Big Cats in British Files
During the early part of 1998, the British Government’s House of Commons held a fascinating and arguably near-unique debate on the existence – or otherwise – of a particular breed of mystery animal that is widely rumored to inhabit the confines of the British Isles: the so-called Alien Big Cats, or ABCs, as they have become infamously known.
It scarcely needs mentioning that Britain is not home to an indigenous species of large cat. Nevertheless, for decades amazing stories have circulated from all across the nation of sightings of large, predatory cats that savagely feed on both livestock and wild animals and that terrify, intrigue and amaze the local populace in the process.
As history has demonstrated, there now exists a very large and credible body of data in support of the notion that the British Isles do have within their midst a healthy and thriving population of presently unidentified large cats – such as the infamous Beast of Bodmin and the Beast of Exmoor that so hysterically dominated the nation’s newspapers back in the early-to-mid 1980s.
But let us now turn our attentions to what can be determined at an official level about the puzzle.
Documentation that was generated as a result of the February 2, 1998 debate on the controversy in the Government’s House of Commons began with a statement from Mr. Keith Simpson, the Member of Parliament for mid-Norfolk: “Over the past twenty years, there has been a steady increase in the number of sightings of big cats in many parts of the United Kingdom. These are often described as pumas, leopards or panthers. A survey carried out in 1996 claimed sightings of big cats in 34 English counties.”
Many of the sightings, said Simpson, had been reported in his constituency by people out walking their pet-dogs or driving down old country roads, very often at dawn or dusk. Frequently the description given fitted perfectly that of a puma or a leopard. Simpson also added that in a number of incidents it had been claimed that ewes, lambs, and even horses had been attacked – and in some cases killed – by the marauding beasts.
Simpson elaborated yet further: “A number of distinguished wildlife experts have suggested that some pumas or leopards could have been released into the countryside when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 made it illegal to own such animals without a license. They would have been able to roam over a wide area of countryside, live off wild or domestic animals and possibly breed. So what is to be done?”
In answer to that question, Simpson had a few ideas: “I should like to suggest two positive measures for the Minister to consider. At national and local levels, it is logical that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food should be the lead Government Department for coordinating the monitoring of evidence concerning big cats.”
In response, Elliot Morley, at the time the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, admitted that there was a valid issue that did need addressing. He said: ‘The Ministry’s main responsibility on big cats is confined to whether the presence of a big cat poses a threat to the safety of livestock. The Ministry is aware that a total of 16 big cats have escaped into the wild since 1977. They include lions, tigers, leopards, jaguars and pumas, but all but two animals were at large for only one day.”
Morley expanded still further: “Because there is a risk that big cats can escape into the wild and because of the threat that such animals could pose to livestock, the Ministry investigates each report in which it is alleged that livestock have been attacked. Reports to the Ministry are usually made by the farmers whose animals have been attacked. In addition, the Ministry takes note of articles in the press describing big cat incidents and will consider them if there is evidence that livestock are at risk.”
On receipt of a report of a big cat sighting, explained Morley to the House, the Ministry would ask the Farming and Rural Conservation Agency – the Ministry’s wildlife advisers – to contact the person who reported the encounter, as he explained: “The FRCA will discuss the situation with the farmer and seek to establish whether the sighting is genuine and whether any evidence can be evaluated. It will follow up all cases where there is evidence of a big cat that can be corroborated and all cases where it is alleged that livestock are being taken.”
In conclusion, Morley stated: “It is impossible to say categorically that no big cats are living wild in Britain, so it is only right and proper that the Ministry should continue to investigate serious claims of their existence – but only when there is a threat to livestock and when there is clear evidence that can be validated. I am afraid that, until we obtain stronger evidence, the reports of big cats are still in the category of mythical creatures.”
Thanks to the Freedom of Information Act, we now have that “stronger evidence.” Replying in 2006 to a FOIA request from a member of the public with an interest in big cat sightings seen in the county of Hampshire between 1995 and 2005, the county’s Police Force released secret files that stated:
“Hampshire’s Constabulary’s Air Support Unit has been deployed to assist with the following reports: January 1995 – Black Panther like animal seen in Eastleigh. Two likely heat sources found by the aircraft, but nothing found by ground troops. March 1995 – Black Puma like animal seen in Winchester. One heat source found that could not be classified by the aircraft crew, kept running off from searching officers, search eventually abandoned.”
The story is far more spectacular on the east coast of England, however. In 1991, documents show, a lynx – that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs believed may have escaped from a zoo; although this was never actually proved – was shot dead near Great Witchingham, Norfolk , by a man who then placed the body in his freezer before selling it to a local collector who decided to have the creature stuffed.
It transpires that an extensive dossier on the affair was opened by local police that would have remained under lock-and-key were it not for the useful provisions of the Government’s Freedom of Information Act. Matters began when police officers were investigating a gamekeeper who, it was suspected, may have been responsible for the deaths of a number of birds of prey that had been living within the area. The officer that interviewed the man in question wrote in his now-declassified official report:
“At the start of the search in an outhouse, which contained a large chest freezer, I asked him what he had in the freezer, and he replied: ‘Oh, only some pigeons and a lynx.’ On opening the freezer there was a large lynx lying stretched out in the freezer on top of a load of pigeons! He had shot this when he saw it chasing his gun dog.”
Britain’s exotic cats are no longer the myth that many believe them to be – and the government knows it full well, too.
Recent Big Cat Sighting in New Zealand (NSFW Language) ~ Ben