After the wolf became extinct in Britain, the badger became “Britain’s largest native carnivore” (Goss 1992: 184). Yet that hasn’t stopped people from claiming the existence of mysterious British big cats in the countryside. They’re also referred to as alien big cats.
Jacqueline Simpson and Steve Roud note the existence of 304 press items from 31 counties in 1997 about these cats (2007: 3). They’re usually described as panthers, black cats, or pumas. Big cats such as pumas and lynxes have been caught over the years. But it’s believed individual animals that have been caught are animals that have been kept illegally, which have either escaped or been released.
One theory is that they would be survivors of the Ice Age since leopards and other such cats were believed to have existed in Britain. Other people think that witnesses have just seen domestic cats and misinterpreted what they saw.
Either way, let’s look into the phenomenon of British big cats and see what we find…
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What About Sightings Then?
The British Big Cats Society, based at Dartmoor Wildlife Park, gathers evidence and sightings. Even they admit people create hoaxes and make genuine mistakes. But there have apparently been sightings for more than 250 years (Hoole 2017).
William Cobbett saw a large cat at Waverley Abbey near Farnborough in the 1760s. He describes “an old elm-tree, which was hollow even then, into which I, when a very little boy, once saw a cat go, that was as big as a middle-sized spaniel dog” (1912: 286). Cobbett was scolded and beaten for reporting the sighting, but remained firm that he had indeed seen the cat. Later in life, he saw “the great wild grey cat” in New Brunswick, he described it as the same cat he’d seen at Waverley (1912: 286).
There are a range of sightings. Witnesses might not even specifically identify the animal, but rather say it was a big cat. Or they may stress what it is not, such as saying it was not a dog. These latter examples pre-empt questioning or criticism as to the likelihood that someone saw a tiger out for a stroll in suburban Sunderland. Michael Goss notes that the descriptions vary so much, the only common points between them are that the animal is “cat-like” and “larger than normal domestic cats” (1985: 188).
More famous examples of British big cats include the Surrey Puma in 1962-6 and the Black Beast of Exmoor in 1983. Perhaps the most famous of all is the Beast of Bodmin Moor between 1994 and 1995. The Ministry of Agriculture even investigated the Bodmin case, and it fell apart under such inspection (Simpson 2007: 4).
In 2005, a 6ft man was attacked by a black cat the size of a Labrador (Barkham 2005). The attack left him scratched all over, with the cat nicknamed the Beast of Sydenham. Meanwhile, the apparent ‘Beast of Dartmoor’, believed to have been a black panther, was supposedly seen by 15 people in 2011.
In August 2012, the Essex Lion made the news. Witnesses supposedly saw it from a caravan park, while others claimed to have heard a lion roaring. A search was made but nothing was found, and no animals had escaped from Colchester Zoo. That didn’t stop the Essex Lion from setting up a Twitter account hours after the story broke.
Investigations into British Big Cats…
In 2013, two sisters saw a large black cat jumping a fence on the Shropshire-Wrexham border. They investigated and found a lair and paw prints too big to be a cat but too small to be a panther (Shropshire Star 2013). This one is notable because in 1989, an Asian jungle cat was found on a Shropshire roadside that had been hit by a car. For some, this may be the ancestor of the more recently sighted cats (Shropshire Star 2015).
There’s even a website where you can find the places where you’re most likely to spot a big cat in North Wales (Evans 2021).
And in April 2019, witnesses spotted a big cat in the Cornish village of Harrowbarrow. It apparently attacked a dog. It also left a paw print that the RSPCA identified as being that of a panther (Reines and Shepherd 2019).
That said, a notable sighting that turned up a genuine cat took place in the late 90s and early 00s. Dubbed the ‘Beast of Barnet’, the sightings clustered in north London. Eventually, someone spotted a lynx in a garden in Cricklewood in May 2001. Authorities believe the lynx had been kept illegally and had escaped. It ended up in London Zoo with a broken paw, suffering from malnutrition. Thankfully, the story ends on a positive note! She was eventually transferred to a zoo in France in 2004, where she was placed with a mate and had cubs (Hewett 2014). Another lynx escaped, this time from a Welsh zoo, in 2017.
What Other Evidence Is There?
The problem with video footage is that it’s nearly always blurry and taken from far away. It’s difficult to definitively explain what is shown. Animals are sometimes shot and killed which provides more concrete evidence though this is rare. Sightings are often brief, at night, or from a distance.
In 2011, Durham University did DNA testing on hairs from North Devon that belonged to a leopard. That said, FactCheck at Channel 4 pointed out that Durham University confirmed the hairs “were probably from a leopard”…but there was no way to prove they were found in Devon (Worrall 2012). Meanwhile, DNA testing in 2012 on two deer carcasses from Gloucestershire ended up just showing fox DNA, though locals blamed a big cat.
