Report from Reuel Chisholm
A police officer with USPCA members during the search
TWO exotic wild cats blamed for terrorising the north Antrim coast were
deliberately released from captivity into the countryside, the USPCA revealed
In a "misguided" attempt to give the big cats a "better life" a private collector dumped a sandy coloured North American Puma and a Black Panther in an area outside Bushmills, sparking a massive six-week hunt to capture the beasts.
The puma and the panther wearing a silver collar have now made their home between Bushmills and Ballycastle and the USPCA believes they will adapt to their surroundings and could live undetected for years.
As the one-day PSNI Operation Big Cat drew to a close late last night, USPCA experts said their search for the cats was now over.
Experts came tantalisingly close to catching the black animal late last night as it was tracked across fields near Portrush.
A helicopter swooped on the beast and police marksmen stalked across fields with guns after they were alerted by a member of the public.
Varying reports from the helicopter crew indicate that the black beast was within their sights. However, another USPCA team member said the 'beast' could simply have been a Labrador dog.
Stephen Philpott, chief executive of the USPCA, said the wild cats had now become feral and would prove impossible to catch.
"Since being released the cats have travelled in different directions, the puma to a corridor of land between Islandbradagh Bog and Garry Wood near Ballybogey and the panther to a hill range on the outskirts of Ballycastle."
Despite scores of film crews and photographers patiently waiting near Ballybogey for some big cat action for more than eight hours the animals remained out of sight.
If all claims are to be believed there are few people in north Antrim who have not seen the killer cats, but for yesterday at least the mystery continued.
However, with three alleged sightings and conspiracy theories galore it is clear the beasts of Ballybogey will continue to play their game of cat and mouse with police and the media for some time.
Belfast Telegraph, 25 th September 2003
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