Big Cats:The Phantom Menace

Sometimes you work on something that suddenly becomes a hot topic, now is one of those times. I’d been working on an article on Essex Big Cats for local magazine, Level 4, with writing partner Alex Norman, when what should (metaphorically) appear from nowhere but a story about a lion spotted in Essex that sparked a major police hunt, that has since been called off.

Sounding like something from a Hollywood movie police helicopters were using heat-seeking cameras and police marksman to scan fields and woods. Officers were also reported to be working with experts from Colchester Zoo to track down the animal until the search was called off, which was rather ironic as we asked them for comment about the Big Cat sightings in Essex over the years but did not want to make comment for the article.

Of course we are at the (cat) tail end of what is known as the ‘silly season’ in newspapers when stories around crop circles or Great White Shark sightings in Cornwall tend to make an appearance and this one was all over the nationals like a Big Cat on heat.

To be honest looking at the fuzzy picture that has been in all the papers it does rather look like a domestic cat but that is certainly not to say that such beasties are not out there and the below article, due for publication this October, only just scratches the surface.

But if anything the story of the escaped lion, whether you believe it to be true or not, does give you ‘paws’ for thought.

Have you ever spotted an ‘alien big cat’? We’d love to hear your story or see your pictures. Let us know what you saw in the comments box at the very end of this article.

The Phantom Menace

Alex Norman and Dean Newman are on the prowl for the Essex Big Cat

In 2008, The Sun newspaper published a photo of what looked like a puma roaming the Essex countryside and the creature was dubbed The Beast of Billericay and joined a slew of supposed Phantom, or Big Cat sightings across the UK and Northern Ireland.

Sightings of these “Alien Big Cats” have been taking up column inches for decades and some of the more infamous include the Surrey Puma of the Sixties, the Beast of Exmoor in the Eighties and the Beast of Bodmin in the Nineties. In 1989, a jungle cat was hit and killed by a driver in Shropshire – they really need to update those Deer warning signs!

Beastwatch.co.uk reports thousands of sightings including panthers, pumas, leopards and lynxes and the British Big Cat Society has seen a steady increase in the in the number of sightings. So where do these Big Cats come from? Lynx only disappeared from the UK 1,500 years ago – perhaps there are still a few out there fighting for survival? Some even have the rather fanciful theory that these creatures have managed to survive since the Ice Age, but this is often rebuked by most Cryptozoologists, the term given to people who search for animals whose existence has not been proven or is outside of their normal geography.

The most plausible theory for many is that they were ‘pets’ released into the British countryside over 35 years ago and remained hidden ever since. Exotic animals used to be fashionable pets for those that could afford them but after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act ruled that non-indigenous pets had to be kept under licence in proper enclosures, up to 100 big cats were discarded into the wild.

Sightings, genuine or not, are getting more frequent, as are their appearances in the media, which could of course both be connected, especially during the summer ‘silly season’. But, not all the sightings have been dodgy or from crackpots, far from the contrary, with policeman and gamekeepers, people not ones to jump to – quite literally – wild conclusions have sworn these beasts to be very real.

Essex is one of the UK’s Big Cat sighting hotspots with reports of a woman crashing her car to “avoid a large animal” in Great Bentley, another woman came “eye to eye with a lynx-like cat the size of a Labrador” in Mersea, both in 2007, whilst 2008, as mentioned earlier, brought us the Beast of Billericay as well as “a panther-like animal” in Colchester. In 2009 there were further sightings, one by an off-duty policeman in Wivenhoe, which was taken so seriously a team of officers were despatched to hunt for it.

If alien big cats are out there hiding in the darkness surely it can only be a matter of time before those powerful paws or awesome jaws come into contact with man… with devastating consequences.

