Good afternoon and welcome to the second instalment of my new blog pertaining to my research into sightings and evidence of so-called 'big cats' in the south-east. As I mentioned in my first report, there are numerous issues, subjects, questions etc to get through and will, step by step, take you, dear reader into this intriguing situation which has been taking place for many years across the UK. The possibility that large, exotic cats roam south-eastern England has been a bugbear for many sceptics over the years. Those who remain unconvinced of the shaky film footage and blurry paw-print casts have every right to question something for which there appears no evidence for, but hopefully this blog will explain many of the mysteries and fill in the holes that seem to pepper this subject. Today, I'll be introducing you to the species of cat which are believed to roam not just Kent, but most of Britain. Hopefully, this introduction will make many people aware of not just what roams the countryside, but which animals do not. Over the years there have been reports of lions, tigers, cheetahs, and jaguars in the wilds of Kent, but NONE of these inhabit the local woods, in fact it would be absurd to suggest so, and I doubt very much whether such animals would roam any part of the UK. Nearly every sighting of a so-called lion, lioness et al, has been unfounded, and those that turn out to be genuine simply take place after an animal has escaped a zoo - resulting in it being recaptured or sadly, shot dead. In 2011 an alleged 'white toger' sighting took place elsewhere in the country, but the animal turned out to be cuddly toy, and yet police still investigated the sighting!! In the 1960s the Surrey puma flap of sightings originally involved witnesses coming forward to describe lioness sightings - when in fact a majority of witnesses were seeing a puma, also known as mountain lion and cougar, but what we must remember is that despite the thousands of 'big cat' sightings that take place, not every witness is genuine and not all know their species of cat. In London in 1994 a creature known as the 'Winchmore Hill lioness' hit the headlines, this was a decade after the 'Edgware tiger' scare. It's amazing what type of stories make the national headlines!
What we must remember is that whilst lions were purchased quite regularly in the 1960s as novel pets - this very large cat, native to Africa, would stick out like a sore thumb in the UK wilds. Such an animal would be heard roaring, would seek very large prey and the lion is also a social animal that seeks a pride. Tigers 9which inhabit most of southern Asia) were not regularly kept as pets in the '60s, although in parts of the United States today it is believed that more people own Bengal tigers than there are Bengal tigers in the wild!! Again, a tiger is a very large cat, it's coat is very distinctive and there would be an alarming pile up of prey. The cheetah - this extremely agile and speedy cat which inhabits an area south of the Sahara in Africa, North Africa and the Middle East - was occasionally kept as a pet in the '60s. In India the father of the Moghul Emperor Jahangir was said to have kept more than one-thousand cheetahs! There is no evidence, despite legends, to suggest that the cheetah inhabits the south-east of England. Again, during the 1960s, when the Surrey puma legend began, there was rumour of a creature dubbed the 'Shooters Hill cheetah' even though no-one described seeing such a beast!! It's truly amazing how headlines come about! Another animal highly unlikely to inhabit Kent, Sussex, London outskirts and Surrey, is the jaguar. Those not in the know may confuse such a felid with the leopard in the sense that its coat is straw/yellow coloured and patched with dark rosettes. The jaguar, however, which is a stockier animal than the leopard, inhabits parts of the South and Central America. Both the leopard and the jaguar are prone to melanism - meaning both species can have a dark pigment to the coat - from a distance the animal appears black but up close the rosettes can be seen bleeding through the extremely dark coat. When the jaguar and leopard have dark pelage, people call them 'panthers', but the term 'panther' is simply folkloric and not a species of cat. In other words, a 'panther' is the melanistic (darker coated) form of the leopard or jaguar. The term 'panther' stems from the species classification, for the jaguar it being Panthera once, and for the leopard, Panthera pardus. The rosettes of the jaguar and leopard differ from one another. Within the rosette of a jaguar can be seen a dotted pattern. The jaguar also has shorter legs. Those who have seen the Disney movie The Jungle Book can now be made aware that the large black cat - Bagheera - is not a 'panther', but in fact a melanistic form of the Indian leopard.
Considering the thousands of reports of so-called 'big cats' I've received over the years, I have never received a report of a jaguar.
One detail of the British 'big cat' situation which often confuses people is the frequent use of the term 'big cat' which often suggests to many that the animals roaming the UK must surely be lion, tiger, jaguar, cheetah, but this is not the case. If a majority of these animals were on the loose in Kent, there would be cause for alarm. The only so-called 'big cat' to roam the UK is the leopard. The cat species which have the ability to roar are considered 'big cats, and produce cubs, the smaller cats purr - the puma emits an intense scream - and these cats produce kittens. The remaining cats which are alleged to inhabit the UK are the puma, lynx and jungle cat. Let's look at these cats:
Leopard - If you've ever had the fortune to see a leopard on the television, or in the flesh at a zoo or on safari in Africa, you will immediately recognise this 'big cat', which also inhabits parts of Asia, is recognisable by its yellowy-type coat, and its magnificent rosette pattern. The leopard can grow to around 7-ft in length and stand over 2-ft at the shoulder. An individual can weigh from anywhere between 80 and 180 lb. A genetic mutation results in the 'panther' - the melanistic leopard. Strangely, in the south-east of England I have never received a report of a 'normal' leopard, every sighting has describe the darker form. Although two spotted parents can produce a mixed litter, black parents only produce black offspring, due to the recessive gene.
