In 1983, after landowners made numerous complaints about a large predator killing livestock, the British government decided to take action and the Ministry of Agriculture sent the Royal Marines into the Exmoor hills with sniper rifles. They found nothing. Still, tales of the “Beast of Exmoor’ live on. Along with those of the “Beast of Bodmin”, and numerous other “Beasts” belonging to different regions of Britain. This includes the “Beast of Trowbridge” in the next town over from where I live. I know people who say they’ve seen this Big Cat and although I believe they saw something, I’m not convinced that Panthers and Tigers are a local species.
So… what’s going on?
Those who think that it’s possible exotic cat species are living in the wild in Britain suggest two potential origins for this giant moggy problem; either the cats- which are referred to as Alien Big Cats (ABCs)- have escaped from private collections, or they are native species we thought were extinct. Of these two ideas, the private collection hypothesis sounds most plausible, but just how plausible is it? People who research ABC sightings suggest that the source could be escapees from private collections of unregistered exotic animals. In 1976, the ‘Dangerous Wild Animals Act‘ was brought into force stating ‘no person shall keep any dangerous wild animal except under the authority of a licence granted in accordance with the provisions of this Act by a local authority.’ Big Cat researchers suggest that this made it a more complicated process to import and own exotic species and, as a result, it’s claimed that many people simply released their animals into the wild. Not ideal.
However, it’s important to keep in mind that those legislative changes occurred almost 50 years ago, and although there may have been people who released animals or didn’t officially report escaped animals in the years that followed, which may account for some sightings, it’s unlikely that those animals were numerous enough to create a breeding population which still survives all across the UK today. In fact, a spokesperson from the Department for Environment Food & Rural Affairs (DEFRA) went on record in 2019 to state that the department has not ‘received any credible reports of wild living or breeding big cats in Britain in recent years. Defra is not currently engaged in any work related to the management of wild big cats in Britain and has no plans to do so.’
Britain is a country obsessed with the idea that large predatory cats are out there somewhere, roaming this green and pleasant land. Every year, thousands of sightings get reported to (and by) the press or organisations dedicated to investigating ABCs. For example, we are just weeks into 2021 and it seems that already the British media have come down with a case of cat fever. Here are just a sample of news stories about ABC sightings from the first 17 days of the year:
17 January: Big cats said to have ‘clinically’ killed two sheep on Welsh farm
16 January: Skye locals fear big cat on the loose after sheep found mauled to death**
16 January: Big cats blamed for the death of seven sheep, as Gloucester expert investigates
15 January: Big cat sighting on Ince Marshes near Stanlow oil refinery
14 January: North Wales ‘big cat’ in lockdown breach as it’s spotted on the prowl in Cheshire
13 January: Shocked mum spots terrifying ‘big cat’ that’s ‘twice the size of a German Shepherd’ in Somerset**
12 January: Shocked McDonald’s driver spots mystery ‘big cat’ on prowl after ‘puma’ sightings**
9 January: Cheshire big cat mystery as police probe large ‘predator’ attack on sheep
7 January: ‘Big cat’ spotted in North Wales as eerie photos of massive paw prints emerge
4 January: Multiple sightings support theory big cat is prowling territory in Flintshire
The problem is that evidence presented for the existence of ABCs in the wild tends to fall into one of a few categories. The most common is really bad quality photographs with no easy way to tell the size of the animal pictured. The photo below is a good example of this. This is the ABC sighting which occurred in the village I grew up in – Hilperton, near Trowbridge in Wiltshire. This photo was published in the local news when I was a child. There is no way to accurately work out the size of the animal pictured. It could be a house cat, but could also easily be a bird. This sighting was the cat-alyst for over a decade of sightings of an animal which would come to be known as “The Beast of Trowbridge” which is still reported today.
Quite often, an ABC is blamed for a spate of livestock kills – usually sheep. Often, there is a lack of concrete evidence that such deaths were caused by a big cat, and so people can only speculate that this was the case. These kills, which are sometimes described as “clinical” because of the way the remains are found, are often more likely to have been caused by dogs. Here, people tend to underestimate how quickly scavengers (smaller animals and insects) can break down a dead body. We also have to rely a lot on eye-witness testimony which cannot always be accepted as objective.
Once somebody reports that a big cat has been spotted in a certain area of the country, it isn’t unusual for other people who read or hear about this sighting to think “panther!” when they see a large animal running loose, or to retrospectively use this information to make sense of a past experience. I’ve seen this in action on a lake monster case I investigated back in 2012, where an eye-witness saw a buoy moving strangely in a lake and later decided it must have been the hump of the rumoured lake monster only once he’d heard about the monster legend. I think it’s more than fair to say that the idea of exotic big cats on the loose in Britain is such a staple piece of modern culture now that a false attribution could occur whether or not the eye-witness has seen or heard a recent news report.
As reported by Channel 4 ‘Fact Check‘, Freedom of Information requests sent to Police forces across the UK revealed ‘consistent patterns of sightings of cats, usually black, in certain areas.’ People reporting sightings of ABCs often use dogs for size comparison, describing a “Labrador-sized cat”, “a cat the size of a German Shepherd” and similar, which begs the obvious question… could it just be dark coloured Labradors and German Shepherds being mistaken for ABCs? Probably. Or, as with the case of the Essex Lion of 2012 (which prompted a police hunt) it could be a domestic Maine Coon called Teddy Bear.
We all like to think that we are keen observers and know what we see in front of us, but a huge body of research shows that as confident as we might be in our observational skills, they’re actually not as trustworthy as we think. Expectation, the power of suggestion, and other competing cognitive processes (like driving a vehicle) play a large role in how we process incoming information through our senses. The context in which we observe things can also influence how accurately we remember it and report it. If someone goes looking for evidence of ABCs they’re more likely to perceive things they encounter (like paw prints, hairs, or sightings) as cat-related even if that’s not the reality.
That isn’t to say that there have never been ABCs found in the wild. There is evidence that they do exist which goes beyond the dodgy photos, speculation about livestock kills, and eye-witness testimony. For example, in 2001 keepers from London Zoo captured a Lynx from a house garden in London. Also, in the 1980s, a tame puma, later named Felicity, was caught by a farmer in Scotland. It is believed that she was released into the wild by her owner (just a few years after the 1976 act was introduced.)
In 2009 the Forestry Commission disclosed that in 2002 and 2005, forest rangers conducting a deer survey in the Forest of Dean caught two big cats on camera. The Metro reported at the time that ‘[u]nder a Freedom of Information Act request, the government agency confirmed that two “reliable” sightings of large cats have taken place in the last seven years.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to check if there are any escaped animals that don’t get recovered- especially those that may have been imported illegally. So, although that is a possibility, it isn’t one that can be presented with certainty. Considering the small number of ABCs which are captured or killed in the wild, if unreported exotic cats that have escaped do exist, it’s unlikely that enough of them exist for even a quarter of the sightings that get reported every year to be a Panther, Puma, Tiger, Lion or Lynx.
However, if investigating sightings of ABCs in the British Isles means that I might encounter cats like Teddy Bear, where do I sign up?
**on this site, I don’t link to The Sun news websites and use the Internet Archive as a way to display their work without contributing to their revenue because I support the Don’t Buy The Sun campaign.