Sunday, October 04, 2009

NEIL ARNOLD: An Exotic Escapee

I have known Neil for fifteen years now, since he was a mod schoolboy with ambitions for adventure and I was an earnest young hippy who merely wanted to start a club for people interested in unknown animals. Nothing much has changed over the years; we are just both a tad older....

In July 2009 a local man contacted me to say he’d seen a large cat prowling in the fields near to his house. His home is in a remote location in Kent with no other houses for quite a distance. On 28th July the witness snapped several photographs of a fast-moving animal with distinctive spots, which, according to the witness, may have belonged to an animal resembling an ocelot.

When I received the photos it was clear this was no ocelot, though still something exotic-looking, and so I sent the photos to zoologist Karl Shuker as I believed the felid may have been a Bengal Cat of some kind. His response was as follows:

“Wow! That is an extremely bizarre-looking cat! It’s more like a short-legged king cheetah in terms of markings! In all seriousness, though, it could be a leopard cat or Bengal cat, as their markings are very diverse, though the sp
ots are usually fairly discrete, whereas this cat’s are blotches that seem to merge with one another, and that striped tail is very strange.

Interestingly, the king cheetah's markings are due to a recessive allele of the blotched tabby gene, and there is no doubt that the markings of the cat in the picture are reminiscent of the king cheetah's, even to the stripe-like array of blotches running alongside its spine; so the same genetics may be involved here. As to why and how a leopard cat or Bengal would be present in a reasonably remote area where no-one owns one, leopard cats and Bengals can be quite savage (not all specimens, but some) so if someone with one of these - perhaps from a kitten - discovered that as it got bigger it had become something of a handful, they may be tempted to get rid of it by releasing it, and obviously they'd pick a remote area away from their home, rather than somewhere close by, from where the cat could find its way back, or where someone might see them releasing it. I know that Bengals can be very expensive, but no doubt there's a black-market trade somewhere, as there is for most commodities, or perhaps there are illegally-bred Bengals or Bengals with dodgy pedigrees that would cause them to be much cheaper than pure-bred specimens with authentic pedigrees.”

After chatting with Karl about reports of hybrid cats in the UK, and those dubious reports of puma and leopards hanging out with another, he continued:

“I’m never keen on hybrids as UK mystery cat identities, because they are simply not common enough in captivity (and tend to be, on account of their rarity, too valuable to let loose or allow to escape), and are highly unlikely to occur in the wild as the result of two escapees/releases of different species meeting and breeding, simply because such liaisons are themselves highly unlikely. Like tends to seek out like; all these claims of puma x leopard hybrids etc, as the identities of mystery cats in Britain are nonsense – it just wouldn’t happen. Even in captivity such hybrids tend to occur only if a concerted effort is made to create them, by deliberately rearing individuals of separate species together from kittens, as has occurred in Japanese zoos, for instance, in order to yield leopons – leopard x lion hybrids. I still feel that the photograph shows a leopard/Bengal cat, albeit one with more blotch-like markings than normal.”

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