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Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Phenomena X –Things Strange And Sinister: “UK Big Cats”

I corresponded and spoke to the man on the telephone a good few times but he still insisted that, on his way to Cheshire, having taken the wrong turning onto a quiet dual carriageway, he had stopped his car to observe a large cat start crossing the road, stopping and then continuing on its way for a good minute. He got out of his car and quickly took measurements and made notes so that everything was recorded on the spot.

Why should I believe him?  Well, for one thing this man was a professor of and senior lecturer in zoology with many years of field work in the UK and overseas to his credit.  He was also used by governmental departments as an advisor on wildlife.  Above all else he was totally familiar with the cat species he had seen: a puma.  He was dumbfounded since, a few months earlier in Wales, he had almost run over another exotic cat –a Jungle or Marsh cat; these have been killed on British roads and photographed.

For over thirty years, since 1977, I acted as an exotic wildlife consultant to UK police forces.  I saw the plaster casts, the photographs and even hair samples that proved non native cats were spread from the Scottish Highlands to the Isle of Wight. Most police wildlife officers who gather this evidence or speak to witnesses in these cases do not doubt the existence of these cats either.

I once spoke to a former government minister in a radio studio and during the on air conversation he poured scorn on the whole subject.  Off air we were talking and the photograph of paw prints from a certain incident fell from a folder I was carrying.  He picked it up and looked at it before handing back to me.  “That’s from the Derby sheep killing site last month, isn’t it?”  I was stunned. It turns out that he had seen my report that went to Derbyshire police.  “I think you are right that it was a puma” he said. Why had he been so negative on air, I asked?  “Oh, well, you can see the headlines of ‘government minister admits UK big cats are real!’ and my job would be gone.”

In fact, the continued claim by the government of whichever day that UK big cats do not exist is a public one.  Would people panic if they were told there were large, non native cats in the countryside?  There would be calls for the government to do something about it –but what?  These are elusive wild cats that have not, in well over a hundred years –and more- of sightings have never seriously injured or killed a human being –alleged attacks in the past have all been proven hoaxes.  Compensate farmers for live stock killed by a large cat (if proven) but there is little else that can be done.

It needs to be made clear that there is only one member of the Big Cat family recorded in UK incidents and that is the leopard –melanistic (black) and regular light coloured.  We have plaster casts of their pawprints, their droppings and even DNA testing on hairs by laboratories that identify them as “leopard species”.

The other cats most often reported in the UK are the puma –a native, normally, of North and South America.  This cat is a member of the Medium sized cat family and its colouring ranges from sandy, grey, dark brown, reddish and, yes, even black.
The next cat species is the Lynx –found in North America and Europe and was, at one point, a native to the UK.  Some argue that, because of the centuries of reports from the UK, the lynx may have never died out in the wilder parts of the country.  Again, we have good lynx prints as well as analyses of hairs proving their existence in the UK.

Then come the Jungle cats and what are very likely Golden cats.

John Aves was driving his van through the quiet Somerset countryside during good, clear sunny weather in June, 1999. Some 100 metres ahead of him he saw “the hugest black cat I’ve ever seen in my life –I just braked!”  The description given by John was perfect for a large male leopard.  The cat had walked past a fence that meant John could later estimate its height accurately. But at the time John could not believe his eyes as the cat moved over the grassy verge and disappeared by hedgerows.  Hoping to see more of this animal, he got out of the van and then onto the roof. He saw the cat looking at something through the hedgerow.  It was then that he saw a woman riding her horse through a field was the object of the cats curiosity.  Rider and horse seemed oblivious though John did note the rider correcting the horse when it acted a bit skittish. The woman rode by and glanced up at John.  He decided to say nothing about the cat.

In Scotland, during 2002, a couple were returning from church on a sunny morning when the wife told her husband to stop the car they were in.  She thought that she had seen a stray dog in the tall grass of a field next to forestry.  Then she realised that it would have to be a very big dog.  The couple got out of the car and looked into the field –the road they were on was slightly elevated above the field.  “Nothing” said her husband who then froze.  A huge black cat got up from where it had obviously been lying and “slowly and cautiously” moved to a specific spot where it then stopped and looked around.  The couple were even more flabbergasted by what happened next.  The cats head went down and then rose, having grabbed the neck of a dead deer and started dragging it off into the forestry.  “We will swear on the Holy Bible that this is the truth” they told me.

