Panthers in the petunias|Richard_F||04/04/05 at 20:01:47|richard_f|xx|0||Panthers in the petunias
By Jacqui Zurcher

Imagine coming across a leopard in your back garden in downtown Cape Town or
Jozi. Would you storm towards the cat in an territorial manner demanding
that it depart your erf immediately, approach the animal cooing 'pretty cat,
nice cat' while extending your hand invitingly, or soberly retire indoors
and phone an animal rescue organization?
Your average South African suburbanite, educated in the carnivorous and
large-toothed nature of big cats by countless 'Predators of Africa', 'Feline
Killers' and 'Big Cats, Big Teeth' Sunday evening wildlife programmes would
probably hightail it to their trellidoored interiors and speed dial
emergency services. Large, possibly hungry, carnivorous cat versus tasty
city slicker - the likely outcomes are understood, this would be no time for
Crocodile-Hunter-style heroics.
Perhaps he wasn't a BBC wild life devotee or maybe the likelihood of real
backyard danger seemed so remote, but in the early hours of last Tuesday, a
London man thought it sensible to investigate further after spotting a
cat-like creature the size of a Labrador prowling in his garden.
In a land of refined sensibilities, where the discovery of peanut traces in
a cereal causes public outrage and parliamentarians can be ruined just by
the insinuation of corruption, you'd think the natives would be a bit more
cautious about confronting mysterious feral cats in the middle of the night.
The man was attacked and treated by an ambulance crew for severe scratches.
The animal, which he described as a giant puma-like cat, vanished into the
undergrowth, eluding a police search.
Now, if I had heard this story a few years ago, I would have thought the man
spinning a far-fetched yarn to cover up some kinky domestic shenanigans.
Everyone knows large cats are no longer indigenous to Britain where the top
local carnivore (besides man) is the fox - not quite big five material.
As it happens though, when I heard about the puma in London, the hairs on
the back of my neck stood on end. I had seen one. Eight years ago on a
wintry afternoon, I had been gazing out of the second storey window of a
friend's house in London and seen a panther-like animal walking across the
pebbled driveway. It was the size of a ridgeback, but heavier, and had the
distinct shoulder mincing walk of a big cat. For a few moments I was
transfixed by the extraordinary vision and then darted downstairs, but by
the time I reached the window, the animal had disappeared into the wooded
area near the house. I hadn't been drinking. No one believed me, but I never
doubted I had seen a large cat and whenever I went walking alone after that
I wished the English were not so lily-livered as to outlaw the civilian use
of mace.
My delusions about how I might have confronted a puma with a can of pepper
spray aside, the news of the London skirmish piqued my curiosity. It seems
that there have been numerous sightings of giant cats in the UK over the
years and the recent sighting in London was not an isolated incident.
Special interest societies and websites chronicle the sightings of the
animals and provide theories on how these cats could have ended up wandering
the countryside and venturing into the cities.
It's always convenient and satisfying to lay blame at the foot of an
imperial power and it seems the Romans did their fair share for introducing
exotic animals into the wintry climes of their northern territories. Fond of
circuses, they would import creatures from across the empire for their
amusement. Electric fencing and tranquilliser darts not being quite what
they should have been in Roman times, the animals often escaped to roam the
wuthering heights of their far-flung island home. These foreign predators
would dine on the livestock of persecuted Celtic subsistence farmers and
probably continued to do so throughout the repressive regimes of the Saxon'
s, Normans and indeed still do under New Labour.
Although it's gratifying to insinuate that ancient oppressors are
responsible for livestock losses in the Scottish highlands, the story does
not end with the Romans. These garlic loving overlords can however be blamed
for cultivating a fascination with the exotic which continued down
throughout history, realised in the circuses that roamed the countryside and
the menageries of grand homes that became popular in Elizabethan times.
It was contemporary rulers, coupled with a bit of sex, drugs and rock and
roll that more recently compounded the problem by introducing the Dangerous
Wild Animals Act in 1976 in an attempt to control the number of diamond
collared cougars accessorising the rich and famous. Owners of exotic
creatures were required to apply for licenses for the animals and provide
adequate security on their premises to protect the public. These laws must
have smacked of hard administrative work to the drug addled brains of the
seventies and many of the animals were simply released into the wild, by the
owners or professionals charged with disposing of them to wildlife
sanctuaries and zoos.
And so, while the pyjama-clad homeowners of middle England sip malted milk,
pumas and panthers, leopards and wolverines roam the downs by the light of
an English moon. If an Englishman's home is his castle, then now is the time
for the suburbs to reinstall moats, razor wire and electric fencing, if not
to protect the fearless who should know better, then at least to save the
big cats of London to terrorise for a few centuries more.