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Phantom Hound or Man’s Best Friend?

In the summer of 2007, a falconer named Martin Whitley, of the English county of Devon, obtained a number of photographs of a very curious, black-colored, dog-like animal on the wilds of Dartmoor – where Sir Arthur Conan Doyle set his classic Sherlock Holmes novel, The Hound of the Baskervilles. As Whitley noted, it was June 9 when the strange affair went down. In his own words: “I was flying a hawk on Dartmoor with some American clients when one of them pointed out this creature. It was walking along a path about 200 yards away from us. It was black and gray and comparable in size to a miniature pony. It had very thick shoulders, a long, thick tail with a blunt end, and small round ears. Its movement appeared feline; then ‘bear-like’ sprang to mind. There was a party climbing on the Tor opposite, making a racket, but this it ignored completely.”

Merrily Harpur, a noted authority on mystery animals in the UK, offered her thoughts on the handful of photos of the creature that one of the Americans with Whitley took: “Martin’s American clients took a series of photos. They show the Dartmoor landscape, the school party on the Tor, and in the middle distance an animal which seems to change shape in each frame, from cat, to bear, to pony, to boar, to various breeds of dog. Indeed, members of the BCIB [the Big Cats in Britain research group] invoked nearly the whole of Crufts [the British version of the United States’ Westminster Kennel Club show] in attempting to give the creature a ‘rational’ explanation, while the proximity of Hound Tor suggested to some a possible kinship to Devon’s spectral Wisht Hounds.”

Martin Whitley may not have known what the beast was, but he was certain it was not just a dog. On this matter he expanded: “I have worked with dogs all my life and it was definitely not canine. I have also seen a collie-sized black cat in the area, about ten years ago, and it was not that – this was a lot bigger.”

Jon Downes, of the Center for Fortean Zoology, took a more skeptical approach and suspected that the animal was indeed a large dog, and that the seeming ability of the creature to shape-shift resulted from nothing stranger than the technical limitations of the camera that was used to capture the shots. The dog angle was also championed by the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper. Its staff spoke with a local woman, Lucinda Reid, who believed that what had been photographed was actually her pet Newfoundland dog, Troy! Certainly, Troy, like all Newfoundland’s, was a formidable and sizable animal. As evidence, he weighed in at just under 170 pounds.

Reid told the Daily Mail: “I was in stitches when I read that someone thought Troy was the Beast of Dartmoor. I spotted it was him right away – you can tell by the shape and the way he is walking. We go up to that spot on Dartmoor all the time. It is only ten minutes away from our home and Troy loves to run about there. A lot of people don’t have a clue what he is, because he’s so big. Troy frightens the life out of everyone because of his size and he doesn’t look like a dog from a distance. He sometimes disappears off round the rocks on his own, and that’s when he must have been photographed. But Troy is certainly nothing to be afraid of; he’s a big softie. So, if anyone else sees him on the more, there’s no need to panic.”

Not everyone was quite so sure that Troy was the cause of the sensational story. Aside from the fact that the animal in the photos does appear to change shape, there is the matter of the location where the picture was taken. It’s extremely close to a place known locally as Bowerman’s Nose. It’s a granite outcrop on the north slopes of Hayne down and only about a mile from a place called – wait for it – Hound Tor. And there is a very weird legend attached to the tor and how it got its name.

According to ancient, local folklore, roughly one thousand years ago there lived on the wilds of Dartmoor a man named Bowerman. He was a skilled hunter and someone who knew the old, mysterious landscape very well. On one particular day, while out hare-hunting, his pack of hunting dogs stumbled upon something else: a secret coven of witches, hidden deep within a series of previously unknown caves on the moorland. Bowerman’s dogs raced around the caves in chaotic fashion, knocking over a huge cauldron that was a significant part of an ancient ritual the witches were about to perform. Bowerman managed to take control of his dogs and fled the area. The witches, however, were determined to have their cold, deadly revenge.

One of the crone-like coven shape-shifted into a hare, and coldly lured Bowerman and his dogs into marshy ground that quickly swallowed up one and all. The witches were not done with Bowerman and his pack, however. They hauled their dead bodies out of the marsh and turned them to stone. So the old legend goes, a line of rocks at the peak of Hound Tor is comprised of the dogs-turned-to-stone, while an outcrop called Bowerman’s nose, is all that remains of the dogs’ master. And still the story continues.

The very same area of landscape is the home of what are known as the Wisht Hounds – briefly referred to above by Merrily Harpur. Like the monster-dog in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of Baskervilles (which was actually based, in part, on the old legends), the Wisht Hounds were huge, black, deadly dogs of a paranormal kind that sported blazing red eyes. They preyed upon the bodies and souls of the unfortunate people who dared to intrude upon their territory. On top of that, not at all far away is Buckfastleigh, which, in the 17th century, was the home of Squire Richard Cabell – the inspiration for evil Sir Hugo Baskerville in Conan-Doyle’s much-loved novel. Local lore tells of how, on the night Cabell died, a vicious pack of savage, black hounds was seen racing across the moonlit moor.

Taking into consideration the sheer number of strange and centuries-old stories of supernatural hounds in the very same area where Martin Whitley’s friends photographed, well, something, it’s no wonder that the idea it was Troy the Newfoundland is met with much skepticism by monster-hunters. While the matter was never resolved to the satisfaction of everyone, it did provide Troy with brief, nationwide fame!

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Nick Redfern works full time as a writer, lecturer, and journalist. He writes about a wide range of unsolved mysteries, including Bigfoot, UFOs, the Loch Ness Monster, alien encounters, and government conspiracies. Nick has written 41 books, writes for Mysterious Universe and has appeared on numerous television shows on the The History Channel, National Geographic Channel and SyFy Channel.
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