In certain areas the local cat is well known.  I was amazed time and again when I began to advise people on the obvious precautions to take if a cat was seen only to be told “Oh, we know all that –most of our parents told us when we were kids.”  In some areas cats had been seen and known about from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.  Everyone locally knew about them including the police and everyone behaved with not the slightest hint of panic “its just out there doing what it needs to survive” I was told more than once.

I remember a nice lady from Ireland who had moved to the UK and loved the countryside of Derbyshire.  On several occasions while walking her dogs she had encountered a large black cat –her description fitted a black leopard and size she could estimate by later measuring a wall and so on the cat had been against.  Eventually it all unnerved her and so she moved to Cumbria.  Three nights after moving to her new home she was walking along in the dark, torch in hand, when she saw two large things reflecting light from the torch. She aimed the torch at these to see that it was a large black leopard sat on a wall –she made her way home quickly.  This cat was far from a figment of her imagination –it was seen about thirty minutes later by a motorist.  The woman eventually moved back to Ireland.

The one thing I find interesting is that people in a particular area will report large cat sightings confidentially and some will even say “I wish I wasn’t the only one seeing them here!”  Restrained by promises of confidentiality regarding witness name and location I could never tell them they weren’t or that their neighbour had actually already made a report.  All I could say was “Oh, there are reports from the general area in the past.”  Seriously, in one month I had seven reports from one Wiltshire village of the same cat, a puma, but not one of the witnesses had told anyone else because “I don’t want people thinking I’m mad!”

In one case the old farm lady had taken to walking around with a pitchfork having seen a puma a good few times around her property.  On one occasion she rounded a corner and stopped. She was face-to-face with the puma which turned an ran “faster than I did!”  In encountering such cats you should never turn and run.  I then got a phone call about a puma crossing a road by a farm.  The couple involved had only moved to the village a few months before so regarding location all they could tell me was “It’s right next to a farm, no idea what its called but it’s owned by this eccentric old lady that walks around with a pitchfork.”

Another plus point in accounts is that people absolutely insist that they have seen the puma even though they are clearly and accurately describing a black leopard or lynx. They have seen on  TV items or in newspapers that “the big cat at large is a puma” so what they saw was the puma.  If they wanted to hoax a cat sighting they would declare it to be a black leopard or whatever. 

Then you get the real gems.  People who want to report an odd cat but describe perfectly a juvenile puma.  They do not expect young pumas after all there is “only” the one black one reported!  And mother and cubs have been documented in the UK, particularly in Wales.

But where do they come from?  Those not doing their research all claim that this all started after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act when people keeping these cats dumped them in the wild.  There was the odd one or two escapees before that.

In fact, these sightings, escapes and even hunts go well back to the start of the 19th century and before.  Anyone could buy or keep a tiger, puma, leopard –even, incredibly, polar bears- or other exotic to keep in the house or to roam the estate and even be kept in little private zoos –menageries.  And escapes and dumping of animals from travelling menageries seemed quite common –and in many cases breeding pairs.

The funniest account I received was over the telephone by a zoologist from Canada. He had been involved in work on pumas in Canada but told me that, apart from the odd call or paw-print he and his colleagues had yet to see one in the wild.  In 1997 he saw driving to the home of relatives in the Scottish Highlands. It was a beautiful, warm and clear day and he was enjoying the open countryside and taking in the air through the open window.  At one point he saw a “clearly adult male puma, reddish-brown in colour walking about twenty feet away in an open field.”  He made a mental note to tell his colleagues later.  A hundred yards or so up the road he screeched to a halt “This is Scotland!” he said out loud.  He had not seen a wild puma in Canada but on holiday in Scotland he had.  What made him angrier was the fact that he had a still camera fully loaded and a video camera on the seat next to him.

So, if someone jokes about “big cats” in the UK the joke is on them.  These cats do exist and have been here a very long time.

© 2012 T. Hooper

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