by Whit Gibbons

August 28, 2011

"Varmints: Mystery Carnivores of North America" is an entertaining mix of exciting, sometimes scary, always informative facts and fantasy about terrestrial mammals that kill or scavenge other animals, including an occasional human. Written by Chad Arment (2010, Coachwhip Publications, Landisville, Pa.; $29.95), "Varmints" addresses scientific facts, folklore, and hoaxes surrounding some of the country's most intriguing creatures that people have encountered, or reportedly encountered, including lions, tigers, and bears.

The author describes the book as "a preliminary cryptozoological investigation into varmint folklore in North America." He defines cryptozoology as "the methodological investigation of mystery animals . . . for which . . . circumstantial evidence" exists of previously unknown species, ones seen in the wrong place, and those that are reportedly the wrong color or are bigger or smaller than the norm. Native and introduced exotic carnivores of the continent are also discussed. Little coverage is given to Big Foot, Hogzilla, and Lizard Man.

Reports abound of sightings of mountain lions (aka cougars, catamounts, panthers), but the vast majority in the eastern United States remain unsubstantiated. In reference to unverified reports of mountain lions, black panthers, and other big cats seen in unlikely places, Arment says, "[In] far too many cases [even] where a photograph or video has been taken of the suspected mystery feline . . . . it is obvious" that the animal is actually "a large domestic cat." I know a wildlife biologist in Tennessee who investigated the killing of a "mountain lion." When he arrived at the scene and examined the carcass, he had to break the news to the hunter that he had killed a 40-pound house cat! Impressive, though not really comparable to a cougar. But captive lions, tigers, and other exotic cats do sometimes escape, so the possibility exists that one might be seen outside its usual range, and such claims are sometimes validated.

The first accounts in the book relate to sightings of a dangerous animal that didn't actually exist. A series of newspaper articles in the 1950s reported that a black panther had escaped from a carnival in Los Angeles. The subsequent hysteria resulted in the varmint's being seen at various spots around town. Several policemen claimed to have seen the 140-pound beast loose in an alley the first night; numerous citizens fueled the fantasy by reporting sightings of their own. The news stories are entertaining and demonstrate how human obsession with mystery animals can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. People think animals are there, so they see them, or at least think they do. The final newspaper account tells how the carnival owner eventually admitted he had "concocted the whole story."

The book recounts stories of unusual variations of native species. One intriguing example from the Northwest was the so-called lava bear, supposedly a species of dwarf grizzly bear that weighed only 25 to 30 pounds as an adult. The claims were based on citizen reports, not scientific confirmation, and eventually the little bear was said to have gone extinct. Arment does not categorically discount the existence or scientific validity of the dwarf grizzly or other animals discussed in the book. Instead, he suggests that further scientific inquiry might be needed to confirm or refute the assertions. Among the other creatures mentioned in the book are red wolves, Carolina dogs, and great white wolves, all of which are associated with some level of biological intrigue that the author feels could warrant further cryptozoological investigation.

Of interest to most people, no matter where they live, would be the local coverage of newspaper articles with headlines such as "Car Is Attacked by Black Panther in Talladega Co. [Alabama] and "Pelion Area on Look Out for Tiger [South Carolina]." Alaskans aren't as concerned about big cats as they are with other large predators, as the headline "Monstrous Polar Bear Roams Alaskan Coast" attests. A "30-foot-long polar bear" would indeed be a monster.

Arment's book confirms people's fascination with mystery animals, even if the varmint's existence cannot be validated.

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