Report from George Markie
Countryside Minister Elliot Morley's response this week to a question about big cats in the wilds of Britain suggests he's less than convinced of their existence.
It was possible that people were "genuinely and frequently mistaken with their identification," the minister told the House of Commons in a written answer, before going on to question the "lack of hard evidence compared to the number of reported sightings..."
His replies are in line with the general scepticism that successive governments have shown about the big cat phenomenon in the 20 or more years during which regular sightings have been reported. Essentially, ministers don't want to know.
In one sense they are probably right to steer clear of this issue. Whether or not they accept that big cats are out there, the evidence that they pose any serious risk to people is almost non-existent. On that basis there is little to be gained by officially endorsing a big cat hunt which could attract dubious bounty hunters armed to the teeth.
But rubbishing the hundreds of plausible stories of big cat activity, told by reliable, credible and sometimes expert witnesses, is not the job of a government that has paid only lip-service to the idea of a proper investigation. And if that's what Mr Morley was doing with his cursory dismissal of what he called "mistaken" witnesses then his reputation will drop another notch or two with many country people.
Lurid headlines about the Beast of Exmoor and the Beast of Bodmin tend to bracket big cat sightings alongside the Loch Ness Monster and the Abominable Snowman. But they are very different. While those creatures, and the many other regional "beasts" that crop up in traditional stories, have little zoological credibility, no one is suggesting that the big cats that allegedly live in the Westcountry are anything but real animals in unusual settings.
There is also a highly plausible account for their presence in the Westcountry and elsewhere. Wildlife experts like the Western Morning News' own Trevor Beer have long argued that the appearance of big cats in the wild could be linked to a change in the laws governing the keeping of wild animals some 30 years ago. That change prompted the owners of pumas, leopards, lynx and other exotic "pets" to free them rather than pay for a licence and submit to inspections.
Once freed, the theory goes, some of these wild cats began breeding and have adapted to life in the remote corners of the Westcountry, where prey in the form of rabbits and other small mammals is plentiful and the chances of being seen, let alone captured, are small.
Whenever a story like the big cats of the Westcountry gets an airing, there will always be people who want to believe it, as well as those who retain a healthy measure of scepticism. Those who want it to be true might well be guilty of imagining sightings and of "genuinely and frequently" getting it wrong, as Mr Morley suggests.
But for every ten people with over-vivid imaginations there is one who has nothing to gain by inventing stories, yet who remains convinced he's seen a big cat in the wild. Those witnesses have, over the years, ranged from police officers to professional people and include specialists in the fields of nature study and zoology. They cannot all be wrong.
Mr Morley points to a lack of confirmed instances of big cats in the countryside and the lack of "captured animals, corpses or photographs..." Yet there are pictures, some of which, while not conclusive, suggest very strongly that big cats are out there. There have also been highly convincing footprints, confirmed by zoologists as belonging to big cats, found in parts of our region.
It's fair to say that the big breakthrough which will convince all the doubters is still awaited. An irrefutable photograph or piece of film, or a genuine corpse is still needed if the case in favour of big cats is to be proved.
In the meantime, the people of the Westcountry will keep a wary eye out and an open mind. And that is precisely what the Government should do. Jumping to conclusions on an issue such as this is dangerous. Despite his scepticism Mr Morley was careful, in his Parliamentary answer, to keep his options open on the existence of big cats in the British countryside. In time, he may well be glad that he did.
Western Morning News, 1 st March 2003
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