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…