Report from Chris Smith
A PETERHEAD man has cast doubt over alleged sightings of the 'Beast of
Buchan' claiming such an encounter would be highly unlikely.
David Witts, who is adviser to the Phoenix Exotic Wildlife
Association, says very few people have seen a live puma under
controlled circumstances with which to compare such sightings of
'puma-like' cats, although he does give credence to the suggestion
that large cats could exist almost unnoticed in the Buchan countryside.
Mr Witts says far from being too big to be a dog, leopards, whether yellow-orange-tawny or melanistic, average under 100lbs and while loping on relatively short legs would appear, if anything, to be smaller than the average Golden Retriever.
"Pumas can be much heavier and tend to walk more 'upright' on longer legs. In recent times, though, there have been no proven 'black' pumas anywhere in the world and the 'scream' of a female puma is perhaps unlikely to go unnoticed in rural Buchan," says Mr Witts.
"As to whether such 'large cats' could exist almost unnoticed given sufficient food supply, the answer is a qualified 'yes'," he says. "Indeed, leopards have long had a reputation for doing so. Such a cat escaped within Nairobi city boundaries in the 1950s, causing considerable public concern. All attempts to recapture were unsuccessful, although four other leopards were obtained in the process, which was news to the local populace."
Mr Witts says such individual 'large cats' could scavenge an existence in the British countryside for a time, but the question of a breeding population is another matter altogether.
"Your article implies that recent 'big cat' sightings are the result of established populations derived from earlier releases; private collections having been common enough in the late 18th and early 19th centuries," he says.
"In reality, the latter date is not a terminating point. A private owner, Sir Gerrard Trywhitt-Drake, helped in the establishment of zoological gardens at both Edinburgh and Glasgow.
"In the latter half of the 20th century, such owners as James Walton would take their human-socialised cats for walks in the British countryside. No member of the public was ever killed or seriously injured as a result.
"Within the last few years another private owner has provided a good home for endangered Persian leopards which were formerly neglected at the second largest zoo in the UK."
Mr Witts says the key date in all of this is 1976, when the "Dangerous Wild Animals Act" was introduced on the grounds of public interest. "In theory, this meant that any owner of a listed 'dangerous' animal (including Geoffroy's cats weighing under 10lbs), simply had to obtain a license to ensure that checks and controls were put into place. "In reality, local authorities had the final say as to whether a licence was granted and, in addition to political forces and ignorance of subject matter, any possible public safety worries, 'nuisance' factors, or queries as to whether the applicant or animals' accommodation was 'suitable' could be used to reject the application." Mr Witts continues: "Rather than face the possible loss or death of their animals, a number of private owners inevitably vanished into the shadows, thus making the situation more problematic than it was before, with previously legal networking, education measures and veterinary treatment no longer available.
"This then explains the difficulty in determining whether the current 'alien big cat' phenomenon is as a result of cats released around 1976 having established a breeding population, or more recent releases from the less capable individuals among the now illegal ownership. "On a balance of available evidence and probabilities, the latter is more likely; although most sightings are probably still as a result of mistaken identification."
Mr Witts says in order to solve the problem, animal welfare and protection organisations seek to make the existing legislation even tougher. However, he believes that it would be better to decriminalise such ownership, or at least provide some form of amnesty/grandfathering to enable constructive measures to be taken. "However, given the inevitable media frenzy, political pressures and public interest groups, in addition to latent tendencies to fear that which is not familiar - especially when the 'it' in question has big, sharp pointy teeth - this is perhaps a pipe dream," says Mr Witts.
"However, in the unlikely event of an 'encounter' without barriers - whether in Buchan or the Rocky Mountains - remember to follow the advice given in 'puma country'. Stand tall, facing the cat, keep any children close to, or behind an adult, prepare to shout, wave arms and show your teeth if approached closer - do not run, bend down to pick up ammunition or unpack a camera, or follow the cat into undergrowth. "Even if the identification of a 'big cat' is not 100 percent certain, it is recommended to report any such incident to local police for their consideration and the Scottish Big Cat Trust registered charity at www.bigcats.org/abc/ for collation of evidence."
Buchan Observer, 28 th January 2003
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