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Saturday, 3 August 2019

CATS IN THE CRADLE


Nocturnal Isolation
The most commonly held theory about the presence of Big Cats in Britain is that they were released by exotic pet owners, shortly before the introduction of the 'Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976’, (which was introduced to regulate the disquieting trend in the late 60s and early 70s, of keeping dangerous, exotic and hybrid, status animals), and have since gone on to thrive, in what is largely an island of cattle and countryside, overflowing with easy prey species which are officially, lacking any large, natural predators. Britain is, for the most part, an island in darkness; dotted with poorly lit villages and dimly illuminated towns. Even its large cities are crisscrossed with green corridors and wooded outposts full of cover, where a nocturnal and elusive animal could easily hide out after dark. So, how do we examine this Big Cat problem? Unlike most cryptids, we are at least certain of the existence of these animals, it's just that they are not supposed to exist here, in Britain!

Living in Symbiosis
Unfortunately, the introduction of the DWA act would seem to have had the opposite of the desired effect, of keeping the population of these animals under strict control.

In Section 3 (c) & (f) of the act, we can read the requirement that:

(c) any animal concerned will at all times of its being kept only under the authority of the licence — (i) be held in accommodation which secures that the animal will not escape, which is suitable as regards construction, size, temperature, lighting, ventilation, drainage and cleanliness and which is suitable for the number of animals proposed to be held in the accommodation.

(f) While any animal concerned is at the premises where it will normally be held, its accommodation is such that it can take adequate exercise.

Sadly, it is these two particular stipulations that I believe, would have had the greatest impact upon owners of Big Cats. The costs of providing both an adequate enclosure to comfortably house and allow for the adequate exercise of such energetic and powerful animals, in near zoo-like conditions would have been prohibitive for everyone, except the financially well endowed. Thus it makes sense that owners would have released these animals into the wild. These reckless or perhaps desperate, owners, were simply unable to foot the bill and released their pets, either believing that they would perish or be protected, by their largely nocturnal habits and the isolation of their rural settings.

In retrospect, it may have made sense to provide an easy way out for these owners, in the form of agreements with local zoos and wildlife parks to take any unwanted animals, or for local authorities to provide initial subsidies to existing owners, caught out by this change in circumstance. But that does not seem to have been the case.

Historically, Norfolk, Suffolk, Devon and Cornwall seem to have had the largest concentration of sightings, but that is no longer the rule. Sightings are countrywide and are reported so frequently, that it has become a full-time job just trying to keep track of them. The most frequently sighted species are large black cats, most likely melanistic leopards, with the second most sighted, likely being pumas (mountain lions), with many witnesses describing a large cat with a tawny or silver-grey colouration.  

As we are now in the early part of the 5th decade since the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, 1976, was introduced and these animals have a maximum lifespan of 13 years for the puma and 17 years for the leopard; there should be no doubt that the cats' people are now seeing, are the descendants of these original exotic pets. There have even been sightings of Big Cats with cubs, yet more proof, if any were needed; that the animals are surviving quite comfortably in our land of fields and felids.

When it comes to this particular 'British Cryptid', or perhaps we should say, more properly, 'Out of Place Animal', there are simply too many significant sightings to recount here. The accounts of Big Cats are in fact so numerous, that I am certain several books consisting solely of eyewitness reports, could be written on the subject and yet still leave a wealth of untapped original reports for other authors to research.  

Initially, when I began writing this book, I made a social media appeal for people who had witnessed any unusual animals, asking them to send me their stories. As one might imagine, I received countless Big Cat stories and little much else! Our national and local newspapers are replete with big cat stories and anyone with the patience to surf a few websites, will easily find myriad reports to choose from and researchers engaged in the hunt for this elusive invader. But, in order to exhibit here, this bountiful treasure trove of anecdotal animals roaming throughout our land, I intend for the most part, only to include sightings that have been reported to me directly. In fact, you will not find the following reports in other books or in any newspapers. Alarmingly, what they represent to me is a ticking time bomb or an incident in waiting; whilst we continue to deny on a governmental level, that we now have several, large, native predators; that are for want of a better word – home-grown!

Sightings

THE FINEDON LION
This sighting was related to me by a resident of Finedon, a small town of just over 4,300 people, set amidst the beautiful countryside of Northamptonshire. Although there is extensive rural landscape surrounding the town, it is worth noting that the animal he witnessed in the late summer of 2009, would have had to traverse a populated and very urban part of the town, in order to find itself in his back garden.

