By Sarah Pridgeon
Not long ago, I detailed with pride the plans my countrymen are developing to reintroduce native wildlife to our fair isles. It turns out this might not be necessary, although the jury remains out as to whether this theory is based on the ravings of a madman.
A gentleman from my hometown who makes his living as a wildlife consultant is adamant that we have an abundance of big cats wandering the country. I don’t mean house cats who ought to have their food bowls confiscated; I’m referring to the kind of giant feline one might be stalked by on the Serengeti.
According to this expert, big cats could be found almost everywhere, but are particularly prevalent in counties such as my own. To clarify, in case you are wondering, they are neither native to the isles nor among the species some would like to introduce.
For the last 30 years, Jonathan McGowan has been collecting evidence such as paw prints, tree markings and fur samples. He claims there are several sightings every week, most of them in Dorset and the county next door because we are home to one of the major forests in the south (or possibly because that’s where this guy spends most of his time looking).
He goes so far as to specify that there are 30 leopards in Dorset. This seems a high number of anomalous felines to me, though a brief internet search does reveal plenty of blurred photographs of potential pumas in the countryside.
These alleged infiltrators are referred to as ABCs, for “Alien Big Cats”. There are a few proven cases, such as the Canadian lynx that was shot in Devon in 1903 and is now stuffed and on display in a museum, and the puma caught in Scotland in 1980 that lived in a wildlife park for the rest of its life and was then also stuffed and put on display.
A caracal was shot by police in Northern Ireland in 1996 and a Eurasian lynx was chased across school recreation fields and into a block of apartments in 2001, ending up in France as a breeder for a zoo.
And then there’s the Beast of Bodmin Moor, one of Britain’s few contributions to the field of cryptozoology. According to “legend”, a huge black cat was seen repeatedly on the moors.
It’s a creepy sort of place – the kind of wasteland where a violin is always playing the theme to a horror movie in your own mind and the mist rolls in the second you forget where you parked the car. It’s exactly the sort of place you’d expect to find a five foot terror with white-yellow eyes whose favorite activity is to mutilate livestock.
The government called for an official investigation after clocking up more than 60 sightings, but concluded there wasn’t any verifiable evidence of the Beast of Bodmin. Mind you, they also said there wasn’t any evidence it didn’t exist.
There’s also the Beast of Cumbria (because why change a naming convention when it seems to be working so well). The most recent sighting of this ABC was just last week.
The Beast of Cumbria is said to be three times the size of a regular cat and likes to rip the heads off sheep. Once again, it has never been proven to exist, though many claim to have photographed it.
I’m not sure what constitutes proper evidence, to be honest. Many people have taken pictures and videos of their sightings while the gentleman from my neighborhood appeared in our local paper this week, featured in a whole gallery of images of him pointing at scratches on trees and unusual poop. Short of taking an ABC home and introducing it to your mother, what more could possibly be done?
Unfortunately, we’re not the best witnesses because jaguars are outside our experience. Since we got rid of the lynx several centuries ago, the Scottish Wildcat is our only contribution to the genre – and it’s pretty small and fluffy for a big cat.
This has led to amusing “sightings” such as the panic caused by an African lion roaming the outskirts of a suburb. Locals called the police, claiming it seemed to be the size of two sheep but refusing to get up close and personal with the tape measure.
An entire team was dispatched, including helicopters, and the scare popped up on the news all over the country. Including in the hotel room of a woman who lived in the neighborhood and was wondering what Teddy Bear, her Maine Coon, was doing on the television.
The Hampshire Tiger caused a similar uproar in 2011. Police cleared the area and scrambled to the scene, bringing experts with tranquilizer darts, but as they lined up a shot, the tiger fell over on its side. Even life-sized stuffed toys are easily knocked over by the wind.
So if we do have a population of predators hiding amongst the trees, where are they coming from? The answer is sadly quite dull.
In 1976, Britain passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, tightening welfare rules for exotic pets and banning people from taking them for a walk around the park without a license. Playing on the swings while a cheetah slunk past on a leash must have been an interesting experience.
After the law changed, it’s said that many owners passed their pets on to zoos, but some simply released them into the wild. Left to their own devices, they presumably bred.
Whatever the truth of the matter, it’s clear if they exist that ABCs like to stay as far away from humans as they can. And if they’re happy to mind their own business while keeping the deer population stable, who are we to say they don’t belong?