Until then the likes of the Beast of Brentwood and the Beast of Billericay might well remain firmly with their paws in the realm of folklore, but next time you hear a rustling in the bushes or see a black shape in the distance or out of the corner of your eye, be warned, if you go down to the woods today you might be sure of a big black cat surprise…

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3 thoughts on “Big Cats:The Phantom Menace”

  1. Hi, i’m the Black Taxi Driver that was stalked by a Panther in a field in Hutton, Brentwood at approximately 1.30 am. The report in the Brentwood Gazette wasn’t very accurate & only scratched the surface of what i’ve experienced.
    If you’d like to hear an accurate account of my encounter with this animal & more, please use the email address i’ve provided to contact me & i’ll provide a phone number.

    Make no mistake, they are out there & it’s only a matter of time before someone is killed. I know i’m very lucky not to have been the first!

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  2. I have tracked puma alongside the River Crouch, near Wickford, a number of times, and have photographs of prints. I run my own company specialising in outdoor training and education – including tracking – across the UK and Scandinavia, so I know what I was looking at.

    BJH

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  3. What a load of bull-shine!

    The truth of the big cat myth
    http://paulpatersonbigcats.blogspot.co.uk/

    As for the mythical phenomenon of big cats in the UK and their associated sightings, there are some who tell the public that such big cats follow railway lines, will be at undertows and passes. Again this is based on false premise and shoddy heresy. You then have people saying that they have plaster casts of puma and leopard or lynx that they took in the UK, chiefly in the southern parts of England, this however is once again balderdash nonsense.

    First of all, there are no wild, free living and free ranging “big cats” in the UK mainland and secondly, these persons who do take such plaster casts and photographs base their assumptions on flimsy baseless pseudo hype. Most if not all of these people who belong to such cryptozoological groups regarding UK big cat sightings have no experience, qualifications let alone knowledge of the subject matter, those that do are either sucked in by the nonsense or they have a weak personality. Having a hobby or interest is not a bad thing but the issue is that this interest is based on myth and false premise. Using eye witness accounts of sightings or the evidence of heresy is so fraught with error that one should always be wary of it. Such people go on about how such groups have DNA, Hair, Scat evidence as well as having vocalisation of big cats. Two such persons, namely Minter and McGowan also go on to say that there are 1st generation big cats here. But how do they know? No one has ever verified this; no one has ever shown fact of this or gave that definitive proof, so how do such groups know? Such groups and people within these groups are not qualified let alone experienced or have the know-how within the scientific matter of felids. Therefore, those myths are cryptids and until proven shall remain as such, in other words, nothing.

    Have a read at the attached article: “In a recent study lead by Sanjay Gubbi, Tiger Program Coordinator with Panthera and an experienced conservationist, there were 23 leopards killed in road accidents from July 2009 to June 2014 (a period of 5 years) in the southern Indian state of Karnataka alone. A further two leopards met their ends in train accidents.”
    According to these pseudo “expert” groups within the UKGB that say the UK has free living, wild and breeding “big cats”, then if that were so and true, then how do you explain that in India, bodies, camera traps and people trap and kill such “big cats”, tiger populations are so low that 300 to 400 are left. Yet these pathetic groups here in the UKGB say we have 2000 plus such “big cats” here wild in the UKGB and they are so elusive that they can’t find them! What a load of bull-shine and I challenge these groups and people to show the evidence, show it now and have such people as myself and other real experts check if what they claim to be is real. Actually, I challenge these oddball groups to follow the five golden principles of forensic pathology, following Locard’s Exchange principle and follow a see see-through method, showing how, where, when etc.

    Read more at http://news.mongabay.com/…/0911-watsa-leopards-roadkill…

    According to big cat conservationist Dr Luke Hunter, he remains unconvinced that any such “big cat” is roaming wild or free within the UKGB. He claims there are 100 or so Asiatic cheetahs left roaming in massive areas in Iran ‘yet we are able to camera trap them and find their tracks. They are even killed on roads. So by comparison, it’s ridiculous to claim that “big cats” in the UKGB are elusive and can hide. When cats occur, it is pretty straightforward to find evidence of them. ‘Nothing I have seen or been asked to comment on in the last decade or so is remotely convincing as a big cat.’ Dr Andrew Kitchener, principal curator of mammals and birds at the National Museums of Scotland agrees. ‘It’s curious that none of them are getting killed on the roads. Graham Law, a zoologist at Glasgow University who has worked with leopards for 23 years was quoted as saying “People like the idea of believing there’s a mysterious beast roaming around, which is why these sightings may have been hyped up a bit.”

