Dr KARL SHUKER

Zoologist, media consultant, and science writer, Dr Karl Shuker is also one of the best known cryptozoologists in the world. He is the author of such seminal works as Mystery Cats of the World (1989), The Lost Ark: New and Rediscovered Animals of the 20th Century (1993; greatly expanded in 2012 as The Encyclopaedia of New and Rediscovered Animals), Dragons: A Natural History (1995), In Search of Prehistoric Survivors (1995), The Unexplained (1996), From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (1997), Mysteries of Planet Earth (1999), The Hidden Powers of Animals (2001), The Beasts That Hide From Man (2003), Extraordinary Animals Revisited (2007), Dr Shuker's Casebook (2008), Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times (2010), Cats of Magic, Mythology, and Mystery (2012), Mirabilis: A Carnival of Cryptozoology and Unnatural History (2013), Dragons in Zoology, Cryptozoology, and Culture (2013), The Menagerie of Marvels (2014), A Manifestation of Monsters (2015), Here's Nessie! (2016), and what is widely considered to be his cryptozoological magnum opus, Still In Search Of Prehistoric Survivors (2016) - plus, very excitingly, his first two long-awaited, much-requested ShukerNature blog books (2019, 2020).

Dr Karl Shuker's Official Website - http://www.karlshuker.com/index.htm

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Wednesday, 22 September 2021

SNAKES WITH WINGS - AND OTHER STRANGE THINGS!

 
Artistic representation of the Namibian flying snake based upon eyewitness descriptions (© Philippa Foster)

 

I went once to a certain place in Arabia, almost exactly opposite the city of Buto, to make inquiries concerning the winged serpents. On my arrival I saw the back-bones and ribs of serpents in such numbers as it is impossible to describe: of the ribs there were a multitude of heaps, some great, some small, some middle-sized. The place where the bones lie is at the entrance of a narrow gorge between steep mountains, where there open upon a spacious plain communicating with the great plain of Egypt. The story goes that with the spring the winged snakes come flying from Arabia towards Egypt, but are met in this gorge by the birds called ibises, who forbid their entrance and destroy them all. The Arabians assert, and the Egyptians also admit, that it is on account of the service thus rendered that the Egyptians hold the ibis in so much reverence.

   Herodotus – The History, Book II

 

Despite its common name, the so-called flying snake Chrysopelea ornata of southeast Asia cannot actively fly. However, it is well known that this distinctive species can glide for up to 300 ft through the air by launching itself from a tree while simultaneously spreading its ribs and flattening its body, until its undersurface is concave, thereby transforming itself into a ribbon-shaped parachute.

 
Southeast Asia's known flying snake Chrysopelea ornata (public domain)

Yet according to some remarkable reports filed away within the bulging archives of cryptozoology, there may be some currently-undescribed species of snake that are capable of true flight, i.e. achieved with the aid of wings or comparable means of active propulsion.

 

THE NAMIBIAN FLYING SNAKE

One such mystery beast is the supposed flying snake that has been reported not only by the native Namaqua people but also by a number of European eyewitnesses within the Namib Desert of southern Namibia. According to their generally consistent accounts, it has a brown or yellow body mottled with dark spots, an inflated neck, and a very large head bearing a pair of short backward-pointing horns - plus, very remarkably, a glowing 'torch' in the centre of its brow. Most astonishing of all, however, is the pair of membranous bat-like wings allegedly emerging from the sides of its neck or mouth.

Eyewitnesses have stated that this extraordinary snake launches itself from the summit of a high rocky ledge, then soars down to the ground, landing with an appreciable impact and producing scaly tracks in the dusty earth. In 1942, while tending sheep in the mountains at Keetmanshoop, teenager Michael Esterhuise threw a stone at what he had assumed to be a large monitor lizard lurking inside a rocky crack. When it emerged, however, it revealed itself to be a big snake with a pair of wing-like structures projecting from the sides of its mouth.

