Tuesday, 23 September 2008

Big Cats In Britain Part One: The Surrey Puma

The most celebrated case of an alien big cat (alien in the sense of ecologically alien!) in Britain is, of course, the Surrey Puma. This is the case that set the public imagination aflame and brought the stories of big cats roaming the countryside to the attention of the nation.

But, amazingly, the stories of a puma (and for the sake of brevity I'll continue to refer to it as such throughout, even if it may not be a puma!!) in the area go way back! For a rather impressively researched (if sometimes factually wrong as you may notice after reading my first sighting summary) timeline check out this page.

The first known sighting occurred in the late 18th Century by the famous William Cobbett. In an entry dated 27th October 1825 from his book "Rural Rides" he writes:

I showed him an old elm-tree which was hollow even then, into which I, when a very little boy, once saw a cat go, that was as big as a middle-sized spaniel dog, for relating which I got a great scolding, for standing to which I, at last, got a beating; but stand to which I still did. I have since many times repeated it; and I would take my oath of it to this day. When in New Brunswick I saw the great wild grey cat, which is there called a Lucifee ; and it seemed to me to be just such a cat as I had seen at Waverley.
It's possible this was a large house cat or even a member of some small surviving colony of European Wildcat, however Mr Cobbett was a very well traveled man which makes his testimony interesting, at the very least. A Lucifee by the way is probably a Canadian Lynx and there does happen to be a European Lynx so it's possible that such an animal might have made it's way to Britain through means unknown.

The next possible report of some anamolous activity can be found in a letter in the Field Magazine published 19th March 1938. Sent in by Irene Roberts of Lightwater, Neil Arnold of Kent Big Cat Research reports it thus:

an Irene Roberts wrote a letter to The Field magazine, to speak of the strange cries she was hearing outside her bedroom window of a night. Some of the cries, which she heard during the early hours of one July day, in 1937, were described as, “…of peculiar intensity, expressing, it seemed, mortal fear and physical pain”. However, Irene seemed quite knowledgeable of the sounds made by foxes or a rabbit being killed, but attributed these cries as from an unknown animal.
It was in the fifties that the sightings and reports of a big cat in the Surrey area really started to heat up.

In 1955 a lady reported seeing a big cat scurrying away from a dead calf in Abinger Hammer. In 1959 there were several reports, including to the police, of large cats around Surrey and the surrounding counties. One described it as a "lion".

In 1961 a "black bear" is seen near Croham Hurst Golf Club by some golfers. Is this the first big black cat sighting linked with the Surrey Puma?

Over the following few years the cases sky rocketed, with water board employees, motorists and road workers all describing the same sort of creature. Between 1964 and 1966 there are 362 reports of big cats submitted to the police who start to take the stories seriously. One retired police photographer takes a picture of what some experts said was a puma, although the people at London Zoo disagreed. Another, PC. Bill Cooper of Surrey Police manages to get some casts of paw prints while investigating a big cat report at Stileman's Racing Stables. Whilst London Zoo experts do recognise it as a puma print, it is a third bigger than the usual puma footprint.

The reports continued into the seventies despite a report from a farmer that he'd shot a puma. Police Inspector Eric Bourn says he saw a puma like cat in 1970 and described it as ginger. His colleague however said it was black!

Reports remained constant through the eighties and nineties. In 1995 Steve Ashcroft, a policeman from Bookham, reported a sighting of a puma chasing a roe deer by St Teresa's school.

The noughties have seen a revival in sightings of both sandy coloured pumas and more ominous black cats. There is a high level of consistency in the reports placing the animals at around about the size of a ladbrador.

So what could be causing these sightings? Well the most obvious answer (and the one I believe covers many sightings) is that these are misidentified domestic cats and dogs. I don't want to be too sceptical but I find human error should always be the first answer one looks for in such things. I myself have seen cats in the distance who look huge but turn out to be nothing more than a rather gorgeous domestic cat. So I know how easy it is to misidentify things.

But I also do not believe that this solution covers every case! I think (ok... I hope!) that there might be a big cat population in this country and that a particular group have taken a liking to the Surrey area. People can let their imagination get away from them but not so many people over so many years.

Some, such as Nick Redfern in Three Men Seeking Monsters suggest a supernatural origin for the sightings linking big cat sightings with every other cryptid and supernatural being on these isles. Other more sceptical people ascribe all the sightings to misidentification, something that, in my opinion, stretches believability even more than the supernatural idea.

There really isn't anyway that the non existence of this creature can be conclusively proven, so until a body shows up the arguments between the true believers and the sceptics will continue to rage on.

I'm sure a few of you, at least, are thinking this is all madness. Of course there can't be any alien big cats wandering the British countryside! Well I wouldn't be too sure... take a look at this page which has a rather long list of captures and remains of alien big cats in the United Kingdom. So who knows, the Surrey Puma may well be out there, crouching in the darkness planning it's next kill.

If you want to see a map of the sightings check out this BBC Southern Counties page.

Further Reading

Big Cats Loose in Britain - Marcus Matthews

Mystery Big Cats - Merrily Harpur

The Surrey Puma: The Natural and Unnatural History of Britain's First Alien Big Cat - Roman Ilmar Golicz

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