Nice doggie? No, bad doggie, very very bad doggie.
How would the gentle reader like to meet one of these some dark night? How about in an open field in the middle of the day? That’s when it liked to attack people, attacking them preferentially to other animals that were around. Yes, watching a flock of sheep or goats was dangerous when when of these puppies was about. The shepherd becomes the prey instead of the protector. It liked to go for the throat, and judging from those teeth, this was not good. Victims were often decapitated and dismembered, this thing had strong jaws. They also had a preference for women and children, killing them far more often than they killed adult males. Killing and eating their victims I might add. Did I mention he was ten or more feet long and six feet tall? And how many people did they kill and eat? Hundreds by some accounts. Where the hell was this? France in the 1760s. What the hell happened to these monsters? They were eventually shot and killed, both of them. I mean, the King sent hunters to track them down, hundreds of dead people has a way of capturing the authorities’ attention. What the hell were they? No one knows.
This is the “Beast of Gévaudan,” which terrorized the French countryside for years, killing dozens of people at the very least, more than 200 by some accounts. Eventually hunters killed one very large wolf, it was stuffed and sent to the King’s palace at Versailles. Rewards were doled out all around, problem solved. And the attacks resumed, dozens of more people being killed in the months that followed. Finally a heroic local hunter, Jean Chastel, shot the second beast. The attacks stopped, and that was that. OK, it was more complicated than that. Jean Chastel was in fact accused of actually harbouring and training the beast in the first place. There’s conflicting versions, as one might expect from a story over two centuries old. The basic facts are undisputed though, a large number of people were killed by one or more large vaguely wolflike animals over a period of several years, and the attacks ended when two of the creatures were killed.
So what were they? The conventional explanation is that they were wolves. There’s two objections I have to that. By all accounts the beast could sever human bones with their bites, which wolves cannot do. And generally a problem with the Occam’s razor approach is that it doesn’t account for unknown knowledge. IE wolf attack is the most likely explanation if and only if we assume that wolves are the only extent predators in the region. Occam’s Razor is a finger trap in that it limits the answer to what one already knows. So upon realizing that I have decided to take a closer look at a few cryptological mysteries just for fun. And the Beast of Gévaudan is fun in a ghastly sort of way, something killed a bunch of people, if it wasn’t wolves, what was it?
A serial killer has been suggested. That doesn’t really account for a lot of things, like the eye witness accounts of a huge beast attacking people. Hysteria? Well, dozens of dismembered partially eaten dead people is hard to attribute to hysteria. Some have suggested a hyena, but that doesn’t seem to jibe with information about how many teeth the carcasses of the two dead beast had. It’s not outside the realm of the possible though. A wolf-dog hybrid has been suggested, and while possible, we’re back stuck by Occam’s razor to the realm of the already familiar. I’m going with a more exotic proposal, I think the Beast of Gévaudan was a relict population of Mesonychids, as illustrated by the image of Andrewsarchus above. Compare it to this contemporary illustration of one of the dead beasts:
Tell me, does that look like a wolf or a hyena, or more like the Andrewarchus above? I mean, these were rural people who were familiar with wolves. If they saw a wolf attacking people, they’d know it was a wolf, not some strange beast. How likely is it that an animal thought to be extinct for 20 some million years survived to kill people in southern France? Seems unlikely. The Beast of Gévaudan is not the only such occurrence though, just the most famous. There were other similar outbreaks and attacks throughout the centuries in France, the last being reported in 1954. Still, other extinct animals have been discovered still quietly living away in obscure corners of the globe. Granted ripping people to pieces and eating them was not exactly “quiet,” but I’m sure the gentle reader knows what I meant.
The Mesonychids were the apex predators of their day, they ruled the earth before the various dogs and cats evolved. It was once thought they were the ancestors of whales, but that has now been discounted. No, the Mesonychids are just another fascinating type of animal that had its heyday but was eventually surpassed by better designs. All teeth no brains is my guess. There’s politicians like that, but I digress. Tomorrow: Skyfish.
(Both of the above images are public domain under all known copyright law. The top image was released into the public domain by its creator, and the copyright on the lower image has been expired for centuries. Yes, I’m familiar with the History Channel’s investigation that concluded the beast was an Asian Hyena. Maybe. Whatever it was, glad it’s not still around.)