The leopard is an adept climber - the next time you are walking through your local woods, always be sure to look up into the trees - a leopard can easily climba tree, not only to sleep, but will stash its prey in the lower branches. Its ability to climb trees means the leopard is the perfect hunter and the acting of chaching in trees means that scavengers such as jackals, hyenas, and in the UK, foxes, cannot steal a kill.
The leopard can have a vast territory, stretching several hundred square miles - looking for a leopard in England is something akin to searching for a needle in a haystack. The leopard mainly hunts at night, and hunts with supreme stealth. The animal emits a variety of noises from a double-barrelled growl, to a deep,swa cough and a warning hiss. Despite their elusive nature, in parts of their native country the leopard is happy to hunt within a few miles of a big city, making it suited to human encroachment. The solitary male could have a territory that encompasses a couple of females. When a male and female copulate, between 1-4 (usually 2)cubs are born. The male often leaves the litter and the cubs stay with the mother for around 18 months before making their own way in life. Inbreeding will stunt the population.
In the 1960s it was relatively common for people to keep leopards - and often the sleek, black variety, as pets. Documented evidence proves this. Even today the darker form of the leopard is considered an iconic animal representing the cool, sexy, suave and sophisticated, and often these animals can still be seen in music video's and advertisements.
Each year I receive between 150 and 250 eye-witness reports of exotic cats across the south-east. More than half of this number are attributed to large black cats. Witnesses, when seeing such animals - even from a distance - notice how long the tail is. The tail of a leopard is unlike a domestic cat - it can measure almost three-quarters the length of the body and curves down behind it in an 'S' shape.
Puma (aka Mountain lion, cougar): If you look on the internet, or in books or newspaper archives in reference to British 'big cats' sightings, you'll be stunned at the naivety when it comes to identifying species of exotic cats. During the 1960s, a time when it was popular to keep a large cat as a pet - newspapers and witnesses alike were describing so many differing species of cats with varying coat colours that confusion was rife. The press would often talk about sightings of a black (melanistic) puma. The puma is never black. Melanism is extremely rare in this cat, but even the darkest form of such a cat, would still a lighter underside. The puma (Felis concolor) is native to certain areas of the United States and Canada. Despite measuring up to 7-ft in length, it is not a 'big cat', for it cannot roar. The puma is the largest of the Lesser Cats, and emits a piercing, eerie cry which can travel for miles - ideal for communication between individuals. The puma, like the leopard, also a long curving tail, its head is relatively small compared to the rest of the body and the coat is uniformly buff coloured. The tail has a black tip. The puma, like the leopard, prefers to hunt prey rather than scavenge. The young of the puma have spots, which fade with maturity. In its country of origin the puma is considered such an elusive animal that it has been bestowed folkloric names such as 'ghost cat' and 'shadow cat'. In some states it has been declared extinct, as human encroachment has forced it back into the deep woods, and yet despite being declared extinct the animal keeps on showing up - and much to the annoyance of the wildlife departments who state categorically that sightings must be misidentifications or escapees.
During the 1960s the puma - which is considered a New World cat - was housed in many private collections across England. In the 1970s a London man walked into his pub with his pet puma on a lead. Another man had his puma destroyed when it attacked his young son. These are not unique cases - the puma was the ideal cat to keep, especially if it was a young - seemingly cute and cuddly individual.
The puma is often reported throughout the south-east of England, but a puma at a distance in daylight is far less conspicious than a black leopard. Its coat can range from the uniform buff to silvery grey and a reddish tan. From a distance someone who sights such a cat may think they are seeing a deer or fox. The puma is the second largest cat to be sighted in the UK.
In its native habitat the puma has been known to attack humans. People cycling through the trees, children running and playing, and also joggers have become prey. Some claim that most attacks take place due to the cat having rabies or being starved due to lack of prey in its area. In Africa and India the leopard tends to only attack humans who live in remote villages which infringe on forest.
Lynx The Eurasian lynx (Felis lynx) is a very interesting animal in that a few thousand years ago it was native to Britain. Some researchers argue that the lynx never fully died out and due to its elusive nature and wide distribution it may well have hung on in the more dense forest areas of the UK. The lynx is mainly identifiable by the fact it has a short stubby tail, large tufted ears and a mottled coat which can range from yellowish, brown, greyish, reddish and silvery. Nowadays the Eurasian lynx inhabits North Europe and Asia, whereas the Iberian lynx dwells in S.W. Europe - the Iberian lynx is smaller than the Euasian lynx. The similar-looking Bobcat inhabits the southern region of the Canadian provinces and the United States and into Mexico. Another similar-looking felid is the caracal, which inhabits Africa. The caracal is smaller than the lynx, has a reddish-rusty coat, and has distinctive tufted ears .
