If you’re gazing peacefully out the window of your English country estate and you spot a large cat making its way slowly across a meadow, you may want to bring in any small dogs, small children or large sand-filled containers that look like litter boxes – that cat could be a puma or a leopard. While stories of alien big cats abound across the UK, they’re usually isolated and difficult to prove. That’s when you need a big game tracker like Rhoda Watkins to come over, look out your window and give you her professional opinion on what you might be dealing with.
“There are pumas, a mixture of leopards, and lynx.”
Fortunately for our nervous homeowner and cat spotter, Rhoda Watkins was not giving a personal analysis. Unfortunately for the UK, she was talking about the entire country. Watkins was interviewed about her role in a new feature-length documentary, “Britain’s Big Cat Mystery,” which should premier at the next Sundance Film Festival. She comes to her tracking expertise fairly — Watkins was born in South Africa and has spent 20 years tracking big cats, starting with an intense training period in Namibia with San bushmen.
“They are the best trackers in the world. They are just so immersed in their surroundings they have a real feel for what is normal in their natural environment. If a big predator comes in they are acutely aware as everything reacts.”
From there, she moved to the place everyone thinks of when they think of big cats … Cornwall. Cornwall? Well, there’s the legendary Beast of Bodmin there, as well as similar named and unnamed big cat stories up and down the UK. As a trained zoologist, she knows the signs of big cat habitation and sees them wherever she goes.
“I have studied the behaviour of animals, including prey species and big cats and see things with a tracking mindset. There is just too much evidence out there that cannot be anything other than big cats. There is a lot of nonsense around sightings of domestic cats and dogs, but all the signs are there is a decent-sized population out there.”
A decent-sized population of pumas, leopards and lynxes — how does she find them … or even one? Watkins doesn’t depend on photographs from witnesses because they generally lack features that would allow her to get a perspective on a cat’s size, which is generally a house cat, feral cat or small mammal. She looks for other signs.
“This could be tracks or footprints. On a couple of occasions I have seen kills with carcasses you could not attribute to anything other than a big cat.”
If the country has enough big cats to warrant a documentary and full-time cat trackers (Watson runs a training program), where did they all come from? The documentarians dug through historical documents and talked to witnesses dating back to the 1970s when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced and people could no longer keep big cats for whatever reason. And those “whatever reasons” could be interesting.
“There were scrapyards that used to use pumas as guard animals. What happened to all of these? They did not want to go for the licences or have them put down so they just let them go.”
Pet owners did the same. But, that was 50 years ago. Those cats can’t still be around, can they?
“I think given that the Act was so long ago and there are credible sightings now, there has got to be enough out there to be a breeding population. We are now seeing the offspring of those who were released.”
It’s still quite unbelievable that pumas and other big cats could survive, breed and grow their populations in the tight quarters that is the UK. If anyone can finally prove it, it’s Watson and her partner, who is an experienced military tracker.
Will Watson finally find her local big cat – the Beast of Bodmin? Probably not. Based on her theory, what she’s looking for now are the Beasts of Bodmin 2.0 and 3.0.