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Thursday, April 29, 2010

NEIL ARNOLD: Cats That Can’t Be Caught…Cats That Could Be Bought

I collected my first ‘big cat’ newspaper clipping when I was eight years old. It was 1982. I investigated my first eye-witness report when I was ten. I would’ve thought that after more than twenty years researching the subject, the age-old myths and theories would have been dispelled by now. The reality is the so-called ‘big cat situation', certainly in the UK, is as dull as dishwater. When I first read Di Francis’s Cat Country and The Beast of Exmoor, and also Janet & Colin Bord’s Alien Animals, I found them dated, despite at the time they were considered refreshing with their theories and coverage. Again, a few decades later nothing has changed.

With more and more websites devoted to exotic cat ‘research’ popping up, you’d have thought that the woods of Britain were full of ‘big cat’ enthusiasts. You would’ve also thought that the age-old theories would have been put to bed with so many minds at work. Sadly no.

There are countless websites and books, which mention that in the 1960s you could walk into Harrods Dept. Store in London and purchase a large exotic cat. This is indeed true, to some extent. I have records that lion and puma were purchased there, but no black leopards. Now, this doesn’t mean to say such animals were not purchased there, but I’ve read over the years from various ‘researchers’ that not enough people have come forward to admit they owned large cats (but let’s face it, not many people who released animals would come forward), and no receipts have been found etc. In the British ‘big cat’ situation, the naivety is astounding, and I truly believe that people are seeking a mystery that just isn’t there. It is a FACT that large exotic cats DO roam the UK. I’ve seen them; I’ve filmed them. Many other people have. But the constant conflict of theories is rather embarrassing to say the least. It’s as if people want these elusive animals to be supernatural; it’s as if they want them to have an origination beyond escapees/releases. But the reality is that the explanation is very simple. The mystery has taken over the mind.

Earlier in April 2010 I spoke to Harrods archive department regarding receipts etc, to prove that large cats were purchased. Now, apart from the story of Christian the lion and the occasional other case where press were interested, a majority of sales would have simply been destroyed as regards to receipts and archives. Any member of the public or celebrity who acquired an exotic pet would have been treated with strictest confidence and their sale filed but then destroyed after filling the archives for a few years. Harrods were not and are not responsible for the animals that roam the southeast today. And neither are those alleged circuses said to have dumped their animals, and neither are the zoo parks who may have lost the occasional cat. The ‘big cat’ situation will always be a sum of many parts because of the hilarious theories and attitudes of those involved in the research. Sadly, there is nothing enigmatic about as to why such animals roam the UK.

I’ve just finished my new book, Mystery Animals of the British Isles: London, and whilst collating evidence I was shocked to find a startling number of incidents where people purchased large exotic cats oh so casually. Certainly over the last couple of decades it has been increasingly difficult to purchase a ‘big cat’ although the drug dealers across the United States and South America have proven otherwise as their black leopards and tigers continue to escape into the wilds. I thought it would be difficult finding any records of cat attacks on humans, cats escaping, purchases etc, but in fact there was an alarming regularity in the purchases of such animals. Most of these animals, such as puma, were purchased as cute, cuddly cubs. It seems that for every animal purchased pre-1976 (when the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was introduced), many went unrecorded, but thankfully, due to some newspaper archives and my own digging and delving, it proves that a majority of animals seen in the wilds today ARE offspring of animals released back then. And as we know, there are a handful of relatively modern cases of animals escaping or being released (2001 lynx in London and in 1987, four female pumas and two lynx released into Kent woodlands).

These kind of situations haven’t just gone on for decades but centuries, and that’s why there are large, exotic cats in the wilds. The Victorian era was a prime time for exotic beasts to be paraded through the streets, fields and in shops. And there exist records of purchases more than a century previous to this.

We must seek the consistency of reports rather than taking note of the occasional lion, tiger and jaguar sighting. Eye-witness reports must be taken with a pinch of salt when they are inconsistent. Only recently I read of several Kent-based sightings (and more fool the website owner for putting them up) in which one witness stated, “I don’t know if it was a fox or a panther…”, and another, “..similar to a tabby with a white belly. Slight hint of green in the fur...tail, bushy and same proportion to as a domestic cat”. Sounds to me exactly like a domestic cat, I’m afraid. It’s worrying to see such bizarre reports featured on websites.

