Report from Chris Smith
Now the hunt is on for the latest creatures padding abroad at night, when - as Conan Doyle warned in the Hound of the Baskervilles - the powers of evil are exalted. Since the autumn, news columns have recorded numerous alleged killings of sheep by one or more large cats, mainly in Grampian. It's claimed that these killings differ from past instances of sheep-worrying. Invariably the carcasses are said to be stripped of flesh. Angry farmers are left only with a rickle of bones. With most of the area under snow, it's reported that farmers are "calling in trackers" and want the National Farmers Union of Scotland to take up the scent.
Unscrupulous sections of the media have dwelt gorily on the deaths. The slayings are the work of "The Beast." One daily sheet ran colour shots of stuffed examples of the so-called Kellas Cats - which were killed by motorists in Moray during the 1980's. Savage jaws and flashing eyes are testimony of the taxidermist's art.
Readers weren't told that the Kellas Cats aren't a great deal larger than some popular domestic moggies, such as the increasingly revered Maine Con varieties. Whoppers, though they are, the likes of Maine Coons would have a hard job tackling average rabbits. Sheep would be another matter - unless Kellas Cats have defied all known facts about cats and had taken to hunting in packs.
Perhaps worried by the prospect of triggering happy townies venturing into the Grampian hinterland - and adding accidental human deaths to the livestock toll - police and scientists have firmly tagged the killings as the work of dogs. Dogs are big enough to kill sheep and they hunt in packs.
The cranks and the PR peddlers aren't likely to leave it at that. The extended episode has given new voice to campaigners who claim that the British Isles have, for centuries, have harboured an unidentified but entirely native species of big cat. In the North-east it is claimed that the animals are "high as a car door". Supporters of this theory dont explain why none of the 'beasts' have fallen victim to careless motorists, unlike their smaller cousins whose corpses litter the highways.
When a puma was "captured" in Inverness-shire in the 1980's, it was found to be suspiciously tame. Practical jokers obviously read the news.
Inevitably, pumas have been fingered as possible candidates in the North and North-east's latest cat-hunt. In her new book on world cats*, US author and researcher Elizabeth Marshal Thomas lists a few points which firmly put down that particular speculation. For starters, only a lunatic would keep a pet puma that hasn't been de-clawed. Thomas points out dryly that people would most probably hear pumas than see them.
"Pumas scream. A dismal howl, a trilling wail, a loud weird cry, like someone screaming from the pain of surgery - these are some of the images that came to mountain men and other early settlers whose puma stories were compiled in 1946."
"Puma's scream because they live apart in the woods, where trees prevent most sound from travelling. So who would have thought that any question would remain about the presence or absence of such a large, vocal animal."
North of the Highland line, as the trackers are called in, amid demands for "official action" and the first quiet hints for calls, the only response to such cat facts is silence. At the last count, wolves were being identified as the villains. But they seem to have lost their voices too.
9 th January 1995
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