Police in the Steyning area of West Sussex, England, were called to a public park on the evening of July 23, 2020 to respond to a report of a big cat on the loose. The Horsham police were likely familiar with the popular idea that large, non-native, “alien big cats” are roaming the UK. Hundreds of reports have been made across Britain alone in the past few years. Many areas have their own local “beasts” that many people believe are real and dangerous. But, hard evidence is scant.

All we know of this latest report is based on a tweet from the police.

The police found a specimen of a “black panther” except it was a stuffed toy. It’s not clear if a hoaxer called in this report on purpose or if someone had mistaken the toy for a real animal.

It would not be the first time that authorities discovered plush animals misinterpreted to be living large cats. In my several years of covering odd stories for Doubtful News, I’d come across several similar incidents. One can bet it won’t be the last, either.

In 2013, local tales of big cats in Essex seemed to be confirmed when officials driving through Epping Forest saw a large black panther perched in a tree.

Epping Forest cat. The Independent. December 12, 2013.

Someone had placed the discarded toy in the position as a joke. The location is known for illegal dumping.

More frequently, replicas of tigers are mistaken as genuine. I found many such stories. On the same day as the Essex plush panther, “someone” reported a tiger in Surrey, British Columbia, Canada. When a news crew arrived, a tiger toy was perched on a stroller.

BC tiger. Global News, July 23, 2020.

I suppose it’s possible that a very credulous person could have thought this was real in these upside-down days, but come on!

In 2011, in Hedge End, Southhampton, England, police consulted zoo personnel and prepared a tranquilizer dart after several people reported a white tiger on the loose. Observers had viewed the animal through a zoom lens and were convinced it was the real deal. Before the police could take action, the toy blew over in the wind and it was clear they’d been fooled. What wasn’t clear was who did it. The incident caused public fear and some wasted emergency efforts.

Hampshire police released this photo of the Hedge End fake tiger. (The Guardian online May 22, 2011)

A farmer in Aberdeenshire, Scotland called police after he saw a tiger near his cows. Police mobilized, but after 45 minutes of observation, the animal failed to move and the farmer concluded it was just a toy. He didn’t know who had put it there. (The Telegraph, February 6, 2018)

Scotland tiger, from Facebook February 2018.

Here is a more realistic case. In 2015 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, an animal control officer responded to a report of a tiger in a backyard. As he peered into the yard, he viewed a scene he saw as all too real and shocking. A small tiger, facing away from him, was lying in the yard. He called for backup.

Michigan toy tiger. ABC 27 News May 29, 2015

It was only when another officer arrived that they realized the animal was just a toy. No one lived at the vacant property so it’s unclear if this was a deliberate hoax. “I can’t blame the caller because it had me,” the officer said.

A month prior to that, a caller to emergency services in Camas, Washington reported he’d seen a live Bengal tiger with some teens. The 911 caller was convinced that it was NOT a toy as it was “wagging its tail”. “The more I think about it, it seems pretty dangerous,” the caller added. “At first I thought, well it must be a big stuffed animal and then it started moving and it wasn’t stuffed.” You can listen to the call where he says he thought it perhaps their pet and was concerned about laws against such dangerous animals. After joking around with it by the car, the kids tied it to the roof and drove off. Many drivers who passed them had honked and laughed about the rooftop hitchhiker. Offices then flagged them down.

Washington tiger. Good Morning America, June 10, 2015.

Another lifelike toy tiger placed on the roof of an abandoned hotel caused traffic trouble in Humble, Texas, near Houston in 2012. The Houston Fire Department said they received calls about the animal and responded, only to find it was a toy. They removed it to avoid further trouble. (ABCNews Jan 19, 2012)

There is something about tigers, it seems. One of my favorite misidentification stories is from 2018 when NYPD responded to a call from Harlem saying a tiger was on the loose. It turned out to be a raccoon.

The lesson to be learned here is that our observation skills are just not that good. When we get an initial thought about what we see, our brain then fills in details to support that idea. Sometimes, we see things that just aren’t there and even inanimate objects can become alive. These incidents are not infrequent, noted by the handful examples above. There are countless more cases of misidentification that occur every day. Yet, people still think they know what they saw. This does not bode well for the claims that people see unusual creatures, or UFOs, or apparitions. Mistakes and misinterpretations must always be a primary consideration before jumping to any more exotic possibilities.

Update March 2022: Police in Oldham, England respond to a call about a tiger loose in a neighborhood garden that was actually a stuffed toy.

1 thought on “Fake tiger tales and other plush hoaxes

  1. Ah, the beast of Bodmin. Somebody had the clever idea of importing a Canadian fur trapper who made a living tracking and obviously killing animals for their fur. They took round the various sites that big cats had been sighted in Britain. He looked at all the tracks and what have you and said “Dog”. He looked at the bite marks on animals supposedly killed by big cats and said “Dog”. He looked at the scat, and said “dog”. The guy whose self-esteem relies on there being a big cat of course didn’t believe him. He “knew” there was something out there.

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