“It was late summer and I had gone out to take the laundry off the line. As it happens, I was taking clothes off pegs and was facing the rear of the garden. I suddenly caught movement in the background. On the right-hand side of the garden as I was looking at it, was the very tip of something tan coloured and although I only saw it extremely briefly, the colour was very distinct, as it flashed behind a big black water barrel that was there at the time. Almost immediately, I saw movement again. Something was clearly behind that barrel.

I continued to look and what must have been a few seconds later, I saw a creature take two leaps across the width of the garden, followed by an almost vertical jump to the top of a 6-foot fence panel, at the rear left-hand side. The fence swayed 2-3 times under its weight and then the creature jumped down into the neighbouring garden.

Three thoughts went through my mind as I was watching all this. I remember them clearly. These three things were:

·         There is a boxer dog, in my back yard!
·         Boxers don't have long tails?
·         Boxers don't jump on fences!

I remember those exact thoughts as if they happened yesterday. I remember the fear setting in immediately, as my mind finally made a connection between what I saw moments before and the cougars I had seen in films and documentaries throughout my life. I remember running into the house with whatever clothes I already had in my hands and locking the door. I remember shouting incoherently at my wife, running up to the upstairs bedroom that overlooked the back garden and trying to catch a glimpse of it again. For the next couple of weeks, I did not venture into my back garden at night and when I went there in the day, I carried a very big knife on me.”

THE CASUAL BIG CAT OF RUSPER
Two incredulous witnesses observed a Big Cat at around 9:30pm, on Monday 27th November 2017, in Rusper, West Sussex, whilst collecting a hay consignment from a local farm. After loading the hay on to their vehicle, they were just about to leave the property, when one of the witnesses briefly jumped out of the car to close the farm gate. As she made her way back to the vehicle, both she and her friend clearly saw, illuminated by their headlights, an enormous jet-black cat walking towards them and looking at them intently. When the animal was about a 'bus length away' (45 feet!), it stopped and licked its nose, before casually disappearing into a hedgerow.  The witness, amazed by the sight of this creature, says that there can be no mistaking what she saw and said of the animal: "It was huge and its big eyes were shining back at us. It was unnerving, to say the least. It didn't seem bothered by us at all. I had no idea at all that we had big cats in this country!!" She further described the creature saying: "It was about the size of a Great Dane, but much, much heavier built and definitely male. When it turned, I could see its body was around 4ft long and its tail was around 3ft long. The tail wasn't straight and almost touched the ground, even though it curved at the end. The thickness of its tail was approximately as thick around as my wrist and its legs were, well, stocky, thick or 'good boned' as we would say in horse terms. It had a slinky walk for its size, moving effortlessly. Its ears were also strange, they were not pointed but round”.

THE LEOPARD OF LLANDUDNO
This sighting was related directly to me via social media and of the many reported sightings I received, this particular one stood out as an unusual and slightly comical sighting.

"My name is Terry Brown and I once saw a black leopard on a north Wales beach, while fishing with my son. It was just after first light, so there was good visibility. We saw a leopard stalking in sand dunes close by and watched it until it suddenly spotted us, then we ran like crazy! I even overtook my son! Looking back as we ran, I noticed that it ran the same way, which was scary! It must have thought we were fair game; it was literally 100 metres away. We got back to the car carrying 50lb of fishing gear in record time! This sighting was in 1998 and I and my son still laugh about how I overtook him. I did report it at the time, as I was worried about people getting mauled, but the police just laughed at me, so I've not talked about it since. I've kept the location to myself for fear of people wanting to kill (or hunt) this marvellous animal."

AVEBURY, BIG CAT & CUB
One of the sticking points in Big Cat research is the absence of credible reports of adults with young cubs. This incredible sighting, which occurred near the Avebury Stone Circle, in Wiltshire; fills that gap very neatly and illustrates a very natural mother and cub interaction:

“My sighting was in early August 2012, in Wiltshire; not too far from Avebury stone circle. I had decided, as I don't live so far away that I would take my dogs there for a walk and make a day of it. I had parked near the white horse and I was on a country path that went towards an old Iron Age settlement. I was the only person around the path and was at the top of a hill, so I had a good view down in front of me. It was then that I noticed two black things moving around on a grassy patch by some trees, next to the edge of a field. One was smaller than the other and it sat watching the bigger one, which was pouncing around in the grass trying to catch something. After a while, the larger one just started to walk away along the edge of the cornfield, away from me. The smaller one jumped to its feet and chased after it. They walked the edge of the field, until out of sight. It was a huge black cat and a cub. It had a long tail and it scared me. I turned around and walked back to the car after that.”

