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Big Cats In Britain

Peter is an independent international zoo consultant, critic and writer with over 50 years work within zoos.

Newspaper reports of Big Cat Sightings in Britain are a fairly regular occurrence. Like UFO’s, visits by Aliens and Ghosts they strike the imagination. They make popular stories and will sell papers. Such observations do tend to occur in clusters so that the various spectral cats are given their own special names such as the Beast of Bodmin Moor, The Beast of Bolton, The Crystal Palace Puma and more. It would seem that no area of the British Isles has not had a visit from one of these mythical beasts at one time or another.

Invariably some ‘expert’ will state that the big cat is a ‘Panther’. The moment that the word ‘Panther’ is used I would call the expertise into question. No zoo personnel working with Big Cats in captivity would ever call a cat a Panther. This is not to dispute that the word does not exist because it does. Lions are Panthera leo. Tigers are Panthera tigris and the Leopards are Panthera pardus. Of the three the only one likely to be called a Panther is the Leopard and then only if it was a melanistic or black leopard. If it were it would be called a ‘Black Panther’ and NOT simply a Panther. There again within the zoo world the big cat keepers are much more likely to refer to these animals as Black Leopards. There are black Jaguars too Panthera onca and once again they would be called Black Jaguars and NOT Panthers. None experts use the term ‘Panther’. The same so called experts may actually go on to state that the animal was Puma-like. The Puma or Cougar is not a Panthera cat and as far as I am aware there have only been two recorded cases of black Pumas, one in Brazil in 1843 and one in Costa Rica in 1959.


Black Leopard


These experts tend to be associated with groups dedicated to proving the existence of wild Big Cats in Britain. One cannot help to admire their aims. It is an interesting hobby, gets one out into the countryside and demands a deal of research and scrutiny of reports. It is not a bad hobby to have. Some take it a lot more seriously than others.


Historically there have been sightings within the UK for hundreds of years. These though go hand in hand with observations of faeries, dragons and elves. Time and again the reason for the ‘presence’ of wild big cats in Britain is because they were released after the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animal Act became law. The implication is that the private owners of various ‘Panther’ type cats rather than meeting the requirements of the law or hand the animals over to a zoo took them out and released them into the wild.




It is beyond a shadow of a doubt that such animals were in private hands. I know of people who kept leopards and lions and more privately at that time. None of these people struck me as stupid or unkind enough to take much loved and cosseted animals out and release them into an alien environment. That’s not to say that someone didn’t. It is possible. However big cats, regardless of species, which were familiar with man are likely to have hung around there place of release and ventured close to human habitation. They would quickly have been spotted and either captured or killed. This has happened to my certain knowledge in both Indonesia and India and this was after release into natural environment.


In 2011 it is 35 years since 1976  Dangerous Wild Animal Act and the chances of any released animal still surviving are between nil and impossible. The argument is then put forward that the animals which people spot today were born in the wild. Assuming that there were animals released and they were in the vicinity of each other then there is a remote possibility that they got together and bred. It is however highly unlikely.

In all of the dozens of sightings which have occurred there has yet for a convincing photograph to be taken. There has been no ‘proof’ whatsoever. There have been investigations by both private and Defra scientists. Information has been collected and pooled together. Nothing has been proved.


My Thoughts on Big Cats in Britain

In my forty years in zoos I have been asked to examine, assess and assist with presumed Big Cat sightings and damage on around a dozen occasions. I have provided measurements, plaster casts of paw prints, hair and whiskers for DNA analysis. I have examined several carcases of animals presumed to have been killed by Big Cats. I have seen the damage that domestic and feral dogs can do to livestock. The day someone shows me a sheep carcase in the upper branches of a tree I may just possibly change my mind.

 I have even attended the place, along with the police, where Big Cats have been sighted. I have spoken to people of presumably sound and sober mind who were convinced by what they have seen. I still don’t believe.


Within the zoo world there are stories which pass around and never ever hit the press. True or not, who knows? Zoo Keepers are an itinerant lot and such stories are inclined to change and be embellished as they pass down the line. A lot of zoos have closed since 1976 as have laws and practices. Not every zoo owner was good and there are possible scenarios which occurred.


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A Fictional Scenario

Fiction: Imagine a small private zoo in 1980. Maybe five loyal staff. A big cat dies choking on a chicken bone. A big hole is dug and the cat is buried. At that time there was no requirement for a post mortem examination or need to inform anybody that the animal had died. In fact if the animal had been born in the collection it would not have been necessary to inform anybody either. So, in and out of the collection without any authority being aware of the animal’s existence. I am not saying that such an incident ever took place but if it did it would be equally possible for another scenario to arise. The zoo owner is away on holiday and two keepers are on their days off. James leaves the door to the Leopard enclosure open and the Leopard escapes. Three keepers work hard to capture the beast but off it goes. James is popular, he doesn’t want the sack. The three staff decide that if the cat does not return in 24 hours they will say it died and they buried it. Okay… this is fiction but it is entirely possible. Equally the owner could have allowed the cat to escape during an evening round and he/she tells staff the following day it was sold and collected. Fiction yes…but possible.