Black leopard, puma, lynx and jungle cat are the main four species of cat in the UK wilds. Caracal and ocelot also feature but are of a far smaller percentage. However, before we start trudging through the woods looking for exotic cats with green fur, or lions and tigers, we must look at their origins to realise that there’s no mystery, and that any mystery created is simply down to bad research.

I hope my ‘…London’ book will provide the answers, certainly in respect for the southeast. And I believe that if the whole of the southeast can be explained, then surely so can the rest of the UK. Why create prehistoric survivors in one county, monster feral cats in another, supernatural demons in another, and lions and tigers somewhere else when there’s no consistency in this ?

‘Big cats’ in the UK have become an urban legend because the mystery surrounding them is false. Trigger cams litter the countryside because researchers everywhere hope they can find their Holy Grail, which in their minds, will earn them a badge of honour.

Recently the organisation called Natural England, according to the tabloids, stated that “Big Cats Are A Myth”. Sometimes I wish they were, although when you look at some of the theories and reports which are filed and methods used to ‘track’ them, it’s no wonder such animals have been filed alongside UFOs and ghosts.

In their Alien Animals book, Janet & Colin Bord called their ‘big cat’ chapter ‘Cats That Can’t Be Caught….’ I sincerely hope that statement rings true many years from now. However, despite the foggy lore created around these animals, I think it would be more apt updating the chapter title to ‘Cats That Could Be Bought…’ because that’s the answer to it all.


Dale Drinnon said...

Very nicely put. And that is just about what my opinion of the whole matter has been for decades concerning the situation in the UK, the US and Australia. And to make matters worse, the same reasoning can be applied with equal force to other wealthy nations such as Japan, and to other exotics such as apes.

Tabitca said...

This reminded me.
There was a couple who had a pet panther in the 1970's. They had a furniture shop, in Stockport. It was just thought to be eccentric but not particularly odd as a few people has exotic cats in those days. When the exotic animals act came out I suspect a lot were just let lose. Maybe you can trace what happened to it Neil? Sorry I can't recall anymore about it,it was probably a news story at the time.

Richard said...

But what about the cats that don't conform to the textbook 'puma' and 'panther' sightings? I don't buy this theory as accounting for all or even most of the sightings due to the spread of the sightings geographically, and due to the seeming menagerie of felines that don't appear to conform to known cats being spotted.
Also lots of leopards ultimately equals human deaths, this is the case throughout the leopards range, and it would be no different here.


Neil A said...

Richard, I think it's important to look only at the consistent reports of exotic cats nationwide, otherwise we end up with all these stories of lions, tigers, etc. Consistent reports suggest black leopard, puma, lynx and smaller exotics. The smaller cats such as ocelot, jungle cat, were purchased also in the '60s etc.

Richard, if you don't buy this theory then please tell us your own. There certainly aren't as many black leopards as one would imagine so why would their be so many human deaths ?

I'd like to hear more regarding your reports of animals which do not conform to known cats.

Richard said...

We have a situation at the moment where large black cat sightings are coming in from Northern Scotland including one of the islands, all the way down to the southern tip of England. If this ubiquitous black cat is a leopard, then it has colonised the UK at a frightening rate.
Now if we look at leopards in their natural environment, then they are responsible for human deaths. For example over 35 people killed in Bombay alone in 2003/4. With our lack of open spaces (in comparison to some African and Asian countries) I believe human-leopard interaction would at some point be inevitable.
Now I don't dispute that at some point in time, a melanistic leopard(s) has lived wild in the UK, but in order for them to be our black cat, they would have had to have bred and been released in sufficient numbers to sustain a population for the last 30 years or so. I can't see this happening without fatal human contact.
Regarding my own theory for the cats, well I don't have one as such. I believe the lynx may have clinged on longer than presently known, and may have persisited into modern times. The larger cats I'm baffled by, reports go back further than the dangerous animals act, and so large felines have certainly been present in this island before Harrods began stocking them. Are they Victorian releases? Perhaps there is a correlation between Britain's Empire expansion and cat sightings, maybe the colonisation of new lands, saw exotic cats brought here several hundreds years ago.
The enduring mystery of the big cats in UK, leads me to believe that no theory can be fully discounted and I don't have the answers only ideas.
Regarding non-conforming cat types, Di francis details sightings of these in some of her books, and there was also the photo of the Oban cat doing the rounds. Perhaps some of the revelations coming out of Australia regarding the domestic cat will one day help us to shed light on our own mystery cats.