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Big Cats In Britain
Newspaper reports of Big Cat Sightings in Britain are a fairly regular occurrence. Like UFO’s, visits by Aliens and Ghosts they strike the imagination. They make popular stories and will sell papers. Such observations do tend to occur in clusters so that the various spectral cats are given their own special names such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor, The Beast of Bolton, The Crystal Palace Puma and more. It would seem that no area of the British Isles has not had a visit from one of these mythical beasts at one time or another.
Invariably some ‘expert’ will state that the big cat is a ‘Panther’. The moment that the word ‘Panther’ is used I would call the expertise into question. No zoo personnel working with Big Cats in captivity would ever call a cat a Panther. This is not to dispute that the word does not exist because it does. Lions are Panthera leo. Tigers are Panthera tigris and the Leopards are Panthera pardus. Of the three the only one likely to be called a Panther is the Leopard and then only if it was a melanistic or black leopard. If it were it would be called a ‘Black Panther’ and NOT simply a Panther. There again within the zoo world the big cat keepers are much more likely to refer to these animals as Black Leopards. There are black Jaguars too Panthera onca and once again they would be called Black Jaguars and NOT Panthers. None experts use the term ‘Panther’. The same so called experts may actually go on to state that the animal was Puma-like. The Puma or Cougar is not a Panthera cat and as far as I am aware there have only been two recorded cases of black Pumas, one in Brazil in 1843 and one in Costa Rica in 1959.
These experts tend to be associated with groups dedicated to proving the existence of wild Big Cats in Britain. One cannot help to admire their aims. It is an interesting hobby, gets one out into the countryside and demands a deal of research and scrutiny of reports. It is not a bad hobby to have. Some take it a lot more seriously than others.
Historically there have been sightings within the UK for hundreds of years. These though go hand in hand with observations of faeries, dragons and elves. Time and again the reason for the ‘presence’ of wild big cats in Britain is because they were released after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act became law. The implication is that the private owners of various ‘Panther’ type cats rather than meeting the requirements of the law or hand the animals over to a zoo took them out and released them into the wild.
It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that such animals were in private hands. I know of people who kept leopards and lions and more privately at that time. None of these people struck me as stupid or unkind enough to take much loved and cosseted animals out and release them into an alien environment. That’s not to say that someone didn’t. It is possible. However big cats, regardless of species, which were familiar with man are likely to have hung around there place of release and ventured close to human habitation. They would quickly have been spotted and either captured or killed. This has happened to my certain knowledge in both Indonesia and India and this was after release into natural environment.
In 2011 it is 35 years since 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act and the chances of any released animal still surviving are between nil and impossible. The argument is then put forward that the animals which people spot today were born in the wild. Assuming that there were animals released and they were in the vicinity of each other then there is a remote possibility that they got together and bred. It is however highly unlikely.
In all of the dozens of sightings which have occurred there has yet for a convincing photograph to be taken. There has been no ‘proof’ whatsoever. There have been investigations by both private and Defra scientists. Information has been collected and pooled together. Nothing has been proved.
My Thoughts on Big Cats in Britain
In my forty years in zoos I have been asked to examine, assess and assist with presumed Big Cat sightings and damage on around a dozen occasions. I have provided measurements, plaster casts of paw prints, hair and whiskers for DNA analysis. I have examined several carcases of animals presumed to have been killed by Big Cats. I have seen the damage that domestic and feral dogs can do to livestock. The day someone shows me a sheep carcase in the upper branches of a tree I may just possibly change my mind.
I have even attended the place, along with the police, where Big Cats have been sighted. I have spoken to people of presumably sound and sober mind who were convinced by what they have seen. I still don’t believe.
Within the zoo world there are stories which pass around and never ever hit the press. True or not, who knows? Zoo Keepers are an itinerant lot and such stories are inclined to change and be embellished as they pass down the line. A lot of zoos have closed since 1976 as have laws and practices. Not every zoo owner was good and there are possible scenarios which occurred.
A Fictional Scenario
Fiction: Imagine a small private zoo in 1980. Maybe five loyal staff. A big cat dies choking on a chicken bone. A big hole is dug and the cat is buried. At that time there was no requirement for a post mortem examination or need to inform anybody that the animal had died. In fact if the animal had been born in the collection it would not have been necessary to inform anybody either. So, in and out of the collection without any authority being aware of the animal’s existence. I am not saying that such an incident ever took place but if it did it would be equally possible for another scenario to arise. The zoo owner is away on holiday and two keepers are on their days off. James leaves the door to the Leopard enclosure open and the Leopard escapes. Three keepers work hard to capture the beast but off it goes. James is popular, he doesn’t want the sack. The three staff decide that if the cat does not return in 24 hours they will say it died and they buried it. Okay… this is fiction but it is entirely possible. Equally the owner could have allowed the cat to escape during an evening round and he/she tells staff the following day it was sold and collected. Fiction yes…but possible.
There is no question that some smaller cats have escaped from somewhere. I have seen photographs of a Jungle Cat that was hit by a car and heard of others. The smaller Leopard Cats too. If rumours are true a Puma and a Lynx were captured alive. Another lynx was hit by a car. Isolated and very rare incidents but no convincing proof that Big Cats are on the prowl anywhere.
Today, all zoos come under the Zoo Licensing Act. The fictional scenario described above is far less likely to occur. Zoos within Britain where they may lack in finance are the best regulated in the world. The calibre of staff has increased too. They are true professionals. Very few Big Cat keepers within British zoos would believe that there are actually big cats running around wild in the countryside.