Report from Leo Martin
The truth is out there - and it's armed with claws, fangs and an abundance of native cunning, if the hundreds of reported sightings of Scotland's big cats are to be believed.
Anyone who has witnessed a domestic cat playing with a mouse will know just what nasty, mean-minded little killers they can be.
But one zoologist believes that within a generation Scotland could be teeming with a much worse menace - escaped big cats who have adapted to life in the wild and developed a taste for man.
Sightings have ranged from a puma in Lothian, a lynx in Fife and even the capture of a puma near Inverness in 1986, but hard evidence for a growing big cat population is hard to come by. Breeding.
Zoologist Quintin Rose is convinced that is about to change. As scientists in Leicester prepare to announce the results of tests on droppings thought to be from a puma in Devon, he predicts Britains big cat population is spiralling out of control.
"If they weren't breeding they would die out and there would be no problem, but they are breeding and the numbers are going to increase. In the next 20 years their numbers will explode," he says.
The cats can survive on a diet of foxes, deer, badgers and livestock such as sheep. But Mr. Rose says when they are wounded their tastes can take a worrying new tack. "Leopards in particular are renowned for being turned into man-eaters when they are wounded. They go for the slowest, most stupid animal around - man. We are easy to catch and quite pleasant to eat."
"It only needs one animal to be wounded and turn into a man-eater and all hell would break loose." He says pumas are the most likely to attack people but even they have been known to attack humans, particularly children.
The 42 year old says that most of the big cats he believes are roaming the countryside are pets released into the wild after the introduction of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976, though some have also escaped from zoos, safari parks and private collections.
Mr. Rose, who says he learned the art of racking wild animals from Canadian Indians, says he now spends his time collating information about the animals and helping recover lost beasts such as tigers, lynx, elephants, wolves and baboons. He says pumas can adapt well to our climate.
"Pumas come from North and South America where it gets much colder than here, and I have heard rumours that there are a lot of pumas in Scotland" Mr Rose says he has recorded sightings of pumas in the Lothian's, four areas of the Highlands, and Strathclyde. He also has reports of a lynx in Fife, a leopard in the borders and a black leopard and a lynx on the loose in the Highlands.
Other people have produced compelling accounts of their own encounters with unusual wildlife around Edinburgh, the Lothians and Fife. Self-styled big game hunter Brian Wood, 32, from Boghall, West Lothian, claimed to have spotted a panther jumping a 6 ft fence near his home last March. His fiancee Angela Spiers, 26, said she also saw the creature, which they described as 4 ft long and 3 ft high with a thick neck and round head.
"I could tell by the shape of its head and long tail it was not a dog and it glided rather than ran like a dog," he said.
In May a shocked woman walked into the SSPCA's office in Balerno and reported that she had seen a puma-like animal 50 yards away from the animal centre. And Boghall woman Tracey Lamont, 25, said she also saw a big cat leap a 7 ft fence in her neighbours garden. In July a gamekeeper Brian McIntyre claimed to have shot at a black panther which jumped out at him in the grounds of Nunraw Abbey near Gifford, East Lothian, while in May Jogger John Hope, from Colinton, said a panther jumped onto a track in front of him in the Pentland Hills. "It was a majestic creature. I must admit it was slightly frightening but I also felt exhilaration at being so near such a magnificent beast," he said.
And in November, Fife police issued pictures of a puma or lynx thought to have been stalking the hills of the area for the past two years. Despite all this, Dr. Andrew Kitchener, curator of mammals and birds at the Royal Museum of Scotland, remains unconvinced. "I have no idea wether there are any big cats out there," he says. "I have had someone bring in a video of an alleged big cat running along an old railway line in Dunfermline and it was clearly just a domestic cat. I've been sent footprints which have turned out to be a dogs. I haven't seen anything that convinces me."
His scepticism doesn't mean that he finds the idea of such creatures existing in the wild completely outlandish. "These species have the capability to survive in the wild. Leopards can survive in quite cold climates," he says.
"If someone runs one over or shoots one and brings the body along I would be delighted to see it." He says the previous discovery of a puma near Inverness proved nothing because the animal was clearly domesticated.
But despite Quentin Rose's concerns over the dangers of big cats, Dr. Kitchener thinks they could have their benefits. "We dont have many big predators and they could be a very useful tool in controlling deer."
The only real danger if Mr. Rose is to be believed, is that deer take some effort to catch - but humans are the big cats equivalent of the ready meal.
Edinburgh Evening News: 12th January 1998
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