Report from Chris Smith
STORIES of big cats on the prowl across Scotland have been around for years. Every single day the Big Cat Society log sightings, and every single day the sightings are probably down to mistaken identity. Mark Frazier, who sits on the organisation's research group, has little doubt that 99 per cent of so-called big cat sightings are either dogs or domestic cats.
"If there really were the number of leopards hunting around Scotland as are reported, we'd have more leopards here than in the whole of Africa!" says Mr Frazier.
Leopards, he thinks, invariably turn out to be big domestic cats, indigenous Scottish wildcats, or even imported cats. Sailors often took jungle cats or leopard cats (Felis bengalensis) back home with them and these cats, considerably larger than domestic cats, could well be mistaken for leopards (the altogether larger and more dangerous Panthera pardus).
Despite his cynicism, Mr Frazier does think that one or two of the sightings are probably genuine. "There is definitely something out there, we just don't know for sure what it is. But eyewitness after eyewitness after eyewitness keeps coming forward. The problem is going to be proving it." Fran Lockhart is a member of rival big cat group, The Scottish Big Cat Trust. She is adamant that there are big cats out there, which she thinks are probably pumas.
"There are so many credible witnesses like farmers and gamekeepers who know what they're seeing," says Lockhart. Yet even she agrees that there is one big problem. "It all falls down until we get a bodyDr Andrew Kitchener is a member of the World Conservation Union cats specialist group, so as he says, "I have quite a lot of experience of cats." He is the man that is sent plaster-casts of paw prints, or pictures which purport to prove the existence of big cats.
"I have never seen hard evidence," says Kitchener. "There have been videos and footprints, but the footprints almost always turn out to be dogs, and the videos are of domestic cats." One eyewitness who believes there's something out there is Krissie Jones. She was returning home in Argyll with a gamekeeper friend in the early hours of the morning when she had a terrifying encounter.
"Just as we turned the corner we saw it. As clear as day, this huge big cat jumped over the fence." Amazed at what they saw Krissie's friend immediately got out of the car and started making wounded animals noises in an attempt to lure the cat back. It never returned, but both passengers know what they saw. "It was a puma," says Jones. "I've always watched natural history programmes I know exactly what it was, no doubt at all."
There have always been rumours in the area that a wildlife park had allowed animals to escape. According to Krissie Jones local farmers have seen big cats "and they know the difference between dogs and cats", says Jones.
Big Cat mythology relies heavily on claims that after the passing of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act of 1976, which forced people keeping dangerous pets to own a licence, some owners released their pets into the wild. Fran Lockhart certainly agrees saying, "there was a marked increase in sightings after the act came out".
One famous escapee, Felicity the puma, has been the strongest proof yet of pets being released. She was caught in a farmer's trap near Inverness in 1980, but was clearly domesticated and few people thought she'd been in the wild longer than a couple of weeks.
Dr Kitchener thinks cases like Felicity are the exception, citing once again the lack of evidence. "It's all anecdotal. And the chances of a released cat learning how to hunt is very slim. They wouldn't have survived."
If it is hard evidence that Dr Kitchener wants, then the man to bring it to him might just be Mark Frazier. Every Saturday night for the past two months Frazier and a colleague are staked out in a field somewhere in Scotland, inside their tent, being eaten alive by midges. The two men are determined to get to the bottom of rumours that something strange is wandering about the undergrowth.
Staff in a fenced off compound have complained of a seeing a big cat for years. And they are getting worried. So worried that their bosses have called in Frazier to track down and find out what is scaring their workers. The bosses? The Army. The frightened staff? Army personnel. That's right, Frazier's stake out is in the middle of an MOD base somewhere in ScotlandÉ It's all very hush-hush, but this time Frazier thinks he is on to something.
"I have been at this for 15 years and I've seldom found anything that has convinced me. But here I have seen footprints, seen a deer carcass stripped in an hour and a half. I really think there's a leopard here at the MOD base. And we're not leaving until we find it."
On the web
Felicity the puma can be found in Inverness museum. Find out more about this subject with the Scottish Big Cat Trust.
© The Scotsman, 23 rd June 2005
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