Conclusive evidence came from tooth marks left on predated animals in West Wales. Scientists concluded they came from a cat much larger than a domestic cat, though no species was specified (Hoole 2017). Samantha Hurn claimed that a colleague had performed analyses on dead animals in west Wales. The results indicated their deaths at the claws of “large felids similar in size and habit to leopards” (2009: 6).
There’s Always a But…
But Goss discusses the fact that sheep-killing isn’t an unpredecented thing. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, “‘beasts’ or ‘wolves'” were blamed for killing sheep at night. Now, big cats get the blame (1992: 187).
Ultimately, it’s usually difficult for anyone to produce physical evidence. Even if it was a real big cat, you’d think it would have left droppings or paw prints somewhere. They’re also not immortal, and as far as I can tell, no one has ever stumbled across a big cat in the wild that died of natural causes. True, there’s the case of the Asian leopard cat, shot near Widdecombe on Dartmoor in April 1988 (Goss 1992: 197).
Meanwhile, a series of puma sightings in Cannich, Inverness-shire, in October 1980 led to the capture of a tame 6-year-old puma (Goss 1992: 197).
Yet these are isolated cases and don’t prove the existence of a colony of big cats in the wild. They’re more likely an offshoot of the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976.
Goss points to the sighting recorded by William Cobbett. Natural history was a hugely popular pastime in the Victorian era, and people didn’t need to be professional scientists to take part. As Goss says, “The hunt for new species was relentless […] If a British Big Cat had been out there, they would surely have found it” (1992: 193).
Naturally, hoaxes can and do occur. A skull turned up on Bodmin Moor in 1995. On closer inspection it came from a leopard-skin rug (Simpson 2007: 4). Elsewhere, cuddly toys and even cardboard cutouts have been used to ‘fake’ photographic evidence.
Further, domestic cats even stand in for these alien big cats. Some photos use angles that deliberately distort or obscure their size.
British Big Cats in Folklore?
Let’s briefly turn to an overlooked source of ‘evidence’. Surely if people considered big cats a genuine threat, they would make their way into folklore? But this proves a dead end too. As Goss points out, there are magic cats, talking cats, and supernatural cats in both British fairytales and folklore, but nothing apparently monstrous (1992: 194). Dick Wittington’s cat is exactly that—a cat. If a cat is thought dangerous in a British tale, it’s more likely as a witch’s familiar than a terrifying big cat on the loose. True, not all stories were written down. But you’d imagine more legends would abound if there had been enough tales to make an impression on people.
Goss points to the work of Jeremy Harte, who drew a link between big cat sightings and the black dogs of folklore (1992: 195). While these sightings and legends were once common, they appear relatively scarce now. So perhaps the big cat has taken the place of the spectral black dog. Goss also refers to Di Francis, who suggested that black dogs were actually misidentified black cats, a species proposed to have survived from the Ice Age (1992: 195). Goss himself disagrees, and it is clear from many of the black dog stories that they definitely meant black dogs. In this theory, we’ve forgotten the supernatural part of the Black Dog in favour of the escaped wild cat explanation.
George Monger goes one step further. He proposes that these big cat stories “are part of a long tradition of encounters with non-native or unfamiliar animals which were perceived, and described, as fantastic beasts” (1992: 205). In this approach, non-native animals are more believeable than fantastical creatures like dragons. Of course, this theory falls apart when you get into the Internet Age. People know what big cats look like. While they’re certainly non-native, calling them ‘unfamiliar’ is stretching things a bit. No one is saying big cats don’t exist, it’s just difficult to find proof that they exist here.
What Explanations Are There?
There are four main theories, two of which are more likely than the others. One of the more probable explanations is that these British big cats are escapees/releasees from captivity. Before 1976, people could keep all kinds of animals as pets. When the Dangerous and Wild Animals Act came along, new welfare and safety rules came in. Some believe owners released the cats rather than adhering to the requirements (Hoole 2017). Whether animals previously kept in captivity would be able to cope in the wild is another question.
The other popular theory is that people misidentify other animals, such as foxes, dogs, and feral cats.
Less likely is the theory that Britain has an indigenous population of big cats that have so far managed to elude any kind of serious observation. Yes, big cats are incredibly elusive. Yet the British Isles are relatively small, and have quite a dense population. How likely is it that the islands could sustain a breeding population of big cats without regular sightings?
Even more unlikely is the idea that British big cats might be ‘thought-forms’ or “symbolic expressions of environmental consciousness” (Goss 1992: 184).
Are Stories Fed by the media?