 
A second reconstruction of the Namibian flying snake's possible appearance (© Tim Morris)

On a separate occasion, moreover, one of these serpents soared down towards Esterhuise after having launched itself from a rocky ledge. When it landed, hitting the ground with great force, Esterhuise fainted, and when he was later found (unharmed though still unconscious) by a search party, the snake had gone but its tracks remained. They were subsequently examined by no less celebrated a naturalist than Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer – curator of South Africa's East London Museum and immortalised zoologically as the discoverer of that famous 'living fossil' fish the coelacanth Latimeria chalumnae in 1938. In her opinion, these tracks, containing the clear impression of scales, were indeed consistent with the marks that a snake would make.

A South African television documentary by Angus Whitty Productions, entitled In Search of the Giant Flying Snake of Namibia and first broadcast in 1995, contained testimony from a number of alleged eyewitnesses, which provided estimates of this mystery serpent's total length that ranged from 9 ft to 15 ft. The programme also specially prepared and featured on-screen a detailed drawing of the latter snake's alleged appearance based upon such testimony.

 
Screenshot of the flying snake drawing from In Search of the Giant Flying Snake of Namibia (© Angus Whitty Productions – reproduced here on a strictly non-commercial Fair Use basis for educational/review purposes only)

Well worth noting is that Namibia is a former German colony, so it is not impossible that Teutonic legends of lightning snakes retold here by German settlers may have infiltrated and influenced native Namibian lore. However, such legends cannot leave physical, tangible tracks like those examined by Miss Courtenay-Latimer, so perhaps a real snake is indeed present but one whose appearance has been exaggerated or distorted in the telling due to shock by those who have unexpectedly encountered it.

If so, the Namibian flying snake may still be an undescribed species, but one that in reality merely sports a pair of extensible lateral membranes similar to those of the famous Asian gliding lizard Draco volans (though whether such structures would be sufficiently adept, aerodynamically, to bear so sizeable a snake through the air is another matter), plus a pair of horny projections resembling the 'eyebrow' horns of certain African vipers. As for its glowing 'torch', this may be nothing more mysterious than a highly-reflective patch of shining scales on its brow.

 

THE TL'IISH NAAT'A'I OR ARIZONA FLYING SNAKE

For a number of years, American cryptozoologist Nick Sucik has been investigating reports of an equally mystifying but even more obscure aerial anomaly of the serpentine kind - the tl'iish naat'a'í (pronounced 'kleesh-not-ahee' and translated as 'snake that flies'). Also known as the Arizona flying snake, apparently this bizarre reptile is a familiar creature there to the Navajo Nation, and to the Hopi Nation as well (who refer to it by names translating as 'sun snake'). They all describe it as being fundamentally serpentine in form, generally around 2 m long, and dull grey in colour (although sometimes said to have a red belly), but possessing a pair of retractable and virtually transparent wing-like membranes. These emerge from behind its head, run laterally along much of its body's length, can flap vigorously and very rapidly, and are thus used for active flight (rather than passive gliding) purposes.

Some eyewitnesses have stated that these membranes sparkle in the sun when illuminated at certain angles. They also claim that this mysterious reptile constructs a kind of nest from twigs, located along the sides of cliffs or among rocks; and that when airborne, its flying membranes make a hissing sound, likened by some witnesses to a passenger jet's noise when passing by overhead. Comparable reports have also emerged from both the Texas and the Mexican sides of the Rio Grande, including one sighting of an unusual snake-like entity flying amid a group of bats here that was videoed by a security camera at Lajitas, Texas, and can be viewed on YouTube. Sadly, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed briefly and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.

The video can presently be accessed here on YouTube, where it was posted by a Gil Bartee on 26 June 2008. Sadly, however, the alleged serpent is only glimpsed very briefly (I assume that it is the entity appearing at 0:54 minutes into the video – Bartee provides no details), and even then not clearly. Some viewers have opined that it may itself have been a bat (albeit a much larger one) or even an owl, but Nick is not convinced by such identities.

 
Artistic representation of the Arizona flying snake (© Tim Morris)

On 10 November 2016, British cryptozoological researcher Richard Muirhead posted in Facebook's Cryptozoology Herpetological Research Group a hitherto-obscure newspaper article dealing principally with the afore-mentioned, long-known Asian flying snake Chrysopelea ornata, but whose final paragraph contained information that is definitely of cryptozoological interest. Published in the Oregonian on 15 March 1942, the paragraph in question reads as follows:

A western prototype [i.e. of Chrysopelea ornata] is reputed to exist somewhere in Southern Mexico, although snake experts have made many fruitless expeditions into the interior for living specimens.

