Do they really exist? Or is it little more than a mass illusion or simply delusional wishful thinking? Are we really expected to believe that pumas and panthers are roaming the British countryside – and not only roaming but breeding as well?! These are the animals we expect to see in Africa or India, not in Devon or Gloucester, and yet the evidence in terms of regular sightings, prey remains, photos and videos is overwhelming.
Today, I have a file well over an inch thick, crammed with newspaper cuttings, personal letters recounting sightings and numerous semi-official reports, not to mention photos of alleged big cats, most of which are too grainy and distant to provide hard and genuine evidence.
Nevertheless, that these animals are today well-established and apparently breeding in many parts of the country is, it seems, beyond dispute. I have seen videos of animals in our countryside that were undoubtedly black leopards, and I have spoken to witnesses and have seen the evidence of big cat kills among sheep and deer.
But what triggered the presence of these alien animals in our green and pleasant land? While it is extremely likely that over the past century or so there has been the occasional escape from a zoo or travelling circus, throughout the ‘60s and ‘70s there was a fashion for keeping exotic animals, many of which included big cats, under domestic conditions. A zoological supply company was offering for sale leopards and even tigers, while pumas and their cubs were advertised in Exchange & Mart for around £200. Little wonder then that in 1976 the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was published, giving owners of these exotic animals the choice of either paying for a licence at around £1,000 plus an annual inspection of the animal’s quarters, sending the animal to a zoo or wildlife park or having the animal put down.
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