    Prof Robbie McDonald, chair in natural environment at the University of Exeter’s Environment and Sustainability Institute, said: “Most reports of “big cats” come to nothing and the reduction could be because people are asking themselves whether it’s worth reporting to the police.

    “The drop in reported sightings might not be a reflection of how many sightings are made.

    “It is remarkable how many people genuinely believe they’ve seen a big cat out there.”

    Prof McDonald said he would expect more evidence of prey being killed if there were a number of big cats living in the wild.

    “However, that doesn’t exclude occasional animals being found,” he said.

    “If there were long-lived, wide ranging animals out there you would expect a great deal of evidence.

    “On rare occasions the odd animal might have escaped and odd things turn up but rarely persist.”

    Natural England, the government’s advisory body on the natural environment, said it “occasionally” received reports from members of the public of alleged big cats.

    A spokeswoman said: “None of the sightings of big cats have ever been confirmed and the evidence of all the sightings we have been asked to look at has either been unsubstantiated or has been attributed to other causes.

    “From time to time big cats do escape from zoos or other collections and are usually recaptured very quickly. We are confident that there is no breeding population of big cats in this country.”

    Dr Nick Royle, a senior lecturer in Behavioural Ecology at Exeter University, said people could overestimate the size of animals, which could explain sightings.

    He said that research conducted at the university had shown that when viewing an object that was the size and shape of a large domestic cat at a distance of 230ft (70m) from them 21% of people estimated the ‘cat’ to be the size of a leopard or larger.

    Dr Royle said: “The research showed that people can estimate regular shapes such as rectangles of different sizes correctly at distance, but have difficulty estimating the size of cat-shaped objects.”

    Application of Locard’s Exchange Principle as well as the Application of the Simons Test is more than enough to rule out such supposed sightings, even so, when such myths and alike appear, there tends to be a cult-following of what is deemed as fringe groups and people who come to the surface claiming that they are “expert” or “know of or about” of such mythical creatures.

    Until or unless I hear or that of the scientific community hears plausible answers, I’m afraid the continuing lack of conclusive evidence means I’ll be remaining a sceptic.

    Africa is the world’s second-largest and second-most-populous continent. At about 30.2 million km² including adjacent islands, it covers six percent of the Earth’s total surface area and 20.4 percent of the total land area.

    Great Britain, officially United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, constitutional monarchy (2011 pop. 63,181,775), 94,226 sq mi (244,044 sq km), on the British Isles, off W Europe.

    The cats of Africa include:

    Lion African Wild Cat
    Black Footed Cat
    African Golden Cat
    Sand Cat
    Jungle Cat

    The cats of the UKGB include:

    Domestic Cat
    Scottish Wild Cat (known numbers range from 35 to 450. That is if such known cats are classed as true DNA wild cat)

    In 2013 it is estimated that 13 million (45% of) households have pets. The pet population has increased by 4 million to almost 71 million – including fish.

    Top Ten Pets for 2013 (based on running totals over two years)

    1. Fish kept in tanks: 20 – 25 million (9% of households) 2. Fish kept in ponds: 20 – 25 million (6% of households) 3. Dogs: 8.5 million (25% of households) 4. Cats: 8.5 million (19% of households) 5. Rabbits: 1 million (3% of households) 6. Caged birds: 1 million (1.9% of households) 7. Domestic fowl: 1 million (0.9% of households) 8. Guinea Pigs: Half a million (0.6% of households) 9. Hamsters: Half a million (1.5% of households) 10. Horses and ponies: 400,000 (1.1% of households

    2. Other popular pets are Lizards (400,000 / 0.9% of households), snakes (300,000 / 0.6% of households), tortoises and turtles (300,000 / 0.7% of households), frogs and toads (200,000 / 0.1% of households), pigeons (200,000 / 0.3% of households), newts/salamanders (200,000 / 0.2% of households), gerbils (100,000 / 0.1% of households) rats, insects and mice were the least popular in our report (100,000 for each / 0.3% of households total).

