by Luke Phillips
With reports now in their thousands, it’s difficult to disregard tales of big cats in Britain as mere figments of the imagination. That said, it’s certainly easy to be skeptical. I remember when I first began researching the subject, sitting in the living room of a Devonshire taxidermist who told me tales of the hundreds of cats he’d seen, and the conspiracy theories of how the numerous people they’d killed had been covered up by the police. I spent most of my time looking at the dusty 70’s furniture covered in stuffed birds and animals, slightly concerned I might be next.
On the other hand, it’s very difficult to dismiss the testimony of a police helicopter pilot from the same region, who showed me thermal imagery of what looked just like a big cat.
You might be surprised to learn that the UK hasn’t always been feline-free, and nor is it today, even officially. Whilst we still have the wild cat, we also used to have the lynx and may soon again if a bid for reintroduction is successful. A little further back in time, we also had the European jaguar, which was bigger and stockier than the modern day example. We also had cave lions and before all of them, even a sabre tooth, Homotherium. And although it’s unlikely that any of those animals bar the lynx have somehow lingered on, what it does show, is that Britain has a landscape and ecosystem able to support big cats.
Now, I want to address what is an important issue in today’s political climate, immigration. For far too long, big cats from overseas have been coming to our country, moving in without any regard to the local residents. First, it was the Romans. Their preoccupation with entertainment through wild animal circuses, exhibition and gladiatorial arenas has been wildly documented by Hollywood and such like. Russell Crowe battles tigers in Rome and is part of a travelling circus based in Turkey for part of the film Gladiator. He famously throws down the line “are you not entertained?”, and having seen Noah, I can say I wasn’t. However, the historical accuracy is pretty much there, as the Romans did like their wild animals and they took them everywhere with them. The story goes that exotic cats, such as lions and tigers, were used as a metaphor for the strength and ferocity of the Roman army and empire, pitted against lesser native animals such as bears, wolves and even big cats. It’s also been theorised that when the Roman’s made a hasty retreat from Britain, many of these circus and gladiatorial animals were simply abandoned or even let loose. This would have been circa 410 AD.
The Victorians were also fond of a travelling circus or two. Rather famously, a lion escaped from Ballard’s Travelling Menagerie and attacked the night mail service between London and Exeter in 1816. And it’s not hard to believe escapes were frequent throughout the era, given the little that was then known about such animals.
Gypsy travelers have also been traditional traders of exotic animals. Big cats are said to be easily available on the black market and many families allegedly own them.
But it’s July 22 and 1976 when things really began to hot up in the UK big cat wise. For this was the date the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced and the world changed for a nation of exotic pet owners. If you were Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, who kept an ocelot in their suite at the Dorchester Hotel in Park Lane, this wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem. For the stars of Hollywood, obtaining the correct license, the necessary insurance liability and installing adequate enclosures and equipment wouldn’t put too much of a dent in the wallet. For the Kent scrap metal dealer who bought a lion as a burglar deterrent, the financial outlay and the potential repercussions of fines and imprisonment may have been a little too much to bear.
Harrods exotic pet department rather famously had the motto, “if it moves, we can get it for you.” The lion from Harrods was the subject of a documentary that followed the animal’s journey back to Africa and its eventual successful release into the wild. However, not every exotic feline would be so lucky. Many owners faced either having their animals put to sleep or adopted by licensed owners, usually a zoo or a circus. The sheer number of animals involved is indicated by the fact that very quickly, there was no place left for the big cats in legitimate circles. It soon became clear animals were being dumped and released in remote parts of the country to save their owners the hassle of any unappealing choices. Some of the larger, less adaptive or simply tamer animals were caught quite quickly. But smaller and more adaptive species such as leopards, pumas, lynx, bobcats, cheetahs and caracals disappeared into the countryside. And all have been reported in sightings up and down the country since.
The 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act has definitely contributed in great part to the presence of big cats in Britain and it seems no coincidence that sightings have increased dramatically since then. But don’t be fooled that exotic big cats in private hands was put to rest in 1976 though. Licenses are granted every year. Just over the last few years, nearly 200 licenses were given to owners of private menageries, including permits for ten tigers, five lions, three pumas and twenty-six leopards. If you have the money and the means, a big cat is still a possible pet. And although the rules are now stricter and escapes are less likely, stories still abound. Inspectors visiting the menagerie of a recently deceased estate owner only to find open and empty cages is a particular favourite.
So, in all my research, have I ever seen anything? Well, sort of. It was a dark night…naturally. It was past midnight and officially, it was so late it was early. I was driving back, enjoying the freedom of the open road, or as much freedom as an elderly Alfa Romeo whose engine roars with not so much power as pain can enjoy at any rate. Soon enough, I turned onto the winding, hilly road that led home. This particular stretch of tarmac peaks in a winding chicane covered by dense bows of oak and beech. The road is bordered by farmland, meadows and little outcrops of woodland that stretch out into the countryside. I normally always slow down through there as I have often seen owls, badgers and deer crossing the road. This night was no different and I took my foot off the accelerator and coasted up the last bit of the hill, my hands tucked over the steering wheel and my eyes scanning the road and tree boughs up ahead. I went to hit the accelerator again, only to have to brake sharply again as three roe deer does burst from the cover to my right and ran across the road in an obvious panic. More concerned for their own wellbeing than mine, they crashed through the trees on the other side of the road and disappeared from sight. My heart was thumping hard, so I took a few moments to calm myself down before setting off again. Unfortunately, I didn’t get the chance. Out of range of my headlights, but backlit by the ambient light of street lamps further up the road, I caught a glimpse of a large shadow. A black bounding form streaked across the tarmac and disappeared about fifty metres further up the road from where the deer had. Now it was a fleeting glimpse and it was at night, but as I drove home, still shaking a little bit, I began to identify the animal I had just seen. It had a roundish head with small triangular ears set close to the body that had barely broken the silhouetted profile. It had a muscular neck and shoulders, a long curved back and an even longer thick curved tail that had stretched behind it as it ran, and the animal obviously ran on four legs. I didn’t want to really admit it, but I knew in my heart that I had just seen a black or melanistic leopard running down some deer in the Kent countryside.
So, if you’re looking for absolute proof, I’m afraid I can’t offer any. But the University of Agriculture in Cirencester is currently carrying out a study of animals killed by unidentified predators. Dr. Andrew Hemmings has shown from his carnassial tooth pit analysis that the deer and sheep carcasses he’s examining point towards probable consumption by an as-yet unidentified, medium sized felid.
All I can offer is my own, and the testimony of hundreds of others who all say the same thing. “I know what I saw”.
And as for why you’ve never seen one? Well maybe my protagonist from Shadow Beast puts it best.
“You could walk right up to a big cat. You could be inches away from it and you’d have no idea it was there. Every one of its senses would be focused on you whilst it made up its mind what to do with you. They are ambush hunters. You wouldn’t know it was there until it wanted you to.”
Luke Phillips is an author and writer on animal behaviour and cryptozoology. His novel Shadow Beast is out now.
Both images free use, background via Pixabay.com