shot and killed in 2002. In 2005 Arkansas passed legislation cracking down on private ownership of lions, tigers and bears.
[Takei “Oh, my”]
This frustrating writing Coleman uses here is of a style called mystery mongering. It is when people attempt to promote or sell you a mystery when there is none. In his Norwalk lion article, Coleman is heating up the Arkansas lion story in the microwave of speculation. When there is a reasonable, plausible explanation for a scenario we needn’t dig up a strange and mysterious one. Once a mystery is solved, it’s fine to go re-examine the evidence. But it is not fine to pretend that it was never satisfactorily explained. Is certitude warranted? I’m not sure we can ever be certain of anything — but “beyond a reasonable doubt” is a phrase that seems apt here. To be fair, many proponents of the paranormal accuse Skeptics of dismissing the possibility of the strange and unusual. I know some do. But there are many honest and open minded skeptical investigators out there who look for the bizarre and time after time discover that there are very plausible, mundane explanations for what may seem quite odd phenomena.
Which brings us back to our Norwalk Lion.
I contacted one of the lion experts quoted in the coverage of the Norwalk Lion and asked him a few questions. I wanted to know how he had been approached by the media. What specific questions did they ask him and how did they present the data to him?
It was enlightening. They came to him with the clip of footage that was being played at half speed. He didn’t know that at the time. And the question they asked wasn’t “What is this animal?” But rather “Does this look more like a cougar or an African lion?” It did not look like a cougar, and after I showed him the footage at normal speed he said it didn’t look like a lion either.
It looked like a dog.
The news story was still playing out and I was waiting to hear back from the IIG when a followup story appeared. A family in the neighborhood reported to the media that their dog, who bears a striking resemblance to the animal in the footage, had gotten loose that night in Norwalk. Buddy the family dog was run through some tests on the same security camera and is the same size and shape as our mystery animal.
If it walks like a dog, is the same size and shape as a dog, and a dog was present the same night, is it really a stretch to think that the animal was a dog? Yet even the news story breaking this finding concludes, “only the animal in the video knows for sure.”
How do I make a face-palm sound for radio?
One more interesting tidbit that came up was how people were justifying their conclusion that this was a lion and not a dog. Much of that had to do with the animal’s gait. A surprising number of people said that cats walk differently than dogs. I did some research on that and that appears to be a myth. I don’t mean that they don’t tread lightly and pounce, I mean they walk differently, but their actual gait. The both use the same basic form of locomotion for walking. I’ll link to that research in the show notes — but this seems to be a myth that’s probably worth dispelling since it leads to strange conclusions.
How is it that we can so easily mistake dogs for lions? It’s the same challenge that comes up when people mistake hairless animals for chupacabras. In general, we’re just not that good at recognizing animals. Evolution has left us with all these quadrupeds with similar skeletal structure and it takes really thorough training to learn how to identify different animals — especially when you’ve only a contextless photo or grainy video to work with. But if that sort of thing interests you, I would encourage you to study biology. That’s my main takeaway.
You’ve been listening to MonsterTalk, the science show about monsters. Today we discussed the Norwalk Lion and gave a brief overview of how the media loves a mystery so much that they just can’t let them be solved. I mentioned Loren Coleman in this episode. I don’t know Coleman personally and he’s rejected invitations to come onto the show, but I own several of his books and generally enjoy reading his work. In my own personal opinion he clings too much to mystery, but so do the big news networks. The difference of course is that when the public interest in a particular case dies down, it’s the cryptologist not the news journalist who has to keep the flame of mystery alive.
MonsterTalk is an official podcast of Skeptic magazine. The opinions expressed in this episode are my own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Skeptic Magazine or the Skeptic Society.
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[Jimmy Kimmel excerpt]
The views expressed on this program are not necessarily the views of the Skeptics Society or Skeptic magazine.
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