Big cats.

There have always been rumours of big cats, panthers/pumas whatever, living wild in the countryside. Think Beast of Bodmin or other such media sensationalism. In spite of the odd reference to such BofB creatures the official line is that they don’t exist. When people say they have seen one they are generally fobbed off with them mistaking a large household cat or dog for something that doesn’t exist.

Now I have been interested in these sightings since being a small child. My father, a decent naturalist, saw one near Richmond in North Yorkshire many moons ago. He stopped the van he was driving and got out to get his camera from the back of the van; at this point the cat turned and started to cross the road towards him and he got back in hurriedly, sans photo. Apart from family he told nobody as he knew he would be ridiculed, but I know that he did not make up the encounter, it was a source of wonder to him. I also know that he would not mistake somebody’s black moggy for a large, exotic feline.

I have spoken to other people who have told me similar things, people who I consider trustworthy.

To get to the point, last year I was walking Bruno along a reasonably popular path, it was dusk and very quiet. Quite inexplicably he suddenly turned around, started checking the path in a very agitated manner and pretty well dragged me the mile or so home. Bruno has many faults which I work on constantly, but is very well behaved on the lead. He does not pull and it takes a lot to make him afraid. I told one of my neighbours who runs that route, he was just returning from one such run and he merely said he had been there and seen nothing. Nor had I, but Bruno did. I told a few folk but they all brushed it off as my dog behaving badly. About a week later I was walking that route and saw a dead, partially eaten sheep in a field just off the path.

The remains are still there now, a bare skull and some fleece. At the time I wondered about a big cat strike but there were no more incidents and nobody but me thought anything of it.

Last week I was walking Bruno and Fly along a lane a few hundred yards from the house. A sheep had her head firmly stuck in the pig wire fence but I couldn’t get close enough to try and free her as Bruno again went bananas, wanting to get the hell out of Dodge. A friend walking her dog went to get the farmer to free the sheep and I took Bruno home, fighting him all the way to stop him dragging me from my feet.

Bruno is an Akita, much closer in temperament to his wild ancestry than most dogs, he is the only one to have been unhappy. My collie, my friend’s dog, other dog walkers seemed oblivious, but Bruno was spooked enough to drop his tail. For an Akita to drop their tightly curled tail which they hold high over their backs is akin to another dog curling their tail between their legs.

This was so close to his previous behaviour, so unusual that I took note again, but having been ignored the last time I said nothing.

The next morning, Friday, 30th April, I put his lead on and crossed the road to the short lane which curls behind a short row of cottages before joining the one where he was afraid. There are usually a few vehicles parked next to the cottages, and here he started acting in a wary manner. Not exactly afraid, but certainly he examined one truck quite carefully. As normal cats often hide under vehicles, I had a look but it was clear; still, although Bruno skittered past he did check it out and I noted this too.

Once we were on the next lane and walking the short distance towards where he had been so quick to leave the previous day, he was far more alert to his surroundings than is usual. As we got closer to where the sheep had been held fast by her head he started to slow down and check the field to our left very carefully. Eventually, his tail went down, he turned around and dragged me home.

I trust my dog and by now was convinced that a large cat was loose in our area, although I had nothing than my dog’s behaviour to go on. I do not want to make him feel that I am putting him in danger, but I also was interested in finding out how long he would react like this. I am not afraid of being attacked by a panther; although we have heard of them occasionally, I have never heard of them attacking a human in the UK. I should think that they are way too intelligent to risk that. This aside, when I walked the same route the next morning, Sunday 2nd May, there were two dead rabbits lying near the parked truck, one had it’s head bitten off. Bruno reacted the same way as he had the previous two days.

Yesterday he walked the route perfectly happily. There was no dead wildlife, no eviscerated sheep and I am willing to believe the cat, an animal I have no proof even exists, has moved on.

Two more points of interest. I was talking to the chap who owns the fields next to where I live. He has livestock and I was trying to hint around the subject of big cats, but eventually came out with the fact that I think that there is one around here, to keep a good watch on his animals. To my surprise he told me that he used to be a forester, and while working some years back, he and a colleague were working in local woodland when they came across the carcass of a freshly killed deer. It was so fresh, he told me, that it was still steaming. One of the haunches had been eaten.

His co-worker told him that there was a panther in the area, and that he was willing to leave it alone as long as it stuck to deer and rabbits. Sadly it started taking sheep and ended up being shot and killed in Barnard Castle. This fascinated me as much by the matter of fact way it was discussed, even more so that it had been killed in a local town but that there had never been a whisper of this in the news.

The second point is that last night as I was bringing my dogs home from their last walk of the day, my next door neighbour was standing on his doorstep, next to front door, having a smoke. I always speak because that’s what we do in the countryside; also it means that Bruno knows that he is a friend and does not go into guard dog mode.

Anyway, my neighbour watches the wildlife and will often tell me that I have just missed seeing a fox or whatever, so I asked him laughingly had he seen any big cats recently. A neighbour’s kitty was crossing the road and I said, “Not that one” to which he replied a little cautiously, “You mean a big, big cat?”

When I said yes, that I meant panther, mountain lion, cougar whatever, he told me that yes, there is a big cat in the area. He has a friend who goes shooting and sees it now and then. I asked him if he had an idea of species but he just said it’s a big, black panther of some type.

So there we have it. I have proof which satisfies me that big cats not only live and hunt around the UK, but that I have had a close enough encounter with one recently that it probably saved the life of the sheep who was panicked enough to trap her head in a wire fence while trying to escape.

4th May 2021


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