How to report a sighting

    I am always interested in hearing about new sightings of unknown animals. If you have had such experience, feel free to contact me by e-mail.
    Important: The whole point of gathering information on unknown animals is to collect a corpus of information which can be examined for common features, and lead to further research, hopefully to the identification and capture of a new species. Therefore, anything you say is likely to be published - either on this blog, or in some other print medium. So, if you do not want your name published, please notify me at the onset. I will guarantee not to include your name in the report.
   Nevertheless, it would be useful if you included a telephone number, and also an address if possible, in case I need to question you about some aspects of the case. These will never be included in any report.

Details Required
    There are certain details which are useful for any report. Please bear with me, therefore, while I quote the instructions I gave in the last chapter of Bunyips and Bigfoots. These instructions should be useful, both to witnesses, and to those interviewing them.

    The last thing I want is to inspire my readers to go off half-cocked. We all know what happens when you go off half cocked. You shoot yourself in the foot.
    So, if you happen to see something peculiar, think! Could it have a mundane explanation? If, after your second thought, you are still convinced it cannot be explained, write down what you saw at once. If you haven't any notebook, jot down the cardinal points on a newspaper, paper towel, or whatever, until you have time to produce a full account. If you are utterly out of writing material, at least rehearse the whole event in you mind until you have time to write it. In your account, be specific. Don't say "it looked like a cat". What made it look like a cat? Its face? Its shape? Its movements? At the same time, don't be too definite. If you are uncertain about a particular feature, say so.
    If you are in a group, do not discuss it among yourselves until you have put it on paper. If you do, you may well influence one another, and your testimony will lose its value.
    Where it is possible to photograph the tracks, include in the photo something of known size. Try to get both close ups of the best prints, and photos of two or more prints together. If you have no camera, try sketching them.
    If you clip a story from a newspaper, it is important to record the name of the paper and the place of publication, because many newspapers have similar names. The date should also be recorded, as should the day of the week. This last is important because the sighting will often be said to have occurred (say) last Friday, and not everybody has a ready reckoner to determine what date that was.
    At present there are a lot of enthusiastic amateurs performing investigations in the field. So my third plea is for them to adopt systematic scientific methods. We live in the age of computers and data bases. In any collection of information, there is always a certain amount of "noise" among the "signal". However, if we go about it correctly, it should be possible to find the underlying consistencies. From that, one can determine whether any set of sightings refer to a known or an unknown species. More than that, it will be possible to discover useful patterns, and gain clues to the species' identity and ecology.
    To give one example, it would be useful to know whether the black and grey types of "puma", and the alleged thylacines are observed in the same areas, whether one type is more likely to be seen at night, the seasons of the years in which most sightings occur, any possible connection between the sightings, the killings, and the nocturnal screams, and so on. When I mentioned this to one investigator, she replied that it had simply never occurred to her.
    When interviewing witnesses, let them tell their story, then ask for further information. Stress the importance of providing full details, but also to state when they are not sure. Do not offer any suggested explanations until the interview is over. Do not ask any leading questions. (Ask misleading questions if you wish.) Ask them to draw a picture if possible, regardless of their artistic skill. When you have completed your check sheet of information, it is permissible to show pictures of animals you suspect might have been responsible. If there are multiple witnesses to the same event, make sure that they are interviewed separately, and request that they not discuss the matter with one another until it is over.
    A variation of this technique can be used to produce a questionnaire if the interview has to be performed by correspondence. Frequently, when reading newspaper accounts, I have been pained to note how much useful information has been left out, either for lack of space, or due to lack of skill on the part of the journalist. There are certain data which should be obtained if a report is to be of maximum value.

1. The date of the interview. It might be years before it is published; so you ought to have some record of the time elapsed between sighting and recording.
2. The names and addresses of the witnesses.
3. The status of the witnesses: sex, age, occupation, any special qualifications in observation or identification. In other words, why should we believe them?
4. The date and time of the sighting. It is often difficult to tell from newspaper reports even whether it was day or night.
5. Weather and lighting conditions. Readers of the paper the next day will know whether 6 pm was just after sunset of just before. The researcher in another state a couple of years later will not.
6. How long the observation lasted.
7. The maximum and minimum distances between animal and observer. Did the latter have any objective method of estimation?
8. The terrain. Even if the sighting was on a road, was the surrounding country farmland, open scrub, rainforest, or what?
9. The size of the animal, both height and length, with and without the tail. Again, was there any way to estimate it objectively?
10. Colour - on both upper and lower parts of body.
11. Any distinguishing marks, such as stripes, spots or blotches. Be specific. A thylacine's stripes are quite different from a tiger's, and different still from the fortuitous stripes of feral cats and dogs.
12. The shape of the head, particularly whether the muzzle was long or short, pointed or truncated, or whether any marks could be seen on the face.
13. The size and shape of the ears.
14. The shape of the hindquarters.
15. The shape, length and carriage of the tail.
16. The behaviour of the animal.
17. Names and addresses of anyone else who may have had a similar experience.
18. Anything else the observer might think relevant.

When marine animals are involved, certain other data are also important.
19. The condition of the sea. Again, be specific. A landlubber doesn't know what a "low swell" might be.
20. Whether the skin appeared furred, smooth, or scaly. Information like this is essential in determining to which group of animals the creature belongs.
21. The shape of the head, with the presence and position of visible eyes, ears, breathing tubes etc.
22. The length, thickness and shape of the neck. Was it clearly demarcated from the body and/or the head? Was there any mane?
23. The presence or absence of any humps, their relative size and spacing, and whether they appeared to be integral to the body shape, or merely an artifact of the body's undulations.
24. Any fins or paddles, and their positions. Do not infer their existence if they are covered by water.
25. Shape of the tail, if visible. Again, do not infer its existence because of the wake. A seal would merely have a pair of flippers attacked to its rear.
26. Method of propulsion: paddling, sculling, or undulating. (As a general rule, mammals undulate vertically, other life forms horizontally.)
27. Method of surfacing and submerging. (Most animals will dive, but certain types of sea serpent simply sink like a stone.)

    Then there are the yowies. It becomes rather tedious reading reports which list only the height, colour, and the fact that it looked like an ape.
    So if they really exist, and if you have the freakishly good luck to see one, remember: you will probably never be so lucky again, and you have only a very short time before it gets away. (All the evidence suggests that it will run away from you.) Stop shivering, stand still, and give it a very thorough once-over. As well as the obvious features listed above, take note of the following:
28. The proportions of the body. Are its arms and legs longer or shorter in relation to its trunk than a human being's? Is it slim or heavily built? Does it have a protruding belly?
29. The facial features. What shape is the face? Is the nose flat, long, broad, or pug-like? Do the brows project? Are the lips full like a man's, or thin like an ape's? Is the chin prominent or recessed? What about the ears?
30. The pattern of hair. Are there any parts where the hair is longer than others? Is there any hair on the face? Is there a beard? Is the chest bare or hairy? Details like this are clues to its relationship to ourselves.
31. Presence and size of genitals and/or female breasts.
32. Shape of the hand.
33. How many toes does it have?
34. Does the footprint differ in any way from ours?
    If you have the presence of mind to record all that, you will be rewarded with a memory that will stick in your mind forever. You will also deserve a medal. More to the point, if you are interviewing someone, at least ask those questions. They might end up remembering more than they originally volunteered.

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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