THE cries that tore the silence were unearthly, chilling. Sleepy residents of the coastal town of Ardrossan tumbled from their beds, fearfully wondering what - or who - was causing the shrill screams coming from the stretch of wasteland near the rail line that bisects the town.
Local police were called out to investigate at about 3.30am yesterday. It was not the sort of confrontation the officers were expecting. The suspect was about 3ft tall, with a dark coloured coat, piercing yellow eyes and a long black tail.
The officers were convinced they were dealing with a puma-like cat, but when they cautiously approached the animal it fled into nearby undergrowth.
A torchlight search to track it down was unsuccessful.
One local woman, who did not wish to be named, said: "My daughter heard the screams coming from wasteland beside the railway and at first thought it was a dog.
"Then it became louder and stronger and she realised it wasn't a dog and she got more worried. It is quite frightening to know there is a wild animal prowling the area. I will be staying away from the wasteland at night."
Joan Kane, 50, another resident, said: "We often hear foxes and wild cats and it does terrify me. It is quite scary knowing there is a big cat on the loose."
A spokeswoman for Strathclyde Police said: "When officers arrived they saw a large 3ft-tall puma-like cat with yellow eyes. When they approached the animal it ran off into the undergrowth.
"They performed a search of the area using torchlight but were unable to trace it.
"We would ask members of the public to be vigilant and report any sightings of the animal to the police. The animal should not be approached."
The incident is the latest in 120 sightings of big cats roaming loose in Scotland this year, ranging from the Highlands to remote corners of Galloway, according to Scottish Big Cats, a voluntary body which records sightings of the animals.
Last year there were a total of 118 sightings of big cats in Scotland and around 800 throughout the UK.
Twenty years ago there were only eight reported sightings, suggesting that the population of big cats in Scotland has grown considerably since then - or else that hoax reporting is on the rise, following the notoriety of animals such as the Beast of Bodmin in Cornwall.
Phil Crosby, a member of the Scottish Big Cats Team, said: "It is very interesting that the police are reporting this sighting. Their line has always been that these cats don't exist, despite reports to the contrary.
"There has been a number of sightings in Ayrshire recently and they have generally been of a black leopard or a puma.
"When a big cat screeches it can sound like a woman screaming or being assaulted so it would have been very worrying for people sitting in their homes. It would have been doing it as a mating call or because it had been injured or in a fight.
"There are definitely big cats out there and now the question is what are they?"
Mr Crosby warned the public not to approach the cat if it returned to the area.
He added: "People should be cautious because it is a predator and if it chooses to attack it is potentially lethal. It is more than capable of killing something twice its size - which would be most humans. But cats will rarely attack humans and will only do so if they are injured or cornered."
George Redpath, 58, another member of the Scottish Big Cats Team, added: "There's no doubt that there are communities of big cats breeding in the wild in Scotland. This year alone, there have been 120 sightings, mainly in the Highlands, Fife, and the south west."
In 1976, the Dangerous Wild Animals Act was passed, requiring owners of all dangerous animals to hold a licence.
Many pet-owners did not want to pay for a licence, but did not want to put their animals down, so simply released them into the wild to fend for themselves.
The Herald, 24 th December 2002
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