There is no question that some smaller cats have escaped from somewhere. I have seen photographs of a Jungle Cat that was hit by a car and heard of others. The smaller Leopard Cats too. If rumours are true a Puma and a Lynx were captured alive. Another lynx was hit by a car. Isolated and very rare incidents but no convincing proof that Big Cats are on the prowl anywhere.


Today, all zoos come under the Zoo Licensing Act. The fictional scenario described above is far less likely to occur. Zoos within Britain where they may lack in finance are the best regulated in the world. The calibre of staff has increased too. They are true professionals. Very few Big Cat keepers within British zoos would believe that there are actually big cats running around wild in the countryside.


Puma Footprint



Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 23, 2011:

Thank you Jane amd bigcatman for your comments.

bigcatman on September 23, 2011:

Hi Peter. Like you I agree totally and have found no evidence to suggest that such cats are roaming free within the UK. Having been misquoted on numerous occassions within the press and by many of these big cat groups, and when asked to give my opinion of a pug mark or scratch on a tree or to that of dead sheep. It becomes tiresome trying to say to the populus that such stories are just that, and in such instances, it is a scotopic view from the so-called witness.

The likelyhood of even just one cat being about is hypothetical but when we hear stories of these so-called cats are breeding and people are seeing the "cubs", then one has to wonder if it is scotopic or mere jumping on the bandwagon to enjoy a five minute hint of fame. The mere remoteness of a male and female of a large cat species of the same genus meeting, then mating, then producing cubs is so far fetched that the average joe has better odds at winning a big winnings on the National Lottery. There are stories of big cats or puma or panther-like cats on the Scottish Islands such as Arran, or to the wild stories of such cats roaming about or towns and even our cities, with police officers convinced that they too saw such "beasts"... Even zoo staff can be caught out sometimes, my good friend Doug Richardson was one, who gave his opinion on a skull which turned out to be something else.

The only so-called cat story that can be shared is that of Felicity the Puma, where it was found in a cage trap (not far from the Highland Wild Wildlife Park)and rumours went around the UK saying that a big cat was killing foals and sheep alike, but in saying that, even George Rafferty, the vet who dealt with the Puma. He said that this cat was a pet or captive-bred as he found tins of cat-food in the cage with the Puma when it was found. The Wildlife Park kept the Puma until its death and it is to be found stuffed in a local museum.

To date I have, as well as the majority of zoo staff will say themselves, there are no big cats running about the UK and even the UK Government gave out their official report on this not that long ago.

Brilliant Hubpage, from a brilliant gentle-man and so well informative and true. Hope your travels are blessed Peter, and variety in life is the spice of living....

jane marney on September 23, 2011:

Thankyou Peter, made for interesting reading, it seems though although people may have seen a "black puma" there is still no actual melonistic puma on record.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on September 23, 2011:

Hi Jane, Check with Guggisberg as he makes record of Black Pumas. Also do a search of mutant pumas in

jane marney on September 23, 2011:

Hi there, i found a particular piece of your article very interesting, where you say- there are only two recorded cases of black puma, i was wondering where you got this information from as i am a member of a group that researches the possibilities of big cats in britain. As far as i was aware there had never been a black puma recorded, so would love to see any info about this if you have any. thanks.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on March 21, 2011:

Thank you stars439

stars439 from Louisiana, The Magnolia and Pelican State. on March 21, 2011:

Wow! Their Magnificent. Great Hub. God Bless You.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on March 14, 2011:

Thank you Clare. It is a big subject and I could have written more. The few big cats I have known to escape have either been shot or headed home within minutes.

Escaped big cats are much more likely in Eire where the laws on keeping them are more relaxed.

Clare-Louise from Birmingham UK on March 14, 2011:

Hi Peter. Coincidentally I was just visiting London Zoo on the weekend and my friend and i were discussing this very topic. About the beast of bodwin moore and how it was thought to be to do with imported wild cats before that law, and about a documentary called 'The Lion Cub from Harrods' that i haven't seen yet but its on youtube and sounds good.

I was also saying how a big cat escaped from Dublin Zoo when my mother was a child, about sixty years ago. It was strolling around the area she lived called Marino only a road away from where she was playing. and it mauled one man before it was put down.

Oh and also when my sister was about eleven she was convinced she saw a black panther (which i now know doesn't even exist) ... but then she also claimed to see fairies. haha!

anyway that was a long comment. oops! but thanks to your article i can give my friend a more informed opinion on it all when I talk to her next! :)

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on March 14, 2011:

Hardly an expert...but I know more than some. Thanks for commenting.

Hello, hello, from London, UK on March 14, 2011:

Thankyou, Peter. An interesting article coming from an expert.

Peter Dickinson (author) from South East Asia on March 13, 2011:

That is true. A lonely big cat would be probably more likely to call out too.

acomys on March 13, 2011:

I agree with you totally the idea of Big Cats wild in the UK just doesn't ring true. I lived near a wildlife park for a number of years and I could hear the big cats calling at all times of the year. Although I am not an expert on bigs cats, if these cats were around surely someone, however remote the area would have heard the calls?

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