BIG CAT OF HOLLYM
This sighting took place in Hollym, in East Yorkshire (Coast) somewhere between April and May of 2002 and is a good example of the boldness that some of these animals are starting to display towards people and vehicles; which may go some way to explaining, the steady increase in sightings over the last 20 years!

“At the time of my sighting, I was living in Withernsea – a small seaside town on the East coast of Yorkshire and working at a bakery in Hull and as such was getting up fairly early and driving to work. The next village is Hollym, it has a crossroads and it was further down the road from this that, as I drove along, I saw a huge black cat, appear at the side of the road next to the hedge. It was casually walking (slowly) across the road, from my right to left – it was massive!
It was not bothered about me or my Ford Escort whatsoever, It almost stopped halfway over the road and looked over towards me, as if to say:, ‘I’m a big black cat! –whatcha gonna do?’ I couldn’t believe my eyes, all the hairs on my body were standing in shock, it was beautiful and freaky at the same time and I was thoroughly amazed and couldn’t stop thinking about it for ages. As I got further down the road, it simply went in, under the hedgerow and disappeared.”

THE PRESELI PANTHER 
Witnessed in 1999, by the sister of an ex-girlfriend. After an afternoon visiting a friend in a nearby farm, our witness was riding her horse home over the Preseli Mountains in West Wales, when she stopped briefly to rest and look back towards the farm, she had just left. Usually a sceptical person, she was very surprised to see a large black cat with small ears and a long tail, about the size of an Alsatian dog, chasing sheep in the field next to the farm. Seeing that the creature had a predatory demeanour, she became afraid and quickly rode home.

THE CRYMYCH CAT 
Another big cat sighting took place outside a home in which I was staying, in the lovely village of Crymych, West Wales on Christmas morning around 5am, in 1999. A guest of my host, a lady in her mid-50's and a smoker, was enjoying a cigarette on the front porch, when she suddenly noticed a large black cat, resembling a panther, staring at her out of the darkness just 15 feet away. She watched the animal for about 30 seconds before it melted away into the undergrowth. She was understandably in a state of shock at what she had seen and for obvious reasons decided not to join our impromptu Big Cat hunt later that day.  I personally have a lot of trust in the veracity of both this and the Preseli Panther sighting. Both persons were known to me and had no interest in or awareness of the Big Cat phenomenon, at the time. They both gave corroborative descriptions of the animal they had witnessed and I think it can quite confidently be asserted that either they witnessed either the same animal or the same species of animal, on both occasions.

THE SANDY COLOURED STALKER 
This sighting was passed to me by a roadie of one of my former bands, back in the late 90's; after he had witnessed a sandy coloured, large cat that resembled a puma; on a Devonshire beach one night. The animal approached him and his friends, just stopping short of the headlights of their car. The animal quietly observed them for around 30 seconds, before disappearing into the darkness.  

THE DEVONSHIRE DOG CATCHER 
Another Devonshire encounter, with one of these mystery big cats was related to me by an ex-flatmate in the year 2000. He was living in a small village in rural Devon and was walking his dog one summer evening at twilight, when he became aware of a black shape in the tree line moving towards them. At first, he thought he was looking at another dog, but due to its size, quickly realised that he was being stalked by what appeared to be a large black panther. He quickly ran with his dog back to his home, which was close by, and secured himself and his dog inside. He stated that he believed that the creature was stalking his dog and not him, but was fearful of what could have transpired if he had not escaped, due to the animal's size.

Under Our Nose
These sightings are just the tip of a very large iceberg. Even though there were an astounding 460 reported sightings logged by police in England, Wales and Northern Ireland between 2010 and 2016, it is estimated that there are around 2,000 sightings each year in the UK, many of which go unreported, due to fear of ridicule. This extremely high number of reports and sightings would seem to defy the efforts of any sceptic to deny the presence of Big Cats living in our midst.  I would expect that anyone examining the wealth of evidence pertaining to the presence of these creatures here in the UK, presented through photographs, film, eyewitness reports, tracks, livestock kills and other signs of habituation would seriously reconsider their position on this very exciting subject.

We live in a land of plenty, for such skilled predators as Big Cats. A land that offers many places to nest and hide, filled with livestock, deer and many smaller species that could sustain quite a healthy population of these 'Out of Place Animals'. In our present era, many still believe that these sightings are cases of mistaken identity, perhaps large dogs or deer seen in poor light, or even an occasional zoo escapee; but for our children, I believe that Big Cats will be an accepted and natural part of the fauna of the British Isles.


Written By Andrew McGrath

'Cats in the Cradle' is an excerpt from my book - Beasts of Britain -  available here!

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