Lynx were most certainly kept as pets, not only in the 1960s, but also during the Victorian era when travelling menageries and private collections were all the rage - which will be discussed in another post. Bizarrely, in 2001 a lynx was found cowering in a back garden in North London. A female witness reported it to the police who with the help of London Zoo darted the animal. No-one to this day knows where the animal came from - no-one came forward to say they'd lost a lynx - which they had probably been keeping illegally.
So, the leopard, puma and lynx are the main three species of cat said to roam the south-east of England, pretty much the rest of the UK. It may be a wild statement for me to make, but again, before you dismiss such reports, please bear with this blog so as to present the evidence for these animals existing in our woods.
There has also, in the past, been occasional reports of other smaller cats, such as jaguarundi, golden cat, jungle cat, ocelot, lserval and leopard cat. These animals certainly wouldn't be a major problem for people to keep as pets, although there aren't many records of anyone keeping the golden cat. The golden cat inhabits Africa and Asia, and is prone to melanism. The African golden cat is twice the size of a domestic cat has a coat which ranges from grey to red-brown and sometimes has spots. The Asian variety - known as Temmick's cat has some similarities to the Africa golden cat in that the coat varies, and melanism occurs. One cat which most certainly has been sighted in the UK is the Jungle Cat, also known as the Swamp cat and Reed Cat, which inhabits parts of Africa and Asia. The Jungle Cat, among a few other smaller species of cat, were used aboard boats for 'ratting'. The Jungle cat grows to just over 2-ft in length, has relatively long legs, at times a banded tail, and a light brown coat. The UK would be perfect for such a cat in that it hunts rodents, birds and reptiles. Specimens have been killed in Shropshire and Essex. A leopard cat was shot dead on the Isle of Wight a few decades ago and the serval and ocelot have been known to escape zoo parks. The jaguarundi probably does not inhabit the woods of Britain. This cat, native to south America looks more like a mustelid - a class of mammal which contains the stoat, European polecat, mink, Eurasian badger, wolverine, pine marten etc. Other cats which do not inhabit the UK are the clouded leopard and snow leopard (in the '80s a clouded leopard was shot in Kent but it had been a zoo escapee) and the rarer cats such as sand cat, marbled cat, pallas cat, andean cat, flat-headed cat etc. Interestingly, in the March of 2011 a rare Amur leopard cat was found in a back garden near London and handed in to Heathrow Pet Centre! Such incidents do not suggest we have established numbers but instead an escaped pet.
Despite the many reports across the UK of the above mentioned species, the UK is NOT running alive with thousands of exotic cats, but there must be small pockets of viable populations. There is no evidence of bizarre mutations such as leopard x puma, etc, although in zoo parks cross-breeding occurs, these animals are generally regarded as freaks, i.e. leopards, ligers etc, and do not occur in the wild. One vital detail that must be looked at in regards to monitoring sightings of exotic cats in the UK is consistency. A majority of witneses describe a large, Alsatian-sized seemingly jet-black cat - the black leopard, as well as a slightly smaller buff-coloured, long tailed cat - the puma, and a smaller still, tufted eared bobbed tail cat - the lynx. Reports, as stated earlier, of white tigers, lions, cheetahs, etc are unfounded and can only be taken seriously if they are consistently reported. So, before the sceptics go claiming that I said there are monstrous, mutant big cats on the loose - think again. Eye witness reports are deemed credible when they involve police officers, government officials and the like, but are often scoffed at when sightings are merely reported by general members of the public, but not everyone has just come out of the pub, is seeking attention, hoaxing or lying.
And finally, for this blog, I'd like to add that it's very important to remember that cats such as leopard, puma etc, in the wild, live for between 10 and 14 years, and longer in captivity. It is clear - and judging by reports - that female and male leopards are meeting up and breeding, and producing enough young to support a healthy population. It is unlikely however that a male leopard in Kent is meeting up with a female in Scotland - research suggests the territory for a male leopard in England ranges from 30 to 100 square miles. A leopard does not have a fixed den, and will zig-zag across a territory, staying in an area where there is food before only gradually moving on. The leopard scent marks its range. Of a night the leopard hunts with stealth, sightings usually occur when someone is driving late at night or during the early hours of the morning, or sightings involve people wlking their dogs or fishing. And sightings often last under three seconds. A leopard will happily, during the day, bask in the sun, snooze under a tree, lay up in an old churchyard, but we need to remember, these are the most elusive animals on earth. And they can smell, see and hear humans from quite a distance. A black leopard in the darkness may only be visible by its eye reflection, whereas a puma can melt into the shadows of daylight like a ghost. They stick to rocky outcrops, hedgerows, tree-lines, dense forest, quarries etc. Of a night an ideal place for a leopard to prowl is a golf course - prey is abundant and there would be no people. A railway line is perfect for navigation - of a night a railway line provides excellent cover enabling a large cat to slink into back gardens, and alongside a railway line there is plenty of prey. And, before anyone starts claiming that there is no prey in the UK for a leopard and that there should be piles of slaughtered animals (as one 'expert' zoo keeper stated)...hopefully the next blog will prove otherwise.