I’ve been wanting to write about this for a number of years and it’s now time since I read last month about yet another local big cat sighting. This one’s apparently been spotted sniffing around a Somerset pig farm but he (or she) is certainly not alone. Other panther-like creatures are regularly sighted in Devon, Kent, Sussex, Scotland, Ireland and Wales but the majority appear to roam around parts of Dorset. In fact, West Dorset is now known as ‘Kitty Kounty’ by feline spotting fans. There’s even a website at www.dorsetbigcats.org. (True – type it in and check it out). If it was only the one animal at large, then it would have to run impossibly fast round the UK to be seen everywhere, so I assume we’ve got quite a few panther-like beasties prowling about our woods and fields. This makes sense as they don’t all appear to be the same type of animal anyway. Descriptions vary from ‘sleek’, ‘fast moving’ or even ‘fat’ (which would seem contradictory) to ‘black’, ‘dark brown’ or rather surprisingly ‘blueish-grey’ (the latter is obviously not a cat but an escaped pet rabbit or short legged alpaca). They also vary widely in size: ‘…as big as a small car…’ or ‘…as large as a labrador’. That means it probably is a black Labrador, but if anyone’s seen a small grey Renault answering to the name of ‘Tiddles’, please give it a wide berth.
Contrary to what you may think, I really would like to believe in local Wild Cats. It’s a feel-good escape movie kind of thing like ‘Chicken Run’ or ‘King Kong’ – you really want their freedom bid to succeed even if the story has a sad ending… “Go, Tiger, Go!”
I think it’s entirely possible that several lions or pumas (bought by a mad selfish owner or perhaps by Michael Jackson’s make-up artist) might have escaped from their squalid private zoos and now live in relative peace somewhere on Mutter’s Moor near Sidmouth or along the valley of the River Axe. I want to believe it – it’s like the Loch Ness Monster – a romantic yarn and good for tourism: “Come to the Jurassic Coast: Home to T.Rex, the Tiger and the Lynx!” We should all encourage greater diversity of fauna in our countryside. It might also help solve the over population of foxes problem.
OK, so there may be the odd downside… When they get peckish, they come out at dead of night to gobble a few sheep near Winterbourne Abbas. Sometimes they might even emerge from behind parked cars and growl at shoppers outside Waitrose, but personally I think that’s rather exotically thrilling and certainly makes weekday evenings in Crewkerne much more exciting than normal. You might also spot them as they leap over your garden wall and terrify your children but it’s not their fault if they’re cold and hungry. A tasty human child is probably a huge temptation to a famished panther, so just be firm and say ‘NO’ and I’m sure they’ll understand and back off. Remember, they’re probably lonely and a little upset. So would you be, if you were imported to a freezing and damp Britain from sunny Africa or America. So, be reasonable and please leave your outside patio heaters turned on at night to help keep them warm over winter. Either that or leave some of your old woolly jumpers out for them to try on. Adopt a Puma. Give a Jaguar a Break! But not, of course, if they stray into our garden and snatch a couple of our chickens.
So, if I really want to believe in the existence of West Country Wild Cats, why am I making fun of it all here? Because I have not as yet seen even one single convincing photograph. It’s surely not too much to ask nowadays for clear photographic proof given the fact that virtually everyone in 2010 carries a mobile phone or digital camera. Yes, I’ve seen lots of blurred shapes taken at half a mile distance but they might be anything – a poodle, a tabby cat, a wolf or a rat or a bunch of leaves. In that sense, it really is like the Loch Ness Monster. We might all secretly wish to believe in it, but nobody in all these years has ever produced a photo or a video that makes people sit up with a sudden intake of breath and exclaim “Wow – that’s a strange beast, that is!”
So please can someone sit up a tree all night with a decent camera? For added feline attraction, you could hang a dead goat from a branch as bait. Or perhaps we can persuade David Attenborough to squat in a thicket near Broadwindsor with his camera crew for a fortnight. I could supply them with a thermos of coffee if that would help. It’s the same as crop circles, UFOs, Big Foot or the Yeti. We may want to believe but…
There is one good thing about being anonymous however. The best hope for any big cats living locally is to remain unknown and unproven. Because, if anyone actually proved the existence of a real leopard living in a garden shed near Chard, it’d be photographed, autographed, documented, captured, imprisoned, biologically tested and monitored hourly with a radio antenna stuck to its head. Health and Safety signs would be erected (‘Warning: Baby Leopards Scratching’) and local residents vaccinated against possible Leopard Flu. Armed police would erect barbed wire fencing and all badgers and hedgehogs within 800 metres would be culled.
It’s much better if we never find out… “Hide, Tiger, Hide!”