Report from Chris Smith
IT IS not the natural hunting ground of any big cat. But the beast of Ardrossan stalked its prey in the early hours of yesterday morning, its squeals raising heckles in residents of a quiet suburban terrace.
Police officers, called to investigate, were met with the glower of a big cat, its yellow eyes illuminated in the torchlight.
But the stretch of undergrowth which straddles the main Ardrossan to Glasgow railway line provided ample cover for the 3ft tall, dark-coloured animal to disappear back into the night.
esterday, as police warned the public to be vigilant and steer clear of the animal, an expert from the Scottish Big Cat Society, went on the hunt for the overgrown pussycat.
Instead of the bush-strewn planes of Africa, the big cat had populated Aitken Place, a small cul-de-sac of terraced homes. Its stomping ground was the back yard of Ardrossan's social work offices, where the only wildlife on show was the occasional seagull or sparrow, fighting against a stiff gale battering waves across the esplanade. Under the spray, however, local residents were still convinced that something was out there.
Anne Austin, holding her nine-month-old son in her arms, said: "It's quite hard to take in, and I don't know what to make of the possibility of a puma being round here.
"I wouldn't say that I'm scared, but I'll be much more careful."
As the hunting party rummaged for droppings, all that remained from the cat's visit was the odd rabbit hair - perhaps a chance meal snatched before avoiding the local police with more skill than your average con.
A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police said the force had been alerted by members of the public who thought they could hear a womanÕs screams coming from the wasteground.
When the officers attended, they saw a cat "which was larger than a large dog, with bright yellow eyes and a large head."
And with a nod to David Attenborough, she added: "As they approached through he undergrowth, the movement of the police obviously scared it and it scarpered.
"As far as we know it's still on the loose. The animal should not be approached."
A sighting of a large, black animal, a few hundred yards from the fish and chip shop - which provided succulent bush tucker after a hard day's hunt - turned out to be nothing more than a boisterous Great Dane called Beauty.
His owner, Steve de Totney, said that there was no way his pet could have been the mystery beast, having been kept at home all night.
Further along Aitken Drive, another sighting of a cat raised hopes. She had all the poise of a big cat, but her slender, sleek and sculpted looks could not conceal the fact that the cat at No. 15 was nothing more than a garden ornament.
In Scotland this year, there have been 178 reports of big cat sightings, with more than 40 in the Ayrshire area alone. Many of the cats are thought to have been released into the wild, after private owners were regulated by new legislation some 30 years ago.
Since then, they have thrived and adapted to their surroundings.
Back on the hunt, at last, a beast was spotted. Lean and fast, she darted between the road and wheelie bins, but was unearthed as Mrs Black's cat, Holly.
Rescued last Christmas, she was said to be nervous that she had been removed from the top of the food chain.
But for ginger tom, Caspar, there was no such fear, as he escaped his owner Carole Kane, and was last seen running in the same direction as the mystery beast was last headed.
West of Scotland Tory MSP, Murray Tosh, said: "Unless it was looking to catch a ferry to Northern Ireland, even the most careful wild feline might be tempted from its rural vastness to do some last minute Christmas shopping. It could probably get some Kit-e-Kat in the local Asda."
Mr Tosh said that the cat would find sanctuary in the Cunninghame North constituency it was spotted in. The sitting MSP is deputy environment minister, Allan Wilson, who is spearheading a drive to protect Scottish wildlife.
The Scotsman, 24 th December 2002
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