Big cats on the prowl

Ross Bryant
Ross Bryant

Last week another ‘big cat’ sighting was reported in Cornwall. A Labrador was attacked by a ‘panther like’ creature, with suspicious footprints also found in the mud.

We will be examining the possibility of big cats roaming the British countryside. Whilst this is often laughed out of contention, there is a body of evidence that’s fascinating if nothing else.

Over the last decade Police Forces across the UK logged over five hundred Big Cat sightings.

The South West has been a hotspot for sightings since the nineties but since then there has been an increase in sightings in Norfolk, Suffolk and the Forest of Dean.

Around ten years ago on a dark Autumn evening my friends and I, fuelled by cider and with a designated driver, decided to find the man who is arguably behind the legend of the ‘Beast of Bodmin’.

I’d been obsessed with big cats for years; in my job at the time, my boss had even allowed me to convert a pillar next to my desk into a kind of detective board for sightings of “the beast”. She found it hilarious, but I wasn’t joking.

The man behind the legend was John Goodenough, a third generation sheep farmer and go-to guy for various Big Cat documentaries. He was the most Cornish man I had ever seen. We were never likely to find him but on this cold night we went from door to door in the dark and the rain on Bodmin Moor. Eventually one person answered, “What you want with John then?”

“I’m here to talk about the beast,” I replied. “Oh, well you best come in then.” We sat in his dimly lit kitchen and talked tales of the beast for hours. John was very elderly, speaking only occasionally, his son did much of the storytelling.

Sheep found mutilated in trees, pelts of animals that had been licked clean and howling roars heard across Bodmin Moor. The night became the stuff of legend for my friends and I, a night that further fuelled my fascination for the subject.

During a long, wide ranging conversation, John said one thing that got all of our attention. He blamed a famous musician for the wild cats, for legal reasons the musician must remain anonymous. As it transpired John had it on “good information” that the musician released “exotic pets” on land the owned by the musician somewhere nearby.

I first heard this over a decade ago, but it wouldn’t be the last time I’d hear this claim. I’ve no idea if John is still alive, I like to think I would have another conversation with him at some point, but there’s no shortage of enthusiasts keeping the legend alive.

Danny Bamping is the head of the British Big Cat society based in Plymouth. I put the rumour of the famous musician to him. “Its funny you should say that. I heard the exact same thing about 15 years ago.”

Danny was working with a scientist on a research project to track wild boar in West Sussex when he heard the very same claim. It is rumoured, by both John Goodenough and Danny, that the celebrity had released exotic pets that they owned onto two separate sites of land, one in the South East and the other being somewhere in Devon or Cornwall.

It’s well documented that in 1976, the Dangerous Animals Act was brought into force. Whether it was cats kept as pets, or circus animals, they would require a licence from there on in. There are numerous accounts of people who claim to have let animals loose, or at least witnessed big cats being released.

What isn’t so well known is that the The Wildlife and Countryside Act, banning the introduction of non-native species, didn’t come into force until 1981. This means that there was a five-year window where releasing any manner of beast was perfectly legal.

But who would be reckless enough to set a big cat loose in England? “When Plymouth Zoo closed down the cats were taken to Dartmoor Zoo; its actually proven that they went via
Tavistock. Why would they go via Tavistock which is wrong direction?”

Dan believes this is evidence that not all of the cats reached their destination. But as it happens this incident is well documented.

The incident Danny is referring to is that of famous circus owner who let her “favoured breeding pair” loose on to The Moor. Their owners, Mary Chipperfield of the famous circus family, is thought to have released her favourite breeding pair into the wild rather than surrender them to another zoo. Ben Mee, the current owner of Dartmoor Zoo, said it was expecting a delivery of five pumas after Plymouth Zoo was forced to close down in 1978, but they only received three.

At the time that Ben Mee took over Dartmoor Zoo he said that he was informed of a pack of pumas that had allegedly been released into the wild in the late 1970s or early 1980s. “There were lots of rumours and many different stories about how they got out, some say they were released from the old zoo either by mistake or on purpose – we just don’t know.”

For Danny though, the question of big cats is a matter of fact. He guides me through photos on his website, one in particular of a dead Lynx like cat catches my eye. “That was caught in Scotland and no cats had escaped from any zoos either, there’s absolute proof.”

But just how do you tell a big cat and a domestic cat apart, especially when seen in fields with no nearby objects to get a sense of scale? “It’s all in the hedgerow,” Danny assures me. A representative for the famous musician denied the
allegations put to him by The Moorlander.

Local Life