Large cats could live unnoticed in Buchan|jon_downes|jon@cfz.org.uk|02/02/04 at 21:47:43|jon_downes|xx|0|217.44.226.11|From the Buchan Observer: 29 Jan. 2004
Large cats could live unnoticed in Buchan admits wildlife expert
by Morag Ledingham

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."

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