At the turn of the millennium, the ‘beast’ of Bexley was born, a headline created by the London press. It was an inaccuracy, a contradiction and a conundrum. A large, seemingly exotic cat fuelled the imagination of the public, evaded the pursuing police, and stirred the sceptics. Something from legend prowling the open spaces, the back gardens of this bustling city? Surely not! However, the sceptics, the press and the police were completely wrong – the ‘beast’ wasn’t a new mystery at all.
Many cite the introduction of the 1976 Dangerous Wild Animals Act as the trigger for all this. Anyone who owned an exotic cat such as a puma or ‘panther’ (black leopard) was forced to pay a huge license fee in order to keep it. Many people declined and let their animals go into the local woods. Although ‘big cat’ ownership (and liberation) was not uncommon from the 1950s to the ‘70s, this is not the sole reason that such animals roam the UK today. Indeed, large cats have roamed London and the outskirts for centuries
During the 1960s, the Surrey puma was the headline making cat-flap, despite sightings of such animals dating back to the 1800s. The Romans imported thousands of large felids into their amphitheatres when they settled, travelling menageries lost many such animals in transit in Victorian times, private collections often spilled into the woods, and during the 1960s and 1970s it was easy to buy a puma or leopard, as Harrods, pet shops and trade magazines became ideal sources for the general public to obtain a novelty pet for the back garden. This steady influx of animals has created the offspring of today.
Map: Pinpoints are representative locations within the demarkated area where large cats have been reported on several occasions. Sources include local newspaper reports and communications to the author through Kent Big Cat Research. Around 85% of reports are attributable to black leopards, 12% to puma and the rest are possibly lynx or jungle cat.
Thamesmead, Crayford, Bexleyheath, Sidcup, Belvedere, Greenwich, Plumstead, Bromley, Hayes, Sydenham, Welling, Eltham, Erith. Just a few of the areas where both puma and black leopard have been sighted. But there is no animal confined to Bexley. Both species of cat have expansive territories, ranging up to 70 sq miles, so one night the so-called ‘beast’ could be in Bexley, the following week padding towards Dartford or Surrey.
Populations of large cats, which also include lynx and jungle cats, do roam areas of London. They hunt pigeons, pheasants, rabbits, foxes, livestock, deer and domestic cats, and will also come into towns. Humans are not at risk, and reports of attacks around London have been exaggerated.
These animals must be protected, and certainly made aware of. But the sceptical attitude and inaccuracies of the media have turned the situation into something akin to the Loch Ness Monster. The biggest mystery regarding the 'big cats' in the UK is that they have become a mystery at all.
If you see one log on to Kent Big Cat Research and email your sighting.
By Neil Arnold
Neil Arnold is a writer of folklore, cryptozoology and music and, for 17 years, has run Kent Big Cat Research, the only investigation into exotic felids roaming the wilds of the south. He also blogs on Beasts of London.