18. The Cheetah Of Shooter's Hill
Over the years many ‘flaps’ of ‘big cat’ sightings have hit the headlines, from the so-called ‘beasts’ of Exmoor and Bodmin, to the more recent Bluewater leopard Bexley ‘big cat’. However in south-east London during the early 1960s, the Shooter’s Hill ‘cheetah’ scare was on everyone’s lips – back during a time when such cats were considered extremely mythical and were often misunderstood and wrongly identified, but were still a fresh mystery for the press and public to indulge. Such a wave of reports, which hit the national headlines, would also coincide with the classic case of the Surrey ‘puma’.
On 16th July 1963, a Mr Black was driving his lorry at 1am on a main road near Shooter’s Hill, when he caught a glimpse of what he thought was an injured dog laying by the roadside, so he decided to stop his lorry and get out. As he approached the seemingly hurt animal, he noticed it was in fact a large cat eating something. The cat then stood up and Mr Black noted its very long tail, before it dashed off into the darkness.
Shortly after the incident, a cat jumped over the bonnet of a police car. The two shocked policemen radioed for assistance but there was no sign of the felid, despite over one hundred policemen, twenty dogs, thirty soldiers and other people (including scouts and school children) searching for the beast!
A snarling cat was heard at Kidbrooke sports ground on 23rd July, and once again a ridiculous amount of policemen turned up, but their pursuit was fruitless. However, on the same night the dark coloured big cat was seen standing next to a white screen by a man working at an RAF base.
Rather strangely, the only reason the cat was described as a cheetah was due to the fact that not even a police motorcycle, travelling at 70 mph, could flush the animal out. In 2002 at Oxleas Wood, Shooter’s Hill, even a sighting of a big, black cat, most definitely a leopard, brought back the ‘cheetah’ headline. Yet looking back on the legendary spate of sightings it’s clear that not on any occasion was a cheetah-like animal described.
Only a few miles away (for a cat to travel anyway) in Surrey, sightings of a fawn-tan coloured puma (cougar or mountain lion) were being blamed on a lioness – amazing when you consider that for every Shooter’s Hill ‘cheetah’ sighting, there must have been at least fifty ‘lioness’ reports from Surrey. No wonder the public were in panic.
Lions, tigers, and cheetahs do not and have not ever roamed the UK – these are official ‘big cats’ which would seek larger prey, attack humans, and would certainly not exist as elusively as the leopard and puma. They could only be on the loose if escaping from a zoo or circus, but they would be easy to track down, preferring the wide expanse of open ground than to the woods that the leopard and puma prefer.
Such legends are born from misidentifications, being: (a) large dogs; (b) actual exotic, but smaller cats such as the serval or the ocelot escaping from local zoo parks; (c) hysteria, where everyone believes they’ve seen or heard a marauding beast – the actions of the police are often to blame for such episodes, in turn creating a snowball effect with the press reports.
So, although you could once walk into Harrods and purchase a big cat, it seems that the legend of the Shooter’s Hill ‘cheetah’ was nothing more than a sum of many parts, or maybe a leopard that could change its spots!
By Neil Arnold
Image taken from Garlyn’s Flickr photostream under the Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic licence.