Over the past weekend, reports of a lion on the loose in the countryside of Essex, England, sparked a massive search for the mysterious feline. Police and sharpshooters were dispatched as locals and tourists were urged to stay inside and be cautious.

The search for the beast was hampered by hoaxed photographs that circulated on social networking sites and via forwarded e-mail warnings and tweets.

One photograph claimed to be of the lion was proven to be fake, prompting Essex police to announce that the public should not be fearful of “several doctored photographs in circulation.”

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The topic was tempting for pranksters, who could simply pass off any photo of a lion taken at a zoo or on safaris as having been snapped in the woods of southeastern England.

Not all the reports were hoaxes, however. Several apparently sincere eyewitnesses claimed to have seen the lion first-hand. For example according to The Daily Mail a man named Rich Baker, who was on holiday with his two sons, encountered a man who had just seem the lion:

‘A man started running towards us yelling, ‘It’s a f—— lion!’ He looked so panicked, you knew it was not a joke. The lion, you could see it from the side. … I grabbed my children’s hands, and we ran towards our caravan. My children started to scream, “Daddy, is the lion going to get us?” It was one million percent a lion. It was a tan colour with a big mane; it was fully grown; it was definitely a lion.”

What might account for the reports?

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Some people suspected that the lion might have escaped from a zoo or The Great British Circus, which had been on tour only a few miles away (but apparently was not missing a lion).

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Exotic animals escapes are not unheard of, and have been responsible for a variety of strange reports over the years.

It’s also possible that the “lion” was merely a large domestic cat whose size was unconsciously exaggerated by witnesses. Police detectives and psychologists know that eyewitness testimony can be notoriously unreliable.

People are simply not very good at estimating the size of objects, especially when they are excited or alarmed. Unknown objects may seem larger than they actually are, and details can become confused.

Alien Cats and Black Dogs

Another part of the answer may lie in the local culture and folklore. Historically, England is known for sightings of mysterious black cats (sometimes referred to as Alien Black Cats, or ABCs) sighted prowling the moors and countryside.

Some were merely mistaken pussycats; in a few cases lynxes were found or captured; but in most cases the furtive feline disappeared without leaving any hard evidence of its identity.

The knowledge that large unknown cats are said to lurk in the countryside might prompt a person to jump to that conclusion if they see some strange feline animal, in the same way that visitors to Loch Ness may interpret anything odd in the water as Nessie.

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And it’s not just cats. Great Britain is also home to many centuries-old legends about ghostly Black Dogs as well, traditionally said to be evil omens. These stories likely inspired Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes novel “The Hound of the Baskervilles.”

While Essex police were reluctant to suggest that eyewitnesses were hoaxing or exaggerating, they stated that following an extensive search of the area using helicopters, mounted police, infrared cameras and foot searches, they found no evidence of a lion:

“We believe what was seen on Sunday evening was either a large domestic cat or a wildcat. Extensive searches have been carried out, areas examined and witnesses spoken to; yet nothing has been found to suggest that a lion was in the area.”

Case closed—for now.

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