Since the 1960s, there have been press reports from many areas of large cat-like animals, briefly glimpsed, and assumed by witnesses to be pumas, lions, lynxes, or cheetahs; paw-prints and droppings are sometimes found, and the sightings are often linked to allegedly unusual deaths and injuries among sheep and deer. There were 304 press items drawn from 31 counties in 1997 alone. Interpretation of the evidence is controversial, since alternative explanations are always possible. If exotic animals really are at large, they must be illegal pets, dumped when they grow troublesome, and possibly now breeding in the wild; however, it is unlikely there could be so many as the reports suggest. No foreign feline has yet been captured or killed, apart from one tame puma in Scotland in 1980 and a small swamp cat accidentally run over on Hayling Island (Hampshire) in 1988. Some writers therefore prefer a paranormal explanation; the media adopt an ambiguous attitude, alternating between dread and humour, and favouring emotive terms such as ‘beast’, ‘alien’, and ‘mystery’.
Many reports are confined to local papers; others cause nationwide interest and large-scale hunts by police or the army—the Surrey Puma in 1962–6, the Black Beast of Exmoor in 1983, the Beast of Bodmin Moor in 1994–5. The Bodmin case collapsed when investigated by the Ministry of Agriculture (see press reports of 20 July 1995), but further incidents continue; in March 1998 a ‘Beast of Essex’ was suspected of killing four geese near Epping. Whatever facts may underlie some reports, media-generated interest encourages rumou`r, misinterpretation, and exaggeration. Hoaxing occurs; a skull ‘found’ on Bodmin Moor in late July 1995 came from a leopard-skin rug, and some photos simply show domestic cats shot from angles which distort their size.
See also CATS.
A dossier of press items is held by Paul Sieveking, editor of Fortean Times. For a selection of material and a folkloric interpretation, see Michael Goss, ‘Alien Big Cat Sightings in Britain: A Possible Rumour Legend?’, Folklore 103 (1992), 184–202. Janet and Colin Bord, in Alien Animals (1980), explain these and other mystery beasts as paranormal phenomena; Di Francis argues in Cat Country (1983) that ancient wildcats survive, unrecognized.