Might this be a previously-unpublicised reference to the tl'iish naat'a'í? If so, however, it indicates that this mystery snake, or something comparable, exists further south in Mexico than the Rio Grande.

In 2004, Nick prepared a detailed paper documenting traditional folklore and contemporary sightings relating to the tl'iish naat'a'í, which could formerly be viewed online (at: http://www.azcentral.com/12news/pics/dragonsofthedine.pdf) but has now disappeared (happily, I downloaded a copy for my files while it was still online), and contains a number of fascinating eyewitness accounts of this truly extraordinary, zoologically-unknown snake.

 

EUROPEAN WINGED SNAKES

Remarkably, some intriguing but thoroughly mystifying, modern-day reports of aerial snakes have even been filed from Europe. For instance, one day during 1930 or 1931, the mother of André Mellira was preparing lunch in a hut deep within the forest at the mountain village of La Bollène-Vésubie, close to Nice, southern France, when she looked out of the window and saw what looked like a green snake with wings! Moreover, this amazing creature promptly flew down from the branches of a tree close by and landed upon the hut's window sill. When Mellira's mother cried out in fear and alarm, however, her unexpected winged visitor dived down into a bush and vanished. Intriguingly, there is a longstanding tradition of winged snakes inhabiting the southern Alps, but these have always been discounted by scientists as myths.

 
An illustration from a 1723 publication by Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Scheuchzer depicting an alleged alpine winged snake (public domain)

A 12-year-old Bulgarian girl called Hazel Göksu was walking towards a spring very near her home one summer evening in 1947 in order to fill two buckets with water. Suddenly, however, she noticed what initially looked like some branches lying on the path ahead, but as she drew nearer she realised that they were thin snakes. Black, grey, and white in colour, and 1-2 m long, they abruptly emitted a peculiar cry - and then launched themselves into the air, flying 2-3 m above the ground in a straight line to the spring, about 150 m away, before vanishing behind some trees. Hazel was so frightened by what she had seen that she ran back to her home immediately, and never visited the spring again alone.

 

A COUPLE OF REPTILIAN LONDON PECULIARS?

Perhaps the most unexpected flying snakes ever recorded from Europe, however, were reported even closer to home – West London. According to a correspondent writing as 'SB' in The Gentleman's Magazine on 20 April 1798, a truly remarkable animal was observed during early August 1776 just a few miles west of London:

The strange object was of the serpent kind: its size that of the largest common snake; and as well as it could be discovered from so transient a view of it, resembled it by a kind of grey mottled skin. The head of this extraordinary animal appeared about the size of a small woman's hand. It had a pair of short wings very forward on the body, near its head; and the length of the whole body was about two feet. Its flight was very gentle; it seemed too heavy to fly either fast or high; and its manner of flying was not in an horizontal attitude, but with its head considerably higher than the tail; so that it seemed continually labouring to ascend without ever being able to raise itself much higher than seven or eight feet from the ground.

 
Bestiary illustration of a flying snake-like reptile (public domain)

This same magazine subsequently published a second, more recent report, by a correspondent signing only as 'JR' - describing a sighting by a friend of the same (or a very similar) flying snake encountered at 10.30 pm on 15 July 1797 on the road between Hammersmith and Hyde Park Corner:

The body was of a dark colour, about the thickness of the lower part of a man's arm, about two feet long. The wings were very short, and placed near the head. The head was raised above the body. It was not seven or eight feet from the ground. Being an animal of such uncommon description, I was particular in noticing the day of the month, and likewise being the day preceding a most dreadful storm of thunder and lightning.

If we are willing to accept that these reports are not outright hoaxes (worth noting, however, is that neither of the authors supplied their name), or bizarre exaggerations of some large insect like a damselfly or robber fly (both of which when in flight sometimes hold their body in a similar pose to that described for this winged serpent), or some abstruse example of 18th-Century political satire, we can only assume that the observers were not zoologically-informed, and had mistaken some other, less bizarre creature for a flying snake.