Goss notices that stories in the past have often been short, matter-of-fact pieces in the newspapers. Considered curiosity items, and “The typical alien big cat story—like the animal upon which it is founded—appears as if from nowhere and vanishes just as rapidly, with the skill and finality of a ghost” (Goss 1992: 185). Stories also often make reference to other sightings over the years, to situate the most recent sighting into a historical context. The idea that sightings aren’t one-off events gives them a weird sense of credibility (Goss 1992: 185). This means people can put more weight in their belief. Even when there is no evidence this time, you can point to the other sightings as a back-up.
People often express fear towards the threat to children in particular. That said, the stories don’t involve the cats physically attacking children. One of the few stories involving a cat attacking a human happened in 2019. A man in Cornwall claimed a 6ft black cat attacked him through a window. In his story, it was a cross between a panther and a domestic cat. He also reported a lack of interest from police, who didn’t investigate. This makes it difficult to know how genuine it is as a story (Shaw 2019).
We even see similar tales outside of the British Isles. There was a ‘Bagheera panic’ in Rome in early 1990. Parents thought an escaped pet panther was on the loose and apparently kept their children indoors. The story migrated north to Florence to Milan, and despite the Italian backdrop, the sightings bore an uncanny resemblance to the British variety (Goss 1995: 189). France had its own big cat sightings in the 1980s. Goss describes this as an updating of their older tradition of wolf sightings (1995: 189).
So why do the stories persist in the British Isles?
It could well be because we don’t have large wild animals. Our largest animals are red deer, and we have no predators that are dangerous to humans. Goss suggests that the big cat sightings fulfil a need to feel threatened by something bigger than us. It’s a slightly strange view when you consider humans and big cats co-exist in many other parts of the world, with few to no attacks on humans. Goss also suggests that some writers think the big cat points to an unconscious desire to live in a “less urbanized environment” (1992: 190).
Jan Hoole suggests it’s their mystery. We don’t know how they got here or how long they’ve been here (2017). Though she explains the truth is probably far more mundane.
Of course, part of the issue is that some of these sightings are genuine. Animals can and do escape, and they rightly capture the imagination when these stories appear in the press. No one is debating whether big cats are real, just whether they live in Britain. Given how elusive they are elsewhere in the world, as Hurn points out (2009: 9), is it possible they’re just as elusive here? As Goss points out, since some of the stories do involve real animals, it’s difficult to refer to them as a legend (1992: 197). Yet the sightings do appear as a form of contemporary folklore, since the sightings are sometimes more about the myth of the big cats than the reality.
What do you make of British Big Cats? Fact or Fiction? Let me know!
Barkham, Patrick (2005), ‘Fear stalks the streets of Sydenham after resident is attacked by a black cat the size of a labrador’, The Guardian, 23 March, https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/mar/23/patrickbarkham.
Cobbett, William (1912), Rural Rides, Vol. 1, London: J.M. Dent & Sons.
Evans, Harri (2021), ‘New map shows where you are most likely to see a big cat in North Wales’, North Wales Live, 9 May,
Goss, Michael (1992), ‘Alien Big Cat Sightings in Britain: A Possible Rumour Legend?’, Folklore, 103:2, pp. 184-202.
Hewett, Chris (2014), ‘What became of the ‘Beast of Barnet’? Times Series investigation reveals Cricklewood lynx Lara’s legacy lives on’, Times Series, https://bit.ly/3gzu0S3.
Hoole, Jan (2017), ‘Big cats in Britain: urban myth or scientific fact?’, The Conversation, https://bit.ly/3wF9KEa.
Hurn, Samantha (2009), ‘Here Be Dragons? No, Big Cats! Predator Symbolism in Rural West Wales’, Anthropology Today, 25:1, pp. 6-11.
Monger, George (1992), ‘Dragons and Big Cats’, Folklore, 103:2, pp. 203-206.
Reines, Jeff and Dave Shepherd (2019), ‘Big cat the ‘size of Alsatian’ caught on camera after ‘panther on the loose’ reports in Westcountry’, Somerset Live, 8 April,
Shaw, Neil (2019), ‘Man says he was attacked through window by 6ft big cat in Cornwall’, Cornwall Live, 18 January, https://bit.ly/3zCb9wO.
Shropshire Star (2013), ‘Sisters are shocked by huge cat-like creature’, The Shropshire Star, 6 March, https://bit.ly/3iWmxh8.
The Shropshire Star (2015), ‘Big cats in Shropshire: A tall tale or serious threat?’, Shropshire Star, 12 January, https://bit.ly/3vzHcdN.
Simpson, Jacqueline and Steve Roud (2003), A Dictionary of English Folklore, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Snyder, John (2001), ‘The Ubiquitous Beast’, The Nomad’s Journal, http://scotcats.online.fr/ncj/yoff.html.
Worrall, Patrick (2012), ‘CatCheck: Are lions and leopards on the loose in Britain?’, Channel 4.com, 28 August, https://bit.ly/3q4fTHi.
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