    So, given that Africa is the world’s second largest and second most populated continent at around 32 million sq km and, that the UKGB is a mere 244 thousand sq km. Given the Africa has a greater number of known wild feline species as compared to the two known of the UKGB. It is normal that within Africa as well as other large areas of the world that you would expect to see, find, track and film in some capacity such wild exotic felines. However, within the UKGB that is a different matter. First of all, there are no known wild, free-range and breeding populations of wild exotic cats. Such exotic animals can be found with in animal collections (zoos and parks etc.). The UKGB only has domestic cats and the wild cat of Scotland which as we all know has been diminished by the hybridisation from the domestic cat. The known numbers of true pure DNA wild cats of Scotland are unknown but some say that it can range roam 35 to 450.

    Within the UKGB many people make claims that they have seen, witnessed, encountered or have been attacked by such exotic “big cats” that it has become laughable. So called “experts” and “researchers” have crawled out of the woodwork and all claim that the UKGB have such “big cats”. But these stories are not “sightings”. They are “claims” and need to be treated with extreme scepticism. And if there were what the zoologists call “big cats” out there in Scotland or elsewhere in Britain, several things would need to be the case.

    You would have to account for the way they have successfully evaded any and all attempts to either capture them or photograph them or otherwise confirm their presence in a reliable way, given that hunters, scientists and others have no trouble tracking down and studying big cats in every other part of the world where they are known to exist, hence why I mentioned at the start as to the size of Africa.

    You would have to explain why this has all happened over several decades in one of the developed world’s most densely populated little islands. Big cats regularly have fully-verified encounters with the human population in countries where there are much larger uninhabited areas (such as Africa) in which they can hide than you’d find anywhere in Britain. It is, therefore, curious that our “big cats” have failed to do so in our much more overcrowded environment.

    Where are the bodies of the dead ones? Do none of these “big cats” ever die in places where their carcasses can be found by human beings? Do none of them ever get hit by cars and end up as road-kill, like everything else that lives in these islands? Are we supposed to believe they re-generate or are immortal? Indeed, there has been some evidence to show that one cat was ran over, one was kept in a freezer and there has been the odd escapee, but in truth this does not mean or even go to prove that the UK has any such “big cats” roaming about and breeding.

    Now we all know that there have been some escapees from time to time, with some being hit by a car with others caught. However, there has been not one such animal that has ever been found to be classed as free-living/feral or otherwise and breeding, let alone classed as being wild. We also agree that there is certain hybrid of small F3 plus cats out there which can be bought for large sums of monies, but these are not what we are on about here. Sadly though, we have a greater population of fantasy players and idiots who have this belief in mythical creatures that do not exist. Camera traps and the like will not help prove the existence simply because there are no such mythical “big cats” roaming wild in the mainland UK and, these trip cams are set in the wrong places.

    Given the lifespan in the wild of such exotic felines and, it will require both sex to mate and produce, then take into geography as well as the probability of one sex being of cycle and then meeting another opposite sex of the same genus. Sorry Do the math. Even from the 1976 Act, the 1982 and 1984 Act, given that felids cannot live beyond their own species longevity coupled with natural and un-natural mortality. It is both foolish and misguided to even suggest that any such “sighting” is because of these Acts of law. These so called “experts and researchers” then go onto say that such creatures were released due to such Acts of law, again this is foolish and holds no credulity. During the days when regulation was flimsy, many people did own many species of various exotic animals, not just “big cats”. We know such animals from the mink to the various deer species, from wallabies to parrots, from reptiles to fish and insects, were indeed released and or found within parts of the UKGB. However, the matter regarding such “big cats” and the continued spate of so-called “sightings” has nothing whatsoever to do with releases and breeding, that is myth making.

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