 
 Robber fly (© Vengolis/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Indeed, this particular case reminds me of those occasions on which I have been asked to remove 'baby horned snakes' from neighbours' gardens during the summer, only to discover time and time again that they are actually the large, distinctive caterpillars of the great elephant hawk moth Deilephila elpenor. Having said that, however, and having read many times the authors' respective descriptions quoted above of what they allegedly saw, I still do not have even the slightest notion of what this enigmatic creature may have been!

 

EGYPT'S PLAGUE OF FLYING SERPENTS

Finally: no discussion of aerial snakes could be complete without considering the very curious case of Egypt's supposed plague of flying serpents.

In early times, small but highly venomous snakes of many different colours but all possessing membranous bat-like wings reputedly existed in Arabia, and congregated in great throngs upon the trees that produced the much-sought-after frankincense resin.

 
Bestiary engraving of two Arabian flying snakes and an ibis (public domain)

According to the celebrated Greek historian Herodotus of Halicarnassus (c.484–425 BC):

[The Arabians] gather frankincense by burning that storax [styrax resin] which Phoenicians carry to Hellas; they burn this and so get the frankincense; for the spice-bearing trees are guarded by small winged snakes of varied colour, many around each tree; these are the snakes that attack Egypt. Nothing except the smoke of storax will drive them away from the trees.

So numerous were they, in fact, that during their springtime migration from Arabia towards Egypt, the very air resounded with their incessant hissing and the unceasing beating of innumerable wings. Happily, however, Egypt's sacred ibises soon decimated these toxic ophidian locusts, devouring them in such vast quantities that none remained.

Many scholars believe that these winged wonders really were locusts, whose 'transformation' into snakes was due merely to exaggerated, elaborated retellings by successive storytellers down through the ages. Others claim that they really were snakes, but that their wings were either hearsay or fictitious additions purposefully supplied later by chroniclers anxious to enhance their tomes' dramatic content.

 
A swarm of locusts vividly depicted in a chromolithograph from 1890 (public domain)

Whatever the explanation, it can be said with certainty that in spite of Herodotus's first-hand observation of what he claimed to be masses of piled-up skeletons of these creatures (see this present ShukerNature article's opening quotation), no such snakes exist in the Middle East today. Presumably, therefore, the skeletons seen by him were not from snakes at all (with no detailed description or illustrations of them to examine, it is impossible to know for sure) – or perhaps their macabre mode of reproduction explains their demise.

For according yet again to the writings of Herodotus (and those of several other ancient historians too), at the very height of passion the female Arabian winged snake would bite her unfortunate partner's head off, rather like a serpentine praying mantis. And when the young snakes developing inside her afterwards had attained the required size for emerging into outside world, they would gnaw their way out of their mother's body, chewing through her uterus and gut, thereby killing her in the process.

Consequently, even if such fanciful creatures really did exist at one time, cursed with such a deadly mode of reproduction and birth it is perhaps little wonder that Arabia's flying serpents became extinct!

 

Finally: just in case you may be wondering – I certainly haven't forgotten the extraordinary winged feathered snakes reported from various localities in Wales, as documented by me in my book From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings and also appearing on its front cover. The reason why they're not included above in this present ShukerNature article is that they've already been featured extensively in a previous one, devoted entirely to them – so please click here to access it.

 
From Flying Toads To Snakes With Wings (© Dr Karl Shuker/Llewellyn Publications)
 

Monday, 20 September 2021

ALL FINGERS AND THUMBS – INVESTIGATING FELINE POLYDACTYLY

 
A male polydactylous kitten, sporting 23 toes (© Howie831/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

One of the most frequently reported and familiar teratological conditions exhibited by humans is the possession of extra fingers, toes, or both which is known as polydactyly or hyperdactyly. This genetically-induced phenomenon has also been widely reported among many other animals, including the domestic cat Felis catus a species that normally has five toes on each of its fore paws, and four on each of its hind paws.

Monitored breeding programmes with polydactylous cats (which are also known as mitten cats, boxer cats, or thumb cats, depending upon toe numbers present) suggest that the trait is dominant and autosomal (i.e. not sex-linked), but the variation of phenotypic expression is so great that more than one mutant allele may well be responsible.

In its least visible form, feline polydactyly results in one or both of the fore paws sporting a slightly larger than normal first digit (as it contains an extra phalanx bone), which stands apart from the rest of the paw like a false thumb. Sometimes, however, this 'false thumb' is flanked by one or even two well-formed supernumerary toes, thereby raising the paw's total number to six or seven.

 
Right front paw of a male polydactylous domestic cat; each circle indicates a toe (six confirmed), and the circle with a question mark indicates what might be a further, seventh toe (public domain)

Feline polydactyly can be limited to the fore paws (but not normally to the hind paws), or can be exhibited by fore and hind paws. A classic example of the latter state was displayed by a very handsome polydactylous tabby called Vodka, who shared his long and happy life with Frances Shipp, at that time co-proprietor of Midnight Books in Sidmouth, Devon.

Frances received Vodka as a Christmas present from her mother in 1980 when he was just a few weeks old, and she soon discovered that her delightful feline friend had six toes on each paw. Throughout the 13 years of his life, Vodka was very fond of climbing trees, an activity that would surely benefit from the bonus of having extra toes.

Vodka possessed 24 toes in total, but the current record for the greatest number exhibited by a polydactylous cat has apparently been held since the early 1970s by an extraordinary tom memorably named Mickey Mouse, and owned by Renee Delgade of Westlake Village, California. In October 1974, a report revealed that Mickey had eight toes on each paw, yielding an astonishing count of 32 in total.

 
Vodka, Frances Shipp's polydactylous cat (© Frances Shipp)

A polydactylous cat of very notable prominence was a grey-furred six-toed tom called Slippers, who was owned by none other than President Theodore Roosevelt of the United States. Yet Slippers gained feline immortality not through any colossal toe count. Instead, he chose simply to take a siesta one day stretched right across a rug occupying the entire floor space of a certain corridor in the White House - at the very time that a dignified procession of top-level diplomats, including a renowned ambassador's wife escorted by the president, was making its way down this same corridor!

Wars have been initiated over far less than the deliberate obstruction of such a glittering assemblage's movements but in Slipper's case, feline felicity evidently prevailed. For with great deference and care in order to avoid disturbing his slumber, every member of the procession stepped very delicately around Slipper's reposing form, after which this eminent ensemble of some of the world's most important political figures continued its ceremonious passage down the corridor. A cat may indeed look at a king or, in this particular instance, divert a diplomat or two!

President Roosevelt was not the only famous owner of a polydactylous cat. Author Ernest Hemingway owned several at his mansion in Key West, Florida. The very first was presented to him by a sea captain who believed that the presence of such animals on board brought good luck. Indeed, so closely linked did Hemingway's name eventually become with polydactylous cats that 'Hemingway cat' has become a widely-used common name for these extra-toed domestic felids.

 
One of the many polydactylous cats living on Ernest Hemingway's Key West estate; photo snapped by Marc Averette on 10 February 2007 (© Marc Averette/Wikipedia – CC BY 3.0 licence)

Although feline polydactyly has been well documented from domestic cats, it is not so widely known that a few examples are also on record from their larger, wild brethren. In 1925, for instance, the Maharaj Kumar Shree Vijayarajji of Cutch in India published a photograph in the Journal of the Bombay Natural History Society depicting a leopard Panthera pardus with an extra claw-bearing toe on each hind paw.

Several years earlier, this same journal had carried a letter by S. Eardley-Wilmot referring to a leopard shot by him in Oude, which had sported five fully-developed toes and claws on each hind paw. And in 1946, the journal published a letter by Virbhadrasinh, H.H. Maharana of Lunawada, who had lately bagged a leopard with an extra fully-functional retractile claw on each of its hind paws.

These reports are particularly interesting, because in stark contrast to the polydactylous condition recorded from domestic cats, it would appear that in the leopard this teratological trait can be wholly restricted to the hind paws (thereby indicating that a different mutant allele is responsible).

 
A polydactylous kitten (© Catxx/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 3.0 licence)

The last word on feline polydactyly, however, must surely be left to the following couple of truly exceptional examples:

One of these was a singularly special queen called Triple, born on 5 March 1976 and owned by Mr and Mrs Bertram Bobnock of Iron River, Michigan. As noted in Gerald Wood's Guinness Book of Pet Records (1984), Triple had no less than 30 toes – but this is not too surprising. After all, she did have five legs...and six paws! The other example was a male polydactylous orange tabby named Gizmo, who sported two paws on each of his front limbs, with each of these four paws possessing 4 toes, plus 7 toes on each of his two hind paws, thereby yielding a grand total of 30 toes!

And be sure to click here to read a ShukerNature article devoted to polydactylous ('horned') horses!

 
A photograph of Gizmo snapped by his owner in April 2017, revealing his extraordinary toe (and paw!) count (© Watching 4 Jesus/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

 

 

Friday, 17 September 2021

DOL HAREUBANG AND HAETAE - A COUPLE OF KOREAN CURIOSITIES

 
What is the identity of this small but heavy, dimple-surfaced statuette that I purchased many years ago in an English charity shop? Only recently did I find out – and was most surprised by what it proved to be, so be sure to check out my ShukerNature article here to discover its most interesting, unexpected identity! (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Throughout my far-flung travels overseas down through the decades, whenever I've brought some mementoes back home afterwards I've always attempted to choose items of direct cultural relevance to the country or countries that I've visited, as opposed to more generic souvenirs. Equally, when perusing items at collector's fairs, markets, car boot sales, etc, I've always been drawn to unusual, distinctive ethnic items, especially if their country of origin is, at least at the time of my purchasing them, unknown not only to the purveyor but also to me – thereby encouraging me to conduct some detective work in order to uncover their nature and provenance.

So it was with the enigmatic little statuette whose photograph opens this present ShukerNature article of mine, and which I purchased at least 15 years ago at a charity shop in the English city of Wolverhampton. Standing just a few inches tall, it is made of black stone and is surprisingly heavy for its small size, with a very distinctive multi-dimpled surface, long ears (somewhat like Easter Island's giant moai), and very large bulging eyes.

Yet in spite of its singular appearance, and despite my making a number of attempts to discover something about it, all of my investigations met with failure. Consequently, I had no idea at all where this curious carving had originated or which entity it is meant to represent – until 2021, that is. For in April of this year, after reposting a photograph of it on my Facebook timeline (I'd first posted the same photo there six years earlier, back in April 2015, but it had not elicited any positive response from anyone), I received the long-awaited answer to this longstanding mystery. One of my quizzing friends and fellow West Midlander, Neil Russell, was able to identify my puzzling little figurine for me.

It is a dol hareubang, a stone statuette of the guardian deities of Jeju Island, off southern South Korea, carved from porous basaltic (volcanic) rock, and placed outside gates to offer both protection from interdimensional demons and fertility. Awesome!! Mine is only very small, clearly created as a souvenir of South Korea, but the originals on Jeju are up to 10 ft tall. Thanks Neil!

 
A full-sized dol hareubang on display outside the National Folk Museum of Korea at Seoul, South Korea (© Ethan Doyle White/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 4.0 licence)

Following the belated success in discovering via Neil the identity and provenance of my previously perplexing statuette, I was duly reminded of a previous Korean curiosity that had formerly mystified me for some years. It too was a statue, albeit a much bigger one this time and one that was not owned by me.

Amid my archives of mystery beast data collected online is a public domain photograph depicting a very large stone statue of an extremely eyecatching legendary beast, but one whose identity had long been unknown to me. This was because (most unusually for me!) I had somehow failed to record any details concerning it – no name, no provenance, nothing at all, in fact, except for its photo's public domain status. The beast itself looked vaguely similar to China's famous Dogs of Fo, but was sufficiently distinct for me to feel sure that it would prove to be a legendary entity in its own right – and sure enough, it was.

In the past, I'd carried out a number of reverse picture searches, in the hope of discovering a website containing the mysterious photograph, but all had met with failure – until I conducted yet another such search in 2010 while preparing my book Karl Shuker's Alien Zoo: From the Pages of Fortean Times. And this time – success! It turned up on a Wikipedia page devoted to a Chinese mythical creature known as a xiezhi, but the entity in the photograph that I was interested in was not a xiezhi per se, but rather a Korean equivalent of sorts, known as a haetae, with the photograph depicting a haetae statue in the grounds of a Korean palace.

And here is that photograph:

 
The onetime tantalising photograph depicting a haetae statue in the grounds of a Korean palace (public domain)

Never having visited the Korean peninsula, I've not seen haetae statues in the flesh – or stone, to be precise! However, it would appear that as the haetae is deemed there to be a guardian beast and in particular a valued protector against natural disasters such as earthquakes and fires, it is represented by statues in a number of significant sites in South Korea. Moreover, it has been the official symbol of Seoul itself since 2009.

Both canine and leonine in shape, the haetae sports a pair of very sizeable upper fangs more in keeping with a sabre-tooth than either a dog or a lion – and unlike any form of known canid or felid, this muscular mammal eats fire and is covered in sharp scales. In some representations, it also bears a small central horn upon its brow like that of a very short-horned unicorn, and a bell hangs upon a ribbon around its neck. Furthermore, it is supposedly able to travel back and forth through time, to distinguish between right and wrong so that it punishes wrongdoers without mercy, to bite the moon if so desiring (thus explaining the latter's waning period), and even to cause an eclipse.

According to ancient Korean tradition, this immensely powerful creature is native to the frontiers of Manchuria and appeared as a city-protecting entity in architectural sculpture during the early Joseon dynasty (the last dynastic kingdom of Korea, lasting for five centuries, from July 1392 to October 1897).

So if ever I'm fortunate enough to visit the Korean peninsula one day, I'll be sure to say a very respectful hello to its exceedingly formidable fire-eating lion dog (or dog lion) aka the moon-munching, time-travelling haetae!

 
Second photograph of a haetae statue = this is one of a pair, in front of the reconstructed South Gate of Kyongbok Palace, in Seoul, South Korea, guarding it against fire; photo snapped in c.1900 (photo source: Cornell University Library – no publishing restrictions)
 
 

Wednesday, 18 August 2021

THE PEEL STREET MONSTER - LOOKING BACK AT A LOCAL CRYPTID

 
Vintage illustration of a coati (public domain)

It's always good to stumble upon the history of a mystery beast not previously documented in the cryptozoological literature (which it hadn’t been, prior to my doing so in a Fortean Times article and subsequently in my book Extraordinary Animals Revisited), and especially when it happens to be a local one – having occurred just a few miles away from where I was born and still live. Yet although the case of the Peel Street Monster began in high drama, the outcome was distinctly underwhelming.

During winter 1933-34, rumours began circulating within the area of Brickkiln Street and Peel Street in the large urban West Midlands town (now city) of Wolverhampton, England, of a bizarre creature that was attacking children. One bold lad who tried to pursue this beast, which became known as the Peel Street Monster, presumably angered it, because it allegedly leapt at his throat, attempting to bite him.

 
Extraordinary Animals Revisited (© Dr Karl Shuker/CFZ Press)

There came a day in January 1934, however, when this vicious creature made one onslaught too many. A crowd of boys and youths, who included among their number a 17-year-old called Georgie Goodhead, were playing on the corner of St Mark's Street and Raglan Street, when another boy, Jackie Franklin, raced out of Peel Street and up towards them in a state of great alarm. Shouting for help, he told them that a youngster called Billy Wright (but not the famous future Wolverhampton Wanderers footballer of that same name, at least as far as I'm aware) was being attacked by the monster on some waste ground. Georgie and his mates raced back to Peel Street at once with Jackie, where they observed a peculiar-looking animal threatening a small boy. In a later Wolverhampton Express and Star newspaper report, Georgie recalled:

I went and saw a queer animal, far too big for a rat, leaping towards a child about five-year[s]-old. I shouted and the thing turned on me. It crouched, its eyes bulging, then it leaped like lightning.

According to the newspaper report, as the creature neared his throat Georgie picked up a brick and hit it with this hefty implement as hard as he could. The animal collapsed, falling into a pool of water, and was swiftly kicked to death by the crowd that had gathered to watch the boys confronting it. Happily, little Billy was unhurt, and was taken by some of the boys to his parents' sweetshop in Peel Street, while Georgie and Jackie gave a statement at the Red Lion police station and received half a crown each for their bravery.

As for the Peel Street Monster: apart from noting that it was a male, no-one had any idea what this mystifying beast was. According to media reports, naturalists, taxidermists, and vets were all called in to identify it, but to no avail. One unnamed 'expert' did suggest that it may be an anteater – in Wolverhampton?? Another one considered it possible that the creature (despite being dead!) might become a serious rival to the Loch Ness monster.

 
A ring-tailed coati Nasua nasua, the most familiar of the four recognised coati species and native to South America (© Dr Karl Shuker)

Events took an even more surprising turn the following day, when a second mystery beast was found in the Brickkiln region. This one, a female, was already dead, but it closely resembled the Peel Street Monster. Moreover, a photograph of it published in the Express and Star helped to identify its species.

It was a South American coati (coatimundi) – a long-tailed relative of the raccoon and belonging to the genus Nasua, with a head-and-body length of up to 2 ft, a thin tail of much the same length, and distinguished by its very elongate snout (responsible for the 'anteater' identity proffered for the Peel Street Monster?). But where had it, and the Peel Street specimen, come from? And if there had been a pair on the loose, could there be more?

The prospect of a plague of coatis terrorising the good residents of Wolverhampton may seem decidedly slim (not least because the favoured diet of coatis consists of invertebrates and small lizards – as opposed to small children!). Nevertheless, the council was clearly taking no chances, for as the Express and Star duly reported:

And fresh fears arose in Wolverhampton as rumours spread that there may be a colony of the creatures hiding in partly closed cellars. Hundreds of people gathered in Salop Street to watch council workers trying to ascertain if a colony of the creatures were hiding there. The crowds were so great they hampered the efforts of the official rat-catcher. In the search, weapons brought in to confront any coatimundis found included poison gas, traps, sulphur, terriers and ferrets. It was uncertain whether the ferrets were to be used following a suggestion that they might form part of the coatimundi diet [I don't think so!].

 
As ably demonstrated by this white-snouted coati Nasua narica: when walking quadrupedally, coatis are famous for often holding their tails vertically upright with a little curl at the tip, giving them an unexpected superficial resemblance to small furry sauropod dinosaurs! (© Dennis Jarvis/Wikipedia – CC BY-SA 2.0 licence)

Ferrets or no ferrets, the search did not find any other errant coatis. Police investigations did reputedly reveal that the female coati had been in a travelling menagerie that had parked here earlier (circuses and fairs would sometimes set up on this slum-area waste ground at that time), and had discarded the creature's body after it had died. However, the Peel Street Monster's origin remains a mystery to this day – as do various other aspects of this curious case.

Can we even be sure that the Peel Street Monster was a coati? For if the accounts of it are true, it must have been an exceptionally belligerent specimen. The Express and Star published a photo of this creature lying dead with a crowd of onlookers surrounding it, but its form cannot be discerned. And what happened to the two carcases? Some correspondences reminiscing about this incident appeared 50 years later in the Express and Star during March 1994, but conflicting recollections only served to muddy these already murky waters even further.

All in all, after also allowing for the likelihood of embellished descriptions with such an odd episode, the only thing that can be said with certainty regarding the Peel Street Monster is that something unexpected was seen and killed in Wolverhampton – a most unsatisfactory end to one of the most intriguing OOP animal cases on file from the West Midlands. True, coatis (unlike anteaters!) are nowadays often kept as exotic pets – a friend of mine at university owned one, and I also well remember about 10 years ago seeing one with a collar and lead being taken for a walk by its owner through another local Midlands town, duly attracting considerable interest and attention from passers-by, including me – but whether an escaped/released pet coati explains the Peel Street Monster is another matter entirely.

Finally: I was recently reminded of this curious case when Canadian Facebook friend Kevin Stewart kindly sent to me a scan of a Canadian newspaper cutting documenting it, which was particularly interesting to me as I was previously unaware that this relatively obscure, ostensibly local-interest-only UK story had ever attracted any overseas media coverage. The cutting was from Alberta's Edmonton Bulletin for 17 February 1934, so for the purposes of historical documentation, here it is – thanks Kevin!

 
Edmonton Bulletin newspaper report of 17 February 1934 concerning the